The Preacher’s Study
First Sunday of Lent, Year C
D. Jay Koyle
Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16;
Some people fancy Lent as a somber sojourn meant to remind us that we’re pretty much pitiable good-for-nothings; we give up chocolate or some such pleasure so we can feel as miserable as we really are. Others adopt a more positive angle, seeing Lent as the season to devote extra hours and energy to an activity that will make for personal spiritual growth – whatever that may mean – at least for those of us who take such things seriously.
I’m pretty sure, however, that both conceptions are actually substantial misconceptions, sufficient enough to deflect our trajectory away from the true purpose and promise of Lent.
Perhaps you’ve noticed, whenever the number forty pops up in the Bible (which is often), there tends to be a time of trial or challenge for an individual or community. Often this takes place in something called “the wilderness,” the Bible’s favourite setting for learning to trust in God’s goodness and prepare for what God will do next. At the end of it all, there is a clarification of identity, vocation, and “destiny.”
Noah floated on that seafaring zoo for forty days and discovered his identity in a covenant between God and the whole of creation.
Moses convened with God for forty days and nights on Sinai to receive the Law that would define the identity of a People delivered by God.
The People of Israel wandered the wilderness for forty years so that they could inherit the land promised by God and live into their identity as a liberated people chosen to be a sign of God’s saving power to the nations.
Elijah made a forty-day trek to hideaway at Horeb, the place of covenant making, and there rediscovered his identity as a prophet of the Lord to the people born of that covenant.
After his baptism, when he ritually entered the Promised Land and the transcendent voice declared to him, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life,” Jesus was led into the wilderness for forty days and nights to face temptation and discern what it truly meant to be God’s anointed One.
The annual forty days of Lent are a time for clarifying our true identity and its implications, too. We enter this season so that, when we come out at the other side in the celebration of the Christian Passover, we may know in more profound ways “who we are” and “what we’re about” in the risen Christ. Thus, Lent is the season candidates and baptized alike grapple with the identity, vocation, and destiny revealed and bestowed, effected and enlivened through the Font.
With this understanding, it becomes apparent to me that Lent is apt as both a metaphor and model for the situation in which most congregations find themselves today.
Cast your mind’s eye to the narrative of Jesus’ temptations. It is when Jesus is well into his forty days – resources all but spent, little in evidence to lean on, feeling most vulnerable – that he’s tempted. It is now that the devil calls into question Jesus’ identity. Now the devil stokes the embers of mistrust in God. Now, marshaling both the resources of scripture and common sense, the devil counsels Jesus to take matters into his own hands.
So it is now Jesus must choose the narrative that will shape his life, his ministry, his future.
Jesus is tempted to focus on shoring up his resources out of fear for his comfort or survival. Jesus is tempted to focus on doing something that will make himself a sensation. Jesus is tempted to shape the path before him in a way that will yield clear “success” as commonly conceived. Jesus is tempted to do what will put him at the political, economic, societal center. Yet his response to each temptation is one of absolute trust and dependence on God alone for his allegiance, his identity, his ministry, his future.
We live in a time when most congregations and denominations find themselves well into their “forty days.” We are in that vulnerable place where hunger is sharpest, resources depleted, vision blurred, and identity in doubt. So, beware! This wilderness in which we find ourselves is fraught with temptation and choice.
Can we renounce the temptations and trappings that would lead us on a path, cause us to take on an identity other than that which is given in Christ? Will we renounce the temptation to prioritize turning empty pews into donors? (You need to survive if you’re to do God’s work.) Will we renounce the temptation of an ecclesial makeover for the sake of rendering ourselves current and chic? (You’re more likely to make a difference if you find creative ways to attract people, make church fun, and become “relevant” to the culture.) Will we renounce the temptation to hit upon the right marketing campaign, fiscal discipline, or strategic plan? (To move beyond this crisis and thrive, you must take a “sound business approach” to get things stabilized and under control.)
Can we risk the way of the cross? Are we willing even to die, whatever that may mean, and trust God to do the raising up?
Answering that question, not just with “yes” or “no,” but also in the daily decisions and duties we engage as disciples, will take longer than the days of Lent 2019. But the days of Lent 2019 are as good a time as any to get underway.
The wilderness in which we find ourselves is rife with voices that predict our imminent extinction if we don’t yield to temptations like those I’ve mentioned above. Yet, we need not traverse this time as one of desperate despair. Instead, we can embark upon it as a landscape of great promise and possibility, the threshold to the next wondrous work God is about to perform as we discover anew our identity as an Easter people.
How? Through engagement with the storytelling and practices intrinsic to keeping a holy Lent. Such engagement well serves our quest to become the Story we tell.
So let your preaching this Sunday, and throughout Lent and the Paschal Triduum, imitate and summon to imitation the example of our ancient ancestors in faith who, having possessed the land given to them as an inheritance, professed the narratives that shaped their life, their vocation, their future, and then celebrated by sharing God’s abundance with one another and the aliens in their midst.
Let those of us born into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading tell the stories, share God’s bounty, and prepare to keep the Feast!
Jay Koyle is a presbyter who, after many years’ experience as a parish pastor and university professor, now serves as Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma, and chair of Faith, Worship and Ministry for The Anglican Church of Canada. He is past president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission and is featured regularly as a conference speaker, workshop leader, and consultant across North America.
“Exodus,” by Marcella Doane. Available at https://www.houzz.com/product/24585981-marcella-doane-exodus-oil-painting-contemporary-paintings
“The Temptation of Jesus in the Desert,” by Daniel Bonnell. Available at https://pixels.com/featured/1-the-temptation-of-jesus-in-the-desert-daniel-bonnell.html