Saturday, February 6, 2016

Lent Is a Time to Reflect on What Matters Most

Jesus in the Wilderness

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 
Luke 4:1-2

If Lent were a candidate running for President of the United States or President of the ninth grade class, it would come in last. As the pollsters say, it has really high “unfavorables.” Nobody likes Lent. Some of us pretend to like it because we think we ought to, but no one really likes it. 

The observance of Lent among Christians is complicated at best and dysfunctional at worst. In Lent we tend to confirm the worst stereotypes of Christian behavior. We focus on small and petty things. Lent does not bring out the best in Christianity.

The Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent is always the temptation story. We read it from different Gospels depending on the Lectionary cycle, but the story is always the same. After Jesus is baptized by John, he is led into the wilderness for a time of reflection and contemplation. It is one of those rare occasions when the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke are nearly identical. 

There are two places where we tend to get stuck. The first is with “the devil.” We picture a mythical creature with horns and a tale. And some of us wonder how this can be “real.” Which totally misses the point. Temptation is about what happens inside of us and this was no different for Jesus. In his commentary, legendary scholar William Barclay points out that the struggle takes place within the mind of Jesus, but this does not make it any less real. 

The second place we tend to get stuck is on the last phrase of the second verse in Luke’s account. “He was famished.” And that leads us to the widespread Lenten practice of giving up something we like for Lent. Sometimes it’s chocolate or ice cream or all desserts. If that helps us to meditate on our faith journey then it’s a good thing, but my guess is that most of the time it just makes us grumpy. And grumpy Christians don’t make a very compelling witness.

All three accounts agree on a key detail: it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the wilderness.

Jesus needed a time of preparation, introspection and contemplation. And we need that, too. It is good, between the hurry of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and the busyness of the spring, that we pause and reflect. It is a good time to contemplate our fears and hopes for the future, and to remember the joys and sorrows of the past. And in all of that, to ask serious questions about life and faith. What is it that really matters? What do we really care about? How will we put our ideals and our faith into action?

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