First Sunday in Lent
Our first “Stump the Pastor” question is “How was it decided that Lent is 40 days long?” Our Gospel reading today helps answer this question as Jesus fasts in the wilderness for 40 days before being tempted by the devil. But what does that have to do with us? Does that mean Lent is meant to be a 40 day time period when we are purposefully tempted to do something that we are not supposed to do or at least made a promise not to do? Is it a time when we resist the temptation to eat chocolate, get on Facebook, or some other “vice” that we have given up for Lent? It isn’t so simple. Jesus wasn’t just out in the wilderness to practice resisting enticing temptations and he also wasn’t the first one to engage in a 40 day discipline.
Noah and his family waited in the ark for 40 days while the rainwaters covered the earth. Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God and he fasted for 40 days while waiting for it to be put into his hands. The freed people of Israel wandered in the wilderness desert for 40 years until they finally reached the Promised Land. The prophet Elijah hid out for 40 days on Mount Horeb as he waited for his next move now that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel sought his life.
All of these 40 day or year moments are times of intentional discernment and waiting on God’s next big move. It is a time of preparation and hopefulness. It is a time for us to reflect on who we are and to whom we belong.
Noah and his family waited for 40 days on the ark with nothing but water all around them as far as they could see. They had to be wondering what kind of world they would be inhabiting and what God was planning on doing next. Moses waited for God’s law to be written so that God’s people might have instruction for how to build a society that values God’s justice, mercy, and peace above all else. The people of Israel, now freed from Egyptian slavery, hoped for the land God promised them, a home to call their own. Elijah waited for God to act against the cruelty of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and to save the lives of the innocent. Jesus entered the wilderness having just been declared God’s very own son at his baptism and prepared for what his ministry would look like, whom he would serve, and how he would give his life for the sake of others.Lent may be a time when we ask ourselves, “What exactly am I waiting for God to do in the world?”
All of the people involved in these 40 day or year waiting periods of preparation faced many temptations as the sought to hold onto their hopes for God’s next big move. Noah and his family were surely tempted to give up hope that the waters would ever recede. Moses came down the mountain after those 40 days and saw his people worshiping the golden calf. He may have been tempted to give up on his wayward kin, but instead he urged God to spare them. The people of Israel, sick of eating the manna that rained down from heaven each day, were tempted to return to slavery so that they might enjoy the melons, onions, garlic, and other foods that they had in Egypt. Elijah was tempted before his 40 days to give up that he was ever going to escape the wrath of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and that their cruel rule would ever be broken. Jesus was tempted with the promise of food for his hungry belly, a show of power to prove that he really is the Son of God, and all the kingdoms of the earth at his fingertips with no cost.
But at the heart of all these temptations is one big, capital T, Temptation. Noah and his family, Moses, the people of Israel, Elijah, and Jesus were all tempted to forget that they belong to God.
Noah and his family were chosen to be spared from the floodwaters yet they had 40 rain-soaked days (and almost a year of floating after that!) to wait for a sign that they truly had been spared. Moses was called by God to bring the law to God’s people, but when he saw their rebellion in front of the golden calf, he wasn’t sure if they were God’s people anymore. The people of Israel were given manna in the wilderness each day of their 40 year wandering, but they were tempted to belong to their old slave masters in Egypt rather than belong to the God who provides for them. Elijah was called as God’s very own prophet to speak truth to cruel power, but when Ahab and Jezebel hissed their murderous threats, Elijah was tempted to believe that his life was in their hands and not God’s hands. Jesus meets Satan after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness and the first words the devil breathes are, “If you are the Son of God turn these stones to bread.” Prove your power, Son of God. Then he says, “If you are the Son of God.. throw yourself from the Temple so God will catch you.” Don’t you want to be sure that you are God’s Son? If God sends angels to catch you, then you will have all doubt removed. You’ll know that you are God’s. Finally he says, “I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world if you worship me instead of God.” God is going to give up on you and you won’t be able to save the world. Take the easy way out and have a guaranteed rulership of the world.
Like Noah and his family, Moses, the people of Israel, Elijah, and even Jesus, we are faced with the temptation to forget to whom we belong. To forget that we are God’s children and to forget that God will never give up on us. We face temptations every day that threaten our faith in who we are and to whom we belong. We, like Noah, may look out into our future and not see anything that is sure. We don’t know where we are going when we see an endless ocean of possibility (or threat). We may be tempted to believe that we don’t belong to God anymore. We, like Moses, may feel that the people we are called to love and protect have lost their way and may never return. We may be tempted to believe that we don’t belong to God anymore. We, like the people of Israel, may yearn for the “good ‘ol days” that may or may not have ever been present and forget about the everyday miracles God places before us. We may be tempted to believe that we would be better off belonging to someone other than God. We, like Elijah, may fear the threats of unjust rulers and our enemies. We may be tempted to believe that we belong to their wicked whims and not to God. We, like Jesus, may be tempted to put God to the test to prove that we really do belong to God.
We do belong to God. Life has a tendency to throw all kinds of challenges our way to tempt us to doubt that truth, but it remains true nonetheless. Noah and his family saw the flood waters subside and dry land appear. Moses did give God’s law to God’s people and witnessed God provide for them in their journey. The people of Israel did experience God deliver them to the Promised Land. Elijah did see Ahab and Jezebel defeated and his life continue to be held and protected by God. Jesus did remain faithful to his mission as God’s Son to take up his cross and defeat the power of sin and death.
In these 40 days of Lent, we await God’s next big move. We await our promised peace and new life that has been revealed in the Easter resurrection of Jesus. As we wait for God’s promises to be revealed, we will surely face temptations to forget who we are and to whom we belong. But over and over again throughout salvation history we see God’s steadfast love and we hear God’s promises of life and salvation through Jesus Christ. You are God’s child. You are one of God’s people. Nothing in hell, heaven, or earth will change that. Remember who you are and to whom you belong.