Title: Lent as metaphor and reality
Texts: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Luke 4:1-13
Date: Feb 21, 2010
Author: Tom Lehman
Lent began four days ago on Ash Wednesday, as it always does. Lent is the least cheerful of the seasons in the Christian year. It is sometimes understood as a time to suspend earthly pleasures. Some over-zealous believers have even proposed it as a time to give up chocolate. In some traditions it imposes dietary restrictions. Isaac recently pointed out to me that the first break with established tradition by our Anabaptist ancestors was not the radical act of baptizing each other and taking communion together on January 21, 1525, but the brazen act in Zurich of eating sausage in defiance of the Catholic Church during Lent of 1522, remembered in German as the “Wurstessen” i.e. sausage-eating. Our spiritual fathers were big-time sinners.
The words “Lent” and “Lenten” refer to springtime, when the days are getting longer, i.e., lengthening. The similarity of sound in “Lenten” and “lengthen” is no coincidence.
Lent is a season of self-examination, of acknowledgment of the reality of temptation and of our personal failings, and of recommitment to follow the way of our Lord with renewed diligence.
“Glory to God in the highest” belongs to the end of Advent, and has left our thoughts well before the Lenten season. Now we do better to sing “Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy, Christe Eleison, Christ have mercy. We are all beneficiaries of Divine mercy, and of the mercy of persons dear to us.
As a metaphor for Lent, I nominate spring house cleaning. Except for a few compulsive people, no one wants to do it; a major effort is required to overcome the consequences of months of lethargy and the silent mischief of entropy. And yet the need to do occasional house cleaning is beyond dispute, at least for people who like to find things without having to excavate for them.
So it is with Lent. It is time to uncover those aspects of our life that need to be cleaned up, those realms too long ignored, pledges unfulfilled, matters of conscience too easily postponed or neglected.
If we clean the house we may reap an unexpected benefit: we may come upon lost items of genuine value. So with the introspection of Lent: we may find helpful inner resources, assets not previously recognized.
We are all tempted, as Jesus was. His temptation is one of the strongest indicators of his humanity. I want to give close attention to the account in Luke’s Gospel of his temptation. It has important lessons for us, but I also find some major challenges to understanding.
As Luke chapter 4 begins, we are told that Jesus lets the devil lead him around in the desert for 40 days. In the Bible the number 40 so often represents the duration of a particularly important, often difficult, experience that there’s more than a hint of numerology – the obsession with the mystical power of numbers. In the OT the rain fell around Noah’s ark for 40 days, Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites, freed from bondage in Egypt, wandered around in the desert and ate manna for 40 years, two Israelite spies checked out the Promised Land for 40 days, and Elijah walked in the wilderness for 40 days to reach the mount of God (1 Kings 19:8.)
In the NT Jesus spends forty days after his resurrection before ascending into heaven. In summary, the number 40 is more an indicator of high Biblical drama than an accurate measure of elapsed time. We can learn from the temptation narrative without insisting that it lasted as long as 40 days.
In Luke’s account, the devil tempts Jesus with actions that are supposed to turn out well. The first temptation is a response to hunger after many days without food, by turning a stone into bread. In the second, it is to worship the devil in order to gain control over all the kingdoms of the world; the devil offers Jesus a Faustian bargain. Finally, it is that Jesus should jump from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, assuming that angels will suddenly come to save him from any harm. Here the devil is quoting verse 11 of today’s Psalm. Such a startling act might have convinced people that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, sent from God. Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus refuses every temptation, knowing that it is never acceptable to follow the prompting of the devil, no matter how favorable the outcome might appear. The dialog between the devil and Jesus contains other references to Scripture, so that one commentator says they argue like two Jewish rabbis. [COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF LUKE (one of a series called HERMENEIA). FORTRESS PRESS 2002, BY FRANÇOIS BOVON, p 145]
The Shema is the central teaching of Jewish belief; It is stated in Deuteronomy 6:49: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” By refusing every offer from the devil, Jesus shows himself to be a good Jew. The first commandment states the same thing: “You shall have no other gods before me.” It is a strongly uncompromising demand. In resisting each temptation, Jesus adheres to the Jewish code.
That Jesus was tempted shows him to be fully human. “Jesus’ conflict with Satan at the beginning of his ministry…enables (us) to understand the whole of Jesus’ ministry as an attack on …Satan’s work.” (NIB)
By refusing to have anything to do with these clever temptations, in spite of outcomes that could be quite beneficial, Jesus issues to all of us a powerful warning not to use compromising means to achieve an attractive end. It is easy for people to try to justify shady or even evil means to an apparently desirable end. Here Jesus shouts NO to all such temptations: the end does not justify the means. Moreover, human conduct is complicated, so that we do not generally know in advance that the means we choose will result in the end we desire. To cite a very current example, we cannot promise a good outcome to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we obviously employ some very evil means in pursuit of ends that are supposed to justify what we are doing.
Each of us can accept the responsibilities of Lent in our own manner. However, I mention one great human failing–call it a sin if you wish–that besets all of us to some degree, and is the most widely practiced, even unrecognized national sin. It is consumerism, more powerful than any god for many Americans. We live under an unrelenting barrage of messages urging us to improve our lives by buying things. In light of the present weak economy, with 10% unemployment across the land, this might seem wise. At best it is terribly short-sighted, because we live in the most resource-hungry country in the world. With only 5% of world population, we consume 25% of its energy.
Andy Warhol stated his impressions of our culture with this hammer blow: “Buying is much more American than thinking.”
Years ago John Stoner, formerly of MCC, said it with far more beauty and sensitivity: “What the world most needs from us is that we should need less from the world.”
We have recently visited the families of our two children. Both of our wonderful granddaughters have more stuffed animals in their bedrooms than they can possibly play with. I recently experienced some of the multiple birthday parties of one granddaughter, as a result of which I can now extract a Barbie doll from its excessive packaging in as little as fifteen minutes. Incidentally, Mattell knows a good thing, with more than 50 versions of the Barbie doll on the market. How many do we need? It is rampant consumerism taught early.
Lent is an invention of the post-Biblical church. There is no prescription for it in the Bible. However, it is no surprise that the church fathers, as early as the end of the fourth century, established a 40-day period as a time of self-examination in preparation for Easter. From Ash Wednesday, Lent continues through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Sundays are omitted from the 40-day count because Jesus arose from the grave on the first day of the week, and that makes every Sunday a day to celebrate the Resurrection. The burden of Lent is to be temporarily lifted each Sunday. (Wikipedia: The six Sundays in Lent are not counted among the forty days because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter, a celebration of Jesus’ victory over sin and death.”)
The lectionary often surprises me, as it does today. On the first Sunday of Advent, when our knowledge of things to come begins to stir excitement, the passages in some years remind us of the coming judgment day, a big bump in an otherwise smooth road to the joys of Christmas. Chris Huebner, in his sermon for the first Sunday of Advent in 2008, pointed to “the anger of God” as one of the themes in the assigned passages for that day.
In what seems to me clear textual symmetry, today’s passages for the first Sunday of Lent give us assurance that all who live in the shelter of the Most High, as our Psalm declares, will be spared the depression that might otherwise result from the introspection and gloom of Lent. If we have made the Lord our refuge, again quoting the Psalm, we are safe. The difficult passage through Lent to a triumphant Easter should concern us and engage us, but not harm us. In Lent we are promised the protection of the Almighty, a better deal than we get from spring house cleaning. May we dwell in the shelter of the Most High in this season and always.