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The Meaning of Lent

by HW in HI

based on Mat. 4:1-11, et al

This is the first Sunday of Lent. Our church looks a little different today. If you look for our Paschal Candle – that’s the candle we light for Easter and for Baptisms – if you look for the Paschal candle, you will not find it. The Baptismal font is gone. There are no flowers behind the altar.

This is Lent. A special time in the church year when we spend a little time thinking about the great sacrifice Jesus made for us by dying on a cross. When we spend a little more time praying. When we spend a little more time reading the Bible. When we do a little more for others.

Lent comes from the Old English word for Spring – Lenten. It lasts for the 40 days before Easter. We use forty days because Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness.

Jesus was baptized and he headed for the hills. He took off by himself for the wilderness, and spent 40 days alone without food. Here on the Big Island, we are probably in the best place in Hawaii to imagine what that was like. Tthere is not much wilderness left in the world. But perhaps we can imagine him taking off for Waipio Valley, and emerging 40 days later, exhausted.

People sometimes talk about the spiritual wilderness. Those times in our lives when we can’t find God. For many of us these times happen when loss or disaster hit our lives. When a dearly loved relative or friend dies, this often leaves us wondering where God is. Or we find ourselves diagnosed with cancer or heart problems – where is God? Or our child comes down with a terrible illness and some well-meaning friend looks us square in the eye and says, “Well, it was God’s will.” Right there- that’s the wilderness. Those times of wandering and wondering.

Perhaps a profound sense of the wilderness hits us for no reason at all. Our lives seem to be going on just fine: God is present, our loved ones are fine, we have plenty we love to do, no problem with the prayer life – and we wake up so depressed we almost can’t bear to get out of bed. And no idea why. That’s the wilderness, too.

As we get older we seem to have suffered more loss, so there can be more justification for feeling we are in a wilderness time. In truth, though, age has nothing to do with it. This sense of the wilderness can be strongest in our youth. There is a song being played over and over again on the radio these days. I can only get four radio stations, so I inevitably hear it once or twice a week. The song is called “Torn”, and part of it goes like this: ‘My inspiration has run dry / That's what's going on / Nothing's fine I'm torn / I'm all out of faith / This is how I feel / I'm cold and I am shamed / Lying naked on the floor.’ The author of this song is Natalie Imbruglia, and she is 24 years old.

Adam and Eve in this morning’s story from the Old Testament book of Genesis find themselves in pretty much the same situation. Actually, it’s a whole lot worse. At the beginning of creation, in the earliest of times, they had everything they needed. But somehow that wasn’t enough, and so they ate from the tree of knowledge. It was almost as if they said, “Gee, thanks God, for what you’ve given me. It’s everything I need. But I want more! I must have more!” And God said something like, “Okay. But now you have free choice. You get to choose. All the time. Choose the right thing or choose the wrong thing. And something more, you will be tempted to choose the wrong thing, because where you’re going, sometimes there is evil...” And Adam and Eve found themselves in the wilderness. I would guess they felt a whole lot like that song, all out of faith, cold and ashamed. For all intents and purposes, Adam and Eve were in the wilderness.

There are two threads to this wilderness business. The first is a wilderness you do not choose, but where you find yourself. The second is a deliberate choice to seek the wilderness. Adam and Eve were flung there. Jesus walked right in. Jesus chose the wilderness as a way of preparing his soul.

A member of St. James’ asked me last week if you have to follow Lent. Do you have to choose the wilderness? That’s a good question. For most of us, the answer is yes. We really do, if we expect to grow in our relationship with God, because Lent prepares our souls for God. But there are times when Lent doesn’t work. And those are the times when we are already in the wilderness. A wonderful woman I know found out just before Lent that her husband was leaving and divorcing her. She felt about this tall. It was an extremely tough time for her. But she had grown up in the church and had always observed Lent. So she decided that during Lent she would take fresh flowers to a different person every week – and she would choose someone who was also already in the wilderness. So a woman who had been caring for her dying husband for years and never left the house: she got flowers. So did a fellow who had recently lost his wife. And a teacher who had learned she could not have children. And so on.

Entering into Lent is not blindly following a certain rubric, like not eating meat or saying the Lord’s Prayer every night, although there is nothing wrong with either of these. Entering Lent has to do with being in the wilderness. A place where we become vulnerable to God’s touch. A place where we no longer place our hands over our ears and shout, “I can’t hear you.”

When Jesus was in the wilderness he was tempted to give up. He had a very hard job ahead of him, and he was tempted to just be God, and not mess with the human stuff. Just create food for himself, grab the kingdom and show everyone who he really was by leaping from the top of the temple and living. (Pause) But Jesus said, “No.” After 40 days he was surely exhausted, but he said, “No. I’m going to do this right. I will follow the path set before me and give my people a new way to live, a new way to find God.”

This Lent, Even if we should find ourselves all out of faith like the young singer, let’s keep going. Let’s open our hearts to the one that did not give up on us. Amen.