Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return …
The action of putting a cross of ashes on our heads is a powerful one. Immediately following a reading that tells us not to parade our piety in the public square, we make our faith very public with a cross of dark ashes on our foreheads. For some, perhaps, this visible sign of our faith is simply a display. For those who have knelt in silence before an altar and humbled themselves to the stark remembrance that we are all dust, it is not a display. The ashes are a stark reminder of our humanity, and the we are nothing without God. The full scripture reference is important: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. Do not practice your faith “in order to be seen by others.” Our faith might have us take on practices that happen in front of others – what matters is that our focus is on God, not on our own visibility. Focus on God. So that we may be seen or praised or noticed, that is not piety, but the display against which we are warned. We practice our faith, our piety, for God.
I hope that we find hope in that cross of ashes, hope in the visibility and humility of wearing a smudge of dirt on our heads … hope in seeing that same cross of humility, of humanity, on others’ heads. We are so arrogant sometimes: we think that we can do anything and that we have no need of God. We are so lost at other times, thinking that possessions, wealth in money, cars, and status are important. We are lost, wondering if others have the same doubts that we have … if we have nothing without God, then where is God TODAY? Why can a life in Christ feel so … alone? That smudge of a cross might have let us know that others are on this same path; we share a kinship of faith with all of its joys and all of its questions, doubts, and sorrows. Thanks be to God for that visible sign of practicing our faith. May we journey faithfully together in our Lenten time.
We call Lent “desert time” as we remember that Jesus went into the desert for forty days and was tempted by the devil. What a confrontation we witness today! The devil offered Jesus power, food, authority, and glory. How could Jesus resist all of that? Bread (sustenance) after a forty day fast, a kingdom after 40 days in the wilderness, literal guardian angels? Jesus could have stretched out his arms and done all that the devil said for him to do.
Instead, in God’s time of redeeming humanity’s horrible brokenness, Jesus will stretch out his arms on a cross. There is no need for Jesus to give in to the devil. All that Jesus has within him is from God, IS God. God always wins. Love itself always wins, in God’s time. We pray that God’s will be done … on earth as it is in heaven. God’s will, and that is one powerful prayer. There is no need for us to argue with the devil, but to declare and to implore that God’s will be done.
There is a need for us to recognize when the devil is speaking, and how not to submit to temptations of power, of excess, of glory to self instead of to God. And so we welcome Lent into our lives with some measure of study, prayer, and self-examination. We ask for eyes that see and ears that hear the wiles of evil in the world around us, that we might avoid their temptations.
This is our time to experience the desert, not only in eyes that recognize evil, but with hearts that desire simplicity. Imagine spending a few minutes each day without a cell phone, computer, television or radio. Recognize our need to be almost consistently entertained and engaged; ask God to take away that addiction on all that is “other” from God and from good. Shut off the electronics for a portion of every day during Lent. Imagine taking the time to ask God to strip away all of the things that distract our minds: the office work that we have to do, the telephone calls to return, bills to pay, groceries to bring home. Ask God to take these concerns away for a few minutes each day. Set aside worry for a few minutes each day during Lent.
When we go into “the desert” in this way, distractions set aside, it opens up time for us to discern the word and presence of God, to hear God’s message to us. Be courageous and vulnerable in asking God to be present to us. Be prepared to feel empty without our favorite distractions and excesses. Be willing to have God be what fills that emptiness. We have this Lenten “set aside” time to empty ourselves, to fill ourselves with the presence of God, to prepare to meet Jesus, arms outstretched, not on the mountain, but on the cross.
Our Lenten invitation is to the observance (practice?) of a holy time: self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
We might wonder what all of that means. Remember, we are practicing our faith; our practice will not be perfect, and we do these things for God, not others. Ask what it is that God would have you do …
Notice: “self-examination and repentance” does not stand alone. We do those things, that looking at ourselves and turning toward Jesus in order that “the whole congregation” is put in the mind of “pardon and absolution.” We do not think on our separateness from God in order to feel bad or to condemn one another, but to receive God’s forgiveness and wholeness through Jesus Christ. And we are all meant to be thinking about forgiving ourselves and one another, even those “most notorious” in their sins.
Prayer: I wonder what would happen if every one of us prayed every day. The Lord’s prayer. Or the simplest of prayers: “Maranatha,” “come, Lord Jesus.” Or simpler: “God, help.” Practice praying every day.
Fasting and self-denial; these practices go together. When we put our electronics down, we are fasting from constant stimulation; we are denying ourselves the idea that we need to available to everyone, all the time. We are fasting from our own perceived self-importance, or from feeling that we must, indeed, be “on call” all the time. We do not. Turning off the TV is a fast. Not eating is a fast. Not talking about other people – gossiping – is a fast. I encourage you to fast from something this Lent. Fasting is a reminder that we are nothing without – not all of those other things – but without God. “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Reading and meditating on God’s holy word. That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? It might be, but only because reading and meditating on God’s word changes us! What if we meditated for the next forty days on the shortest verse in the bible? “Jesus wept.” Pray that verse this Lent. Meditate only that verse if you “don’t have time” for anything else. “Jesus wept,” with all of its questions and nuances, will change your life.
Remember whose we are, who created and gifted us with everything that we have. We are caretakers, human, beloved, embraced, loved, holy children of God.
I invite you to a holy Lent.