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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The First Sunday in Lent

There is a story about a mother who took her nine-year-old daughter, Jenny, to an early morning Ash Wednesday service many years ago when the 1928 Book of Common Prayer was still in use in the Episcopal Church. The language of that service was extremely penitential and tedious. It talked about the “vile earth” and us “miserable offenders.” If you didn’t feel convicted of your sins before the service, you certainly did when it was finished. In the hushed silence of the church, Jenny turned to her mother and said in a stage whisper, “Mom, I know I’m bad, but I’m not that bad!” On this first Sunday in Lent, we hear two stories about temptation and fasting. The first of these is the very familiar one of Adam and Eve in the garden. The devil tempts Adam and Eve. They fail the test. They get exiled from Paradise. But nowhere in the story is the word “sin” mentioned, much less the concept of “original sin.” The second is the temptation of Jesus by Satan at the conclusion of a 40-day period of fasting in the wilderness. Jesus passes the test. Angels come to his aid and probably bring dinner with them. After all, he is famished. The common denominator in the stories is testing and temptation, but for Jesus the experience does not come in a lovely garden replete with fruits and vegetables but in the wilderness, wasteland, and desert—rough and wild country. It is a place of contradictions. It is bare and arid and hostile. People hungered there and bandits hid out there. There were scorpions and vipers and other wild animals. In the wilderness, one was unprotected and exposed. It was also a place where people took refuge and where sometimes people even encountered God. The children of Israel were guided through it and fed Manna by God. It was in the desert that God gave them the Ten Commandments. The wilderness could also be a place of renewal and where hope was born. After the rains of spring arrive, this parched land brings forth the green of earth and covering of flowers. The prophet Isaiah tells us that “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” The wilderness is a strange place where we can face the very worst and at other times find the very best. We might encounter our demons there and we might find God. So, it is understandable why, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are pointed by God’s Word in the direction of the wilderness. For Jesus, the testing did not end in the desert. Nor did the temptations. His friend Peter told him to avoid the cross and death and we know what happened in the garden the night of his betrayal. For us, the story is the same: testing never ends. That is why we pray the words, “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” Our Rite 2 language has it as “Save us from the time of trial.” When I say the word “sin,” I wonder what images come to mind for you? The stolen candy bar, the concealed crib notes used to pass an exam, the questionable deductions on a tax return, slum landlords letting tenants live in horrible conditions, Putin’s atrocities in the Ukraine, the brutal murder of a young African-American man, homeless people sleeping under a bridge trying to keep warm on a frigid night. I suspect we all get a different picture of what sin looks like. It’s hard to preach on sin. Either it can be used to browbeat the congregation or dressed up in finery and sugar coated. Let’s be honest about it. It is difficult to speak about sin in church because we know what a turn off it is and because we have our own baggage around the language of sin instilled in us from childhood and maybe from our affiliation with other churches and denominations. We grew up with the language of “living in sin” and the threat of going to hell if we were not sufficiently repentant.

Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Christian theology is neither no-fault nor full-fault. We do wrong, but we do not do wrong all alone. We live in a web of creation that binds us to all other living beings. If we want to be saved, then we had better figure out how to do it together, since none of us can resign from this web of relationship.”

So, we gather in this Lenten wilderness as the community of faithful ones, God’s people, to hear these stories and those that will be told throughout the next five weeks and garner as much as we can from these ancient texts—stories that are not about the temptation not to be a good human being but rather about the temptation not to be a human being at all.

The Reverend Barbara Brown suggests that “Sin may be our new best friend,” because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. We can’t expect to repair something if we don’t admit that it is broken. There is no hope that we can change what is wrong in the world if we accept that it is irreversibly damaged. Avoiding sin is not merely about doing things that make us less admirable. It is about the reordering of our hearts, allowing God to meet us where we are, and claiming our true identity as an extension of God’s love, the image of God in which we were created and as the minds and hands and hearts of Jesus in the world.

On Ash Wednesday we got a prescription for spiritual renewal from Jesus: Pray, fast, give alms. There are many ways to accomplish these things and we can even be creative about how, where and when we incorporate them into a rule of life for ourselves. If we’ve opted to do Lent this year in whatever form that may take for us, we will certainly find ourselves navigating the wilderness—a strange place where we can face the very worst and at other times find the very best. Yes, we might encounter our demons there, but we might just find God—or let God find us.

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