Today is technically the first Sunday in Lent. I say “technically” because, in many ways, we’ve been living Lent since last March, haven’t we? We’ve given up so much. Dining in restaurants, meeting for worship, singing together, hugging each other. We could probably spend all day listing all the things we’ve given up during the pandemic.
In truth, Lent seems redundant this year. We’ve already given up so much; and now we’re expected to give up even more?
There is one big difference between giving things up for the pandemic and giving things up for Lent. That difference is choice. During Lent, we choose what we will give up. We do it as a way to clear things out of our lives so we can live our lives with greater authenticity. By stripping away some of the clutter in our lives, we’re able to focus more clearly on what we are called to do, even who we are called to be.
Our Lenten journey begins this year where it always begins–with Jesus in the wilderness. He’s just been baptized. As he rises up out of the water, a dove descends and a voice proclaims, “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”
Wow. What a profound experience! You’d think they’d’ve thrown a party or something… or sent Jesus on his way to start preaching and teaching.
But that’s not what happens, is it? No. “Immediately the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remains there for forty days and is tempted by the Evil One.” What is that about? Why this extended sojourn in the wilderness? Why not just send Jesus out to preach?
We’ve got a lot of hikers and RV-ers in our congregation. What happens when you go out into the wilderness, especially by yourself? Or if not literally into the wilderness, what happens when you strip away the noise and busyness of your life and simply sink into quietness? (One person recently told me they’ve been fasting from the news.) When the familiar things of our lives are stripped away, we’re better able to reconnect with ourselves, aren’t we? We gain a clearer understanding of who we are. We get clearer about the work to which we’re called.
You know what I wish? I wish Jesus had kept a journal during his 40 days in the wilderness. Wouldn’t you love to know what he was thinking and feeling out there for all that time with no food, with all kinds of temptations happening, with “the wild beasts?” I wonder how many times he replayed his baptism in his mind. How many times did he recall those words: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests?” What meaning did that experience, those words come to have as Jesus sat with them, contemplating, reflecting?
When did his thoughts begin to turn to the work he was being called to do? Yes. God had blessed Jesus, had called him beloved and said God’s favor rested on him. But what would Jesus’ response to that blessing be? How would he live God’s blessing in the world?
At what point did Jesus begin thinking of all the injustices he’d seen all around him? Of all the people living in poverty who were being exploited? Of all the people not part of the majority group who faced discrimination and oppression? Of the ways women, children, and the disabled were ostracized and mistreated? Of the ways in which the religious leaders were actively participating in these injustices?
At what point did Jesus’ memories of his baptism, of God’s declaration of love for him begin intertwining with his thoughts of the injustices he’d seen, the suffering of the least of these? At what point did his calling click? At what point did Jesus know with unwavering certainty that–as God’s beloved–he was called to teach and preach God’s love to all the people…and that doing that work authentically also meant speaking truth to power?
At what point did Jesus get a glimpse of what his preaching might lead to? At some point in his wilderness contemplation, did an image of a cross float into his consciousness? I ask that because, before too long, Jesus will begin extending the invitation to his disciples and others to “Take up your cross and follow me.” In his wilderness sojourn, did Jesus realize that living his calling could lead to his death?
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s entrance into the Civil Rights movement was, at the beginning, a gradual thing. He was pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. That was his calling, he thought. That was the work he wanted to do.
But, beginning with the bus boycott in 1955-56, Martin started getting drawn into the movement. He preached justice for Black people in Montgomery and the rest of the country.
As his notoriety spread, as his calls for justice began reaching out, the hateful phone calls began. Once, around midnight, the phone rang. Martin answered. “When [he] lifted the receiver, a drawl released a torrent of obscenities and then the death threat: “Listen…we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” By this point, Martin was receiving 30 – 40 menacing phone calls a day. Somehow, though, this one got to him. Fear overcame him. His confidence wavered. He was ready to give up.
Unable to sleep, Martin went to the kitchen and fixed a cup of coffee, sat down at the table and reflected. As he thought about his wife, Coretta, and their firstborn child asleep in her crib, it hit him for the first time just how serious the situation had become. “His family could be taken away from him any minute, or more likely he from them.” With sudden clarity, Martin realized that preaching truth to power as he was, could get him killed.
There at the kitchen table, Martin confessed his fear to God. He acknowledged that he couldn’t go any further.
Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Martin, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” Then, as Martin told it, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
Author Charles Marsh writes, “As the voice washed over the stains of the wretched caller, King reached a spiritual shore byond fear and apprehension. “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced it before,” Martin said. “Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
A kitchen table isn’t exactly a wilderness, and Martin didn’t sit there for 40 days, but as Martin himself described the experience, it sounds like his sojourn at the kitchen table served a similar purpose to Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness. Both got reassurance of God’s presence with them, they made a connection between God’s love for them and the work that lay before them, they were tempted to abandon the work to which they’d been called, and they got clear about what was at stake in the work to which they’d been called. They both got clear that engaging in their callings could lead to their deaths. They both got clear, as Martin would later say, that we “really don’t know why we are alive until we know what we’d die for.”
What are you living for? To what new thing is God calling you? How will you respond to God’s love for and blessing of you? How will you, personally, live God’s love in the world? If you can answer those questions quickly and clearly, good news! You get a free pass on Lent this year.
If, however, you aren’t sure of the answers to the questions, if you’re still wondering about to what work God might be calling you, and especially if you’re tempted to abandon the life of faith, to leave the cross where it is and go on your merry way, if you’re needing clarity for your spiritual life, good news! It’s Lent! Join Jesus in the wilderness and find clarity and meaning and purpose. Join Martin at the kitchen table and find courage and assurance of God’s presence. Join with the rest of us in our Lenten journeys as we wake up together to the work to which God is calling us now.
Good news! It’s Lent! Thanks be to God!
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2021