Sunday, March 2, 2014

Learning Obedience by Following Jesus into the Lenten Desert. A Homily for 3.9.14 from Mt.4:1-11 for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A.

March 9, 2014
1st Sunday of Lent, Year A.
(revised from a Homily posted on 3.13.11


Today, the Church begins the Season of Lent. 

You will recall, of course, that the Lenten season brings to us a time of heaviness, a time of serious heart-preparation for holiness which by design turns our attention toward Resurrection Sunday. This means Lent involves personal soul-searching and an honest, clear-eyed assessment of the state of our relationship with the living, risen Christ.

The goal of Lent leads us to seek the living Christ and to renew our love for him by practicing Christ-likeness. Thus, the practices associated with the Lenten season include fasting, the denial of the self, Godly repentance, daily conversion, sharing our resources with the other in need, and a renewal of simplicity in life. 

In short, Lent is about self-sacrifice and the way of the cross. Not the homily we've usually come to expect! You know, five easy answers to ten difficult problems.

It should be noted that this Lenten emphasis on a personal renewal toward the Christ actually fits very well as a continuing invitation to follow-on after Jesus that we've heard from these past few Sundays when we have been thinking-through the Sermon on the Mount. Lent continues the Sermon's call toward doing the will of the Father and walking the Jesus-way.

With Lent, however, the emphasis shifts from Jesus' sermon to his wilderness sojourn. Here we see Jesus paused, in hesitation, not immediately practicing his kingdom project. In fact, we see Jesus being led from the glorious, mountain-top moment of his Father's profession -- "this is my beloved son," and his Father's direction -- "listen to him," straight to a time of stillness and solitude and intense struggle.

Does it surprise you that the Father saw the need to prepare Jesus' heart for the treacherous journey which lay ahead? Does it surprise you that Jesus needed a period of quiet soul-provision before GOD, prior to his mission project?

Jesus, led by the Spirit, opens his heart to the Father through fasting and prayer. In the wilderness Jesus prepares his heart for his Kingdom-work by being alone with the Almighty, and by thinking-through how the Holy Scriptures applied to his prophetic calling. This is a lesson for us. Here Jesus models the necessity of the disciple's withdrawal into a close communion with the Almighty as the way to prepare the heart for the challenges of a world-at-war-with-itself. (More on this anon.)

Like Jesus, we must preserve our hearts and review the commitment to our calling, and in the Lenten season the church offers time and emphasis for this endeavor. And, truly, we need this time of personal renewal because the stench of sin and the bitterness of life experiences can easily turn us aside from the narrow-way, offering us a false ease and a premature rest. But, through a proper Lenten emphasis we know a true daily discipleship offers no rest for the follower of the Jesus.

Having said this, let us now turn to the text and briefly find what is there for us today.

First, the text allows us to witness Jesus led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted. And, here, we would do well to remember that Jesus of Nazareth is being led by GOD's Spirit to do his Kingdom project, and that it is was not of his own design. That is, Jesus is about the Father’s business even in the desert of temptation and deprivation. 

Here we must ask just why the Spirit would lead Jesus into the wilderness to face the tempter? Is it not our prayer that he taught us:
"lead us not into temptation?" 
How, then, does temptation's trial become part of his Kingdom project?

At least as a partial answer, listen to this unusual text from the Book of Hebrews: 
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; (Hebrews 5:7-8. See also Hebrews 2:10)
And then see also Hebrews 2:10:
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
These verses come in the section in which the author describes Jesus as the great high-priest, opening to us the Christological reality that Jesus carried the burden of learning just as we do. 

Again, we might well ask just what he learned in this forty-day desert crisis (and by extension what especially he learned in Gethsemane and Calvary). I would assert that he began to learn the reality of the human condition. In the desert Jesus learned the bitterness of temptations and the all-consuming power of deprivation. And, in Gethsemane and Calvary he learned of life filled with hate and violence.

The upshot of this means that we now have a high-priest — Jesus who is the Christ — who can be moved by our struggles and disasters. By living through these dreadful experiences that comprise true humanity he now understands by personal experience what we daily face, and because of this his empathy soars: 
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.(Hebrews 4:15)

Second, we see from the text that Jesus fed his soul from GOD's word. Three times we are told that the tempter comes to ply his trade, and each time Jesus counters these offers with Holy Scripture. It does not take speculation too far to imagine that throughout those forty-days of fasting Jesus feasts off the Hebrew Bible.

St. Luke tells us that not long after these wilderness struggles Jesus goes to his hometown of Nazareth where he attends synagogue on the sabbath as was his custom. When the scroll of Isaiah is handed to him he finds this text:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring 
good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, 
and release to the prisoners;

Could it be that in the wilderness crisis he feasts upon this text, and clarifies his true vocation, learning just what GOD would have him say and do? Could it be through his deprivation and temptation that his mission for the nation and the world is brought to the clear light of the desert sun by his meditation through the Spirit on the memorized Word of GOD?

Some will argue, no doubt, that Jesus knew his calling from birth. I understand these assertions. But, I would counter by saying that it does no injustice to his humanity to say that Jesus learned, grew, and was led. After all, these are all words the Holy Scriptures use to describe Jesus, and these are the words that allow us a glimpse into his true humanness.

Third, with both the destitution of being without food and the temptations grinding his soul, Jesus confronts the human selflessness that would confront his daily practice and his daily pilgrimage to the cross. When later he offers this council to his followers, 
"Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me," 
he clearly knows whereof he speaks because this self-denial first was breached during his forty-day desert trial. 

For the disciple, the issue of self-denial is of paramount importance. Daily, the disciple must carry the cross of sacrifice. Daily, the disciple  must say no to selfishness. And daily, the disciple must push away the false promptings of the flesh, the coveting from what we see and want and the pride that comes from being esteemed by others. 

Clearly, the disciple cannot practice this self-sacrifice apart from silent-time spent alone before the GOD who is mystery and empowerment. Clearly, the disciple, without daily prayer, is a disciple in name only.

The decision, then, to "make a good Lent" begins with the understanding that to deny self -- as un-American and un-therapeutic as this sounds to the post-modern ear -- and to offer oneself to the silence of prayer, is actually the only path to genuine discipleship.