A Sermon Preached at The Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem PA
The Rev. Canon Anne E. Kitch
So here we are again. Once more this familiar, and may I venture ‘beloved,’ space has been disrupted by the need for repairs and the accompanying scaffolding. I remember the afternoon I walked this Cathedral just after the last batch of scaffolding had been removed. I was awed as I took in the beauty of the spaciousness with fresh eyes and a renewed sense of astonishment. It felt new and remembered at the same time. And here we are again. Living in disruption can be wearisome.
Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart ( Joel 2:12). This is the call from the prophet Joel heard on Ash Wednesday as we entered the season of Lent. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart. God calls us to return—no matter where we have been or what we have been up to, no matter how disrupted our lives are, or how stressed, or lost, or simply out of sorts. Even now. Even at the last. Even in the darkest hour. Even in weariness, God call us to return.
In Lent we are invited to enter a different landscape. Perhaps this is not the landscape that you anticipated, but the Christian life, the spiritual journey, is like that. We often end up in unexpected landscapes learning to navigate once familiar territory inhabited by new obstacles. The territory of Lent is wilderness—and the tool of navigation is repentance. Repent means to turn again to God. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart.
Our liturgical season of the forty days of Lent is modeled after the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness (Luke 4:1). Jesus’ time and testing in the wilderness comes right on the heels of his baptism—and he was led there by the Spirit. This was no accidental wandering or haphazard encounter. Having just returned from the Jordan where John baptized him and the voice from heaven acknowledged him saying, “You my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased,” Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tested. Take note: this is what happens after baptism. Our new identity as Christians is tested.
You may remember from our Baptismal Covenant the question, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” One of the key words of this promise is “whenever.” The promise is not “if” we fall into sin, but “whenever.” This is not because we are horrible people, but because we are good people. The Ash Wednesday Collect reminds us that God hates nothing that she has made. Good people get stressed, discouraged, and lost. Good people and good congregations get their lives disrupted. Good people forget who they are. Good people make wrong turns and poor choices. The invitation for all of us from God is this, “Return to me with all your heart.” So at our baptisms we promise to practice a discipline of resisting evil. And here, at the beginning of Lent, we see Jesus being tested—and it is a test. There is not point to this story at all if it doesn’t involve real struggle from Jesus. You can’t overcome temptation if it is not temptation to begin with. It would be a mistake, and not of much use to us, to think of Jesus as a super hero who can bat away the devil like some annoying fly. After all, the story tells us that Jesus was famished—a very human condition.
Jesus enters the wilderness full—full of the Holy Spirit and fresh from baptism—and for forty days is tempted by the devil. We don’t know what all those temptations were. During that time he doesn’t eat, so at the end of it he is famished, empty, spent. Then comes the final test. Three propositions. Each is about who Jesus is and what kind of savior he will be. Will he provide food for the hungry, beginning with himself, by using magic? Will he save the world by wielding extreme political power, taking on worldly glory and authority? Will he prove that he is the messiah by forcing God to save him from death? Each of the tests strikes close to home. Jesus does want to feed the hungry. Jesus is about saving the world. Jesus does want to show people God’s love for them. But not that way.
On her website, The Painted Prayerbook, artist and minister Jan Richardson talks about making art:
The challenge of creating a piece of art lies not just in deciding what to include but also
in discerning what to leave out. Every piece of art involves a process of choosing: not this,
not this, not this. I can only find what belongs by clearing away everything that doesn’t.
This is no speedy endeavor….
Once, twice, and yet a third time: with every temptation, Jesus responds to the devil: not this,
not this, not this. With each response he names what does not belong to him; with each
answer he gains clarity about what he needs to empty himself of in order to be who he
has come here to be.*
Jesus enters into this test with the devil famished. It’s not so much that he was down, as that he was empty, and ready, maybe even aching, to be filled. But filled with what? Filled with a renewed sense of call and identity.
When it was over, the devil departed...until an opportune time. Testing for Jesus, for us, is not a once and done thing. Rather it is part of our continual formation. The times of testing are times for us to sort out what doesn’t belong. To set aside what is no longer useful. To let go of things, even of treasures, that are not serving us, or others, or God well. We let go so that we can say yes to God more clearly. So we can know our heart and return to God with all of it.
We do not do this alone. The response to our Baptismal Covenant question “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord” is, “I will with God’s help.” We have Jesus, who has been down this road before us. We have each other; we are gathered as a community to walk through this disruptive wilderness of Lent together.
Our landscape is different—a bit wild and uncomfortable. But that very wildness allows us the opportunity to say, “I am not this, or this, or this.” It allows us to empty our lives and our hearts of what does not serve us, or God, and to encounter anew with fresh eyes and a sense of astonishment the life of love that God has given us. What would it look like to spend Lent rediscovering our hearts and returning them to God?
*Jan Richardson Lent I: Into the Wilderness, Feb 10, 2010, paintedprayerbook.com