Monday, February 15, 2016

Springtime in the Desert

Lent 1 Sun Yr C (2016)
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

          Did you know that the Latin word for Lent literally means “the forty days”?  It’s no surprise, then, that today’s Gospel is about another Lent – the forty days Jesus spent in the desert fasting.  In some ways, all of the “forties” in the Bible are images of Lent – the Lent you and I are just beginning now.  The forty days and forty nights through which Noah brought God’s creation to new life through the flood.  The forty years Moses shepherded God’s people through the desert to the Promised Land.  The forty days Jesus spent in the desert to be tempted.
          Those Old Testament stories have a common theme, you know.  The “forty days” is a passing through some sort of death or dying away in order to get to new life.  I wonder if that can help us answer a burning question I’ve always had about this Gospel reading:  Why didn’t Jesus take any food into the desert?
Was Jesus just not hungry?  Did Jesus just not plan ahead well enough to bring provisions?  That seems pretty unlikely.  You and I, imperfect as we are, would pack quite a bag of supplies if we were heading into the desert for forty days.  And if we knew that we were going to be tempted, we’d really be loaded down.  I’d have a gallon or two of Holy Water and my relic of the True Cross for certain.  I don’t know about you, but I’d also have a cart full of beef jerky, some peanut butter, and plenty of water.  It just doesn’t seem very likely that Jesus forgot to take food with him into the desert – which leaves me with the conclusion that – just like He went into the desert specifically to be tempted – Jesus seems to have gone into the desert intending to fast.  He entered His Lent – His “forty days” with the intention of fasting and knowing He was going to be tempted…
This leaves a huge question screaming to be answered:  “WHY?”  Why go to be tempted?  Why not bring any food – especially when I assume Jesus knew his first temptation would be about food.  Turning stones into bread wouldn’t really be a temptation for me if I’d carted around my beef jerky and peanut butter all that time.  Who needs some stony bread when their belly is full?  Not eating for 40 days is a funny way to prepare to be tempted with food.  What was Jesus thinking?  Why was he fasting?  Why did he go to be tempted?  How does this make any sense?  Could it be that Jesus knew He needed to be freed from the human experience of needing food so that He could answer his first temptation well?  Could Jesus have planned to fast so that He’d transform His humanity to be able to reject that first temptation? 
The beginning of Luke’s Gospel charts an interesting course.  After His birth, Jesus is presented in the temple and then in a flash he’s a teenager teaching in the Temple.  In the blink of an eye John the Baptist baptizes an adult Jesus and the Holy Spirit descends on Him…and then immediately drives Him into the desert to be tempted.  After the temptation, Luke says Jesus is “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit [and] began to teach.”
The Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism, but it isn’t until after the desert fasting and temptation that Jesus is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.  The 40 days seem to be about being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit so He is ready to begin his ministry.  And however we shape it up, one thing is clear:  Jesus’ ministry is ultimately about Easter.  His preaching, teaching, and miracles – His passion and death and resurrection – His whole journey on this Earth are ultimately the new life of Easter.  So it seems that the forty days are specifically about being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to more perfectly encounter the Easter message, proclaim the Easter truth, and enter into the Easter reality. 
Now it seems like Jesus had a perfect plan!  There’s a transformation that comes from fasting – one that makes it possible to face temptation and walk the rest of the way to Easter.  That’s what the desert was about then…maybe that’s what our forty days is about now.  It seems like it’s not really about the fasting, but what the fasting does in ushow it transforms us – how the forty days enables us to face temptation and walk all the way to into Easter glory.
Here we’ve been running around hiding all the chocolate and sweets and meat, we’ve been testing the rules of the Lenten fast to make sure we don’t break them, trying to discover if we can eat alligator on Fridays or if we can put cream in our coffee on Ash Wednesday – discussing whether or not we can drink the beer we’ve given up for Lent on Sundays or not (because after all, the forty days doesn’t count the Sundays)… here we are focusing so much on the fast itself that maybe we’ve forgotten the purpose of the fast. 
Maybe the forty days is less about the ‘giving up’ and more about how the ‘giving up’ will transform us.
          The question worth asking, you see, is not ‘What am I giving up for Lent?’ – or ‘What more am I doing this Lent?’  No – the question worth asking is Why? … For what purpose?  Why am I giving up chocolate?  Why am I giving away my things?  How do I hope my extra prayer will change me?  How do I hope to be transformed – to be more free – to be more filled with power of the Holy Spirit – how I hope to be different when we make it together to the glory of Easter? 
The Latin name for this season literally means ’the 40 days’ – but do you know what our English word for the season – Lent – means?  Lent itself comes from the word for ‘Spring’ – our great Lent is our springtime during which we’re doing our part to bloom with new life in the coming light of Easter.  Every day, every step of the way, is a movement toward Easter.  You see – its not about the fast itself; its about where the fast is taking how, how the fast is transforming us into freer, more Christ-like people to be resurrected again with Christ in the promised land of Easter on the other side of this forty days. 
If we stay focused on the destination, if we keep the purpose of our Lenten observances clearly in mind, if our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is intentionally and explicitly about being transformed ever more into an Easter people, then we will overcome our temptations – even in our momentary failures, the devil will not win – because with our hearts and minds and eyes set clearly on the new life of Easter we will be transformed

How are you hoping to be transformed this Lent?  

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