We’ve now entered the season of Lent, another of those seasons of the church year that were not always observed in the United Church. So if you grew up in the United Church prior to, say, the 1970s you may not have had an experience of marking the season of Lent. I think for us as Protestants, we harbor some suspicion about Lent; we tend to view it as a kind of Catholic version of Ramadan, this extended season of renunciation, that is better suited to people who are more outwardly religiously observant than we are prepared to be.
You don’t see many United Church people going about with the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. That sort of thing is just not for us; we feel kind of embarrassed about that overt expression of our faith. Perhaps we base this on Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew, that we ought to pray in secret, not like the hypocrites who pray so loudly and publicly.
One of the things we pride ourselves on in the United Church is that we are not like those other Christians, by which we usually mean evangelicals or Pentecostals, who are so loud about their faith. So we’re not like evangelicals and Pentecostals, and we’re not like Catholics, or other religiously observant people like some Muslims.
I’m beginning to think that one of the things we count as a primary virtue in the United Church is the invisibility of our faith. Unlike all those other groups, we just want to blend in. We want to go with the flow. We want to be seen as good, in all the ways our culture defines being good, but we can’t stand the idea of standing out. We can’t stand the idea of standing out because of our faith. We want our faith to be invisible.
We’re concerned lest we offend anyone. We can’t stand the thought of giving any offense. So we just go along, blend in to whatever is going on in the culture around us. In Advent, we want to do Christmas, because that’s what everyone around us is doing. And for the most part, for the rest of the year, we prefer to mark the seasons in nature, according to our hobbies.
It’s skiing season, or golfing season, or gardening season. But the calendar of the church year confronts all of that. It challenges us in our placid stroll through the year according to the calendars we have created. The calendars of our seasons and hobbies and pastimes.
Now, as a professional religious person, I have become more comfortable with the rhythms of the church year. But I still retain some sense of how annoying the calendar of the church year can be. There’s a United Church congregation in Vancouver, University Hill Congregation, that produces what they call a Christian Seasons Calendar, and they actually arrange a standard flip calendar that you hang on the wall, by the seasons of the church year instead of by the calendar months. Well, I know how annoying this can be because I bought one for Jillian in the office and after a few days she took it down and replaced with one that Brian Kopp gave her from his business! Jillian said it was too hard to be talking to people on the phone based on one calendar, and then to be looking at the wall at this other calendar. The two just didn’t mesh.
So why bother? Well, we bother with the Christian seasons, or rather we allow them to bother us, because we believe that the rhythms of the church year, and the Scripture stories in which they are based, have something valuable to tell us about our life in the world and our life with God.
We will mark this 40-day season of Lent in our worship by celebrating the five Sundays in Lent, followed by Palm Sunday and Holy Week, followed of course by Easter. The season is rooted in the gospel stories of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness where he faced temptation and test; those stories echo Old Testament stories of times in the wilderness, and times of testing, which sometimes lasted for 40 days and sometimes 40 years.
The central idea in these stories is that this time apart—this stepping out of our normal journey through life according to our usual calendar—this time apart facilitates an encounter with God. When we are called out of our normal lives, into the wilderness, we leave behind all those things that obscure the presence of God in our lives.
Part of the challenge that many of us face is that we are too comfortable in our lives. We live lives in which we don’t need to depend on God because we have stuff, and we have money that enables us to buy stuff. Not all of us I recognize, and I’m not trying to play up the spiritual virtues of poverty either. I am trying to point out the spiritual handicap of affluence, though.
When we are affluent, it is easy for us to believe that our lives don’t depend on God. It is easy for us to not believe in God at all. Because we don’t need God. That’s what’s going on in the story that Brian read for us from Deuteronomy. The people have been long settled in the land, they have become affluent. Generations have gone by since that time when they were in Egypt; when they were—oh yes—slaves in Egypt. But that is long since forgotten. They’ve come a long way, baby; they’re nobody’s slaves anymore.
They’re paying their own way, they’re buying their own food, they’re making their own rules now. That story about God leading them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm sounds so much like a myth now.
Did it really happen? And were they really slaves? Or is that all just some story some religious leaders told to keep them in their place? To control their behavior and keep them humble, perhaps.
This passage from Deuteronomy is a call to the people to remember their story. To cut through the fog of their comfortable complacency, to reach back through the years to a story of a time when they were utterly dependent on God, and they knew it. They didn’t get out of Egypt by their own strength; they didn’t survive in the wilderness by their own strength. They made it out, they survived, and they later prospered because of God’s gracious provision, because God so loved them.
They’ve forgotten that. They’ve forgotten God. And so the story offers a ritual of remembrance. Something that pulls them out of the bubble of their self-sufficiency and reminds them that they are held in the arms of something, someone, much greater than themselves.
It’s a lot like us. We’ve forgotten our story, too.
It’s been so long, so many generations. Did it really happen? Or is it all just a myth they told us to keep us in our place? Lent is our time to enter into the wilderness, and to find that, shorn of all our stuff, God is still waiting for us. That God has been there all along, upholding our lives even when we have forgotten God.
Our paradigm for entering the wilderness is of course Jesus. Jesus who entered the wilderness immediately after his baptism, full of the Holy Spirit. He goes forty days without food, and without human company. In this account, Jesus is challenged by the devil and tempted by the promises of food, power, and safety. These are particularly cruel temptations for one who has gone without food for 40 days, and gone without human interaction; for one who is experiencing the extremes of vulnerability.
The bargain that the devil offers is that if Jesus will just give up on God, he can have all these other things. If he will just forget that he’d ever heard of God, he will have the most rewarding and fulfilling life possible.
And Jesus of course says No. I will not trade God for bread, or for power, or for safety. I would rather be hungry, and powerless, and supremely vulnerable with God than full, and powerful, and protected without God.
Well friends, the devil still speaks. True, we don’t think about the devil personified in the way these stories suggest; we’re far too modern for that. It just seems like modern life keeps offering us the same bargain: if we would just forget that we’d ever heard of God, we will have the most rewarding and fulfilling life possible.
This Lent is an opportunity to rediscover God. An opportunity to go into the wilderness in some way. To get out beyond the city lights to where you can see the stars. To leave behind your stuff, and discover what—and who—has been hidden under all those piles.
God still waits. God has been there all along, upholding our lives even when we have forgotten.
To begin our Lenten journey, I want to offer you a ritual of remembrance. I’m going to make my way to the font, and I invite you to come forward, if you are so moved, to receive a blessing. I will make the sign of the cross on your forehead—with water, it’s not so visible—and offer this blessing: You are God’s beloved child. And for those who choose not to come forward, receive this blessing now: You are God’s beloved child.
May this ritual draw us out of the bubble of our self-sufficiency and remind us that we are held in the arms of something, someone, much greater than ourselves. Amen.
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