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Lent 1

Sypher;  Chester, 2/18/2024

“In the middle of the journey of life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.  Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this way, which in my thought renews the fear!”  These words are not by the 30 year old Jesus, but by the 35 year old Dante, who opens his poem The Divine Comedy with them. Dante journeys through Hell, Purgatory, and then arrives at the last in Paradise.  

You might know these words better,

“One morning, she asked her mother if she could go to visit her grandmother as it had been awhile since they'd seen each other.

"That's a good idea," her mother said.  So they packed a nice basket for her to take to her grandmother.

When the basket was ready, the little girl put on her red cloak and kissed her mother goodbye.

"Remember, go straight to Grandma's house," her mother cautioned.  "Don't dawdle along the way and please don't talk to strangers!  The woods are dangerous."

"Don't worry, mommy,"  "I'll be careful."

Well of course she dawdles, disobeys her mother.  And then, worse, talks with a wolf who leads her onward!

Little….is saved in some versions of the fairy tale when the hunter comes to get the wolf who poses as her grandmother.

The wilderness, outside or inside, the woods, the desert figure in so many of our stories about major life changes.  Dante is of an age, 35, when many have so-called “mid-life crises.”  Little Red Riding Hood is growing up and needs to disobey her mother. 

But Jesus?  Does he have to grow?  Do we really need this, the wilderness season of Lent?

The Bible seems to think so.  Moses in Exodus 32 went up to Mt. Sinai for 40 days, which is when he receives the Ten Commandments…. Now Jesus, immediately after his baptism, is driven into the desert for his 40.  Time apart as this time is for us.  What truth will Jesus deliver to us?  This journey into the desert wilderness is so important that it appears in 3 of the four gospels, the only ones that speak of Jesus’ baptism, for it is immediately after his baptism that he is sent forth.

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This certainly is not the festive time of Advent, when the birth is coming.  We’re not decking out our houses and cooking up a storm, surrouinding ourselves with family and friends.  Instead we are hunkering down, maybe even preparing to give something up (though not on Sundays as Marge pointed out a coupe weeks ago).  Easter is at the end of these days, yet, somehow, more gets made of Christmas in our secular, commercial culture (thank God!).  No, these days are, well, sobering.  I told Alan before he left that this was my only funny line in the sermon, “Alan picked a great time to get out of Dodge!”

Lent might be called our wilderness survival course—I read just before church a couple Sundays ago that these are proliferating, as people fear the state of the world.  We, however, have the best survival gear right here so let us use this to strengthen ourselves!

So why is Jesus sent into the desert, alone, without food, shelter, for 40 days?  He is not having a mid-life crisis or rebelling against his parents.  Though he has a rough time of it there, being tempted, I’m not sure he really is.  But whatever, his journey teaches us a lot about our own inner desert, inner wilderness times, times when we feel alone, lost, spiritually hungry, unsheltered, unsure of who we are and so vulnerable to tricksters who promise the world.  Jesus is our guide, poor wayfaring strangers in this world of woe that we are.

 Mark is always compressed.  All Mark says is Jesus is lickedy split driven by the spirit into the wilderness after his baptism. God has just said, behold, this is my beloved son.  My son.  Now he is truly born, and born into glory.  Just as we have been truly born in our baptisms.

But Jesus is given no time to bask in this revelation that he is God’s Son. He has work to do, as do we.  But to do that work he has to show us what we have to give up, and it is not chocolate.   What we have to give up is thinking we are it.  That we are the center of the universe.  We have to understand whose we are, who is in charge, and it is not us. 

Suddenly alone, Satan shows up.  Satan:  now there’s a name we don’t use much here—though the other Christians do.  Satan seems like a character from a horror movie, rather than a real force.  I begin to think it is time to bring him back because his name reminds us of the terrible power of evil and its nearness to us.  It can waylay us suddenly.  I remember being in a room a number years ago with two friends who had been raised Catholic. We were watching The Exorcist.  They were absolutely terrified at the spectre of Satan. I began to think then, so should we be.  We children of the Reformation have become entirely too confident.

 John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost shows us who Satan is.  He was once God’s right-hand angel, Lucifer, and he was full of light.  Then he got restless, aspired to set himself above the others and, worse, as equal the most High. And God’s response? God “hurls him headlong flaming from the ethereal sky…to bottomless perdition.”  On earth Satan roams, looking for company, for conquest, in his desire for revenge.  Adam and Eve are his first.  Jesus, a far bigger prize, is his next target.  We, of course, are always fresh meat.

Mark doesn’t go into detail about the three temptations, do you remember them?  In each Jesus is taunted:   You can do anything, turn stones into bread, fly,  you can be king of the world, king of the hill.  You can control anyone and anything you want.  And no one can get you.

Now I doubt you or I have ever had such grandiose notions.  But we live in the middle of them now, don’t we.  People who are full of   PRIDE. We are witnessing Pride right now, right here, in this country, in all its hideous splendor, pride, the deadliest of the seven sins. Have you heard of these?  Can we name them:  greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.  Pride is at the head of this list.  These behaviors or feelings were once thought, and I think they should still be, the ones that separate us from God the most. (I have my own special ones among them, especially sloth!) 

 Look around at Pride flourishing in our midst.  Billionaires building boats too big to go under a bridge so the bridge has to be taken apart, for one person.   Billionaires building space ships for themselves.  Politicians that want to be God, or who think they are the incarnation of Moses.    I have always thought Shelley’s poem Ozymandias (my husband is sick of me saying this) should be regularly shouted from the rooftops to such people.  I will read this poem at the end of today’s service, but for now, in this poem the mighty king Ozymandias is shown to be dust at the end.  Pride indeed goeth before a fall.  No one is as big as God.  No one.

Just because we are small doesn’t mean though that pride can’t get to us.  People pull our their guns to defend what they see as their front porch.  They shoot people because their football team didn’t win. Kids bully other kids because they want to be king of the hill.   Ordinary people behind locked doors, undoubtedly right here, abuse each other and their animals, thinking they are in charge.  Pride is everywhere.  I am right now just in the middle of trying to discern my own, a hard thing for any of us to do, which is what we all should be doing in Lent, discerning and saying NO to it as Jesus does.

Jesus says No. No. Neither hunger, nor uncertainty, nor feeling lost will make me turn away from God, for it is God alone whom I live by.  And Jesus does this from now on, throughout his public ministry which is the story of Lent.  Not my will, but thine. 

I wish us all a Lent pure and holy, full of humility, of self-emptying, of quiet reflection on our own wrong turns, of loving action to others, of listening for the word and will of God, so that we may be prepared to follow Jesus in his ministry in our own days.  Let this Lent be a clearing out, a cleansing time.  A time to say no to anything, anything that separates us from God.

We do not go alone into this wilderness time.  The wolves are taken care of. We have each other.  And above all, our beloved Jesus accompanies us.

Beloved children of God,

Amen

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697

 

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