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First Sunday of Lent

Luke 4:1-13

February 14, 2016

Year C

Lent 1

Do not bother looking for Lent in your Bible dictionary because there was no such thing back then. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted forty hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending forty days in prayer and self-denial did not arise until later. It came along when the original rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten rather ho-hum about their faith.

When the world did not end as Jesus himself is thought to have said it would, his followers stopped expecting so much from God, or from themselves. Things had changed and so the followers of the Christian movement changed too. They stopped seeking justice for the marginalised; they stopped being so public about what they believed. Instead, they hung a wooden cross on the wall and settled back into their more or less comfortable routines, remembering their once passionate devotion to God, the way they remembered the other enthusiasms of their youth. Oh, to be young again and to believe everything is possible.

Little by little, Christians became devoted to their comforts: the soft couch, the flannel sheets, the leg of lamb roasted with rosemary. These things made them feel safe and cared for – if not by God, then by themselves. They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was very hard to pick them out from the population at large. They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another. They did not get arrested for advocating for the poor. They blended in. They avoided extremes. They decided to be nice instead of being holy and God moaned out loud.

Hearing that, someone suggested it was time to call Christians back to their senses and the Bible offered some clues about how to do that. Israel had spent forty years in the wilderness learning to trust the spirit. Elijah spent forty years in the wilderness before hearing the still small voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent forty days listening to God hand over the law. Of course there is Luke’s story about Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness – a period of preparation between his baptism and his ministry during which he was sorely tested by the devil. It was hard. It was awful. It was necessary, if only for the story. Those of us who believe it, understand that it is humanly possible to remain loyal to the work Jesus called us to do.

So, the church announced a season of Lent, from the old English word
Lenten meaning “spring,” so not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime for the soul. Forty days to cleanse the system and to open eyes to what remains when all the comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live in creation with only what we know from deep within.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker theologian from Pennsylvania, teacher at Berkley, tells this story. He starts by saying:
here is a story from my life about why one might want to take the inner journey. In my early forties, I decided to go to the program called Outward Bound. I was on the edge of my first depression, a fact I knew only dimly at the time, and I thought Outward Bound might be a place to shake up my life and I could learn some things I needed to know.

I chose the weekend course at
Hurricane Island, off the coast of Maine. I should have known by the name what was in store for me; next time I will sign up for a course at Happy Gardens or Pleasant Valley! Though it was a week of great teaching, deep community, and genuine growth, it was also a week of fear and loathing.

In the middle of the week, I faced the challenge I feared most. One of our instructors backed me up to the edge of a cliff above solid ground. He tied a very thin rope to my waist – a rope that looked ill kempt to me and seemed to be starting to unravel – and told me to start “rappelling” down that cliff.

“Do what”? I said.

“Just go!” the instructor explained, in typical Outward Bound fashion.

So I went – and immediately slammed into a ledge, some four feet down from the edge of the cliff, with bone-jarring, brain-jarring force. The instructor looked down at me: “I don’t think you’ve quite got it.”

“Right,” said I, being in no position to disagree. “So what am I suppose to do?”

“The only way to do this,” he said, “is to lean back as far as you can. You have to get your body at right angles to the cliff so that your weight will be off your feet. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s the only way that works.”

I knew that he was wrong of course. I knew that the trick was to hug the mountain, to stay as close to the rock face as I could. So, I tried it again, my way – and slammed into the next ledge, another four feet down.

“You still don’t have it,” the instructor said helpfully.

“Okay,” I said, “tell me again what I am supposed to do.”

“Lean way back,” he said, “and take the next step.”

The next step was a very big one. But, I took it – and wonder of wonders, it worked. I leaned back into empty space, eyes fixed on the heavens in prayer, made tiny moves with my feet, and started descending down the rock face, gaining confidence with every step.

Then the instructor called again, “Parker, I think you’d better stop and see what’s just below your feet.”

Below me was a deep hole in the face of the rock. To get down, I would have to go around the hole. The instructor left me hanging there, trembling, in silence, for what seemed like a very long time.

Finally, he shouted, “Parker, is anything wrong?”

I don’t know where the words came from but in a small voice I said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Then,” said the teacher, “its time that you learned the Outward Bound motto.”

“Oh keen,” I thought. “I’m about to die and he’s going to give me a motto!”

But then he shouted ten words I hope never to forget, words whose impact and meaning I can still feel:
“If you can’t get out of it, get into it!”

I had long believed in the concept of, “the word became flesh,” but until that moment I had not experienced it. But that day I heard them – they went straight into my legs and feet. I knew no helicopter would rescue me, the instructor would not pull me back up the cliff, and there was no parachute in my pack to float me to the ground.

There was no way out of this dilemma except to get into it – so my feet started to move, and in a few minutes I was safely down. Why did I do this? Because there is no way out of one’s inner life, so one had better get into it. On the inward and downward spiritual journey, the only way out is in and through.

This is a story that is meant to assist us in understanding that we are not in control of life. We sometimes place ourselves in the hands of strangers who ask us to do foolhardy things, like walk backwards over a mountain edge with nothing but a rope around our waist or climb a sheer rock face with our fingers and toes. These are the sorts of opportunities that help us to find out who we are. This is also when we find out what we really miss and what we really fear. When we find ourselves in the sort of spot Parker found himself in, we imagine all sorts of things: Some dream of the great meal at the end of it all. I imagine the best movies I have seen, or the greatest novels I have read. But we all find out what it is that soothes us – we find out what habits, substances, or surroundings we use to comfort ourselves, to block out the pain and fear that are normal parts of being human.

Without those things we are suddenly exposed, like someone addicted to painkillers whose prescription has just run out. It is hard. It is awful. It is necessary to encounter the world without anesthesia, to find out what life is like with no comfort, but how we understand our inner selves and how that is connected to the Holy, or to the Spirit, or to God. I am convinced that 99% of us are addicted to something, whether it is eating, shopping, blaming, or taking care of other people. The simplest definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that rightfully belongs to the Holy.

That hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the Holy Spirit inside of us, the uncluttered room of wisdom. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that does not stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we stick our pacifiers into our mouths and suck for all we are worth.

They do not nourish us but at least they take up the space. To enter the wilderness is to leave something behind and nothing is too small to give up. Even a chocolate bar will do.

For forty days, simply pay attention to how often your mind travels in that direction. Ask yourself why it happens when it happens. What is going on when you start craving whatever it is that you gave up? Are you hungry? Well, what is wrong with being hungry? Are you lonely? Well, what is so bad about being lonely? Try sitting with the feeling instead of fixing it and see what you find out. Chances are you will hear a voice in your head that keeps warning you what will happen if you give up your pacifier. You will starve, you will go nuts and you won’t be you anymore.

If that first argument doesn’t work, move to level two: It goes something like this: That’s not a pacifier, that’s a power tool. That is something that gives me energy and makes me feel good. I need it to do good work. Can’t you tell the difference? If you do not fall for that one, there is always level three: If God really loves you, you can do whatever you want. Why waste your time on this dumb exercise?

If you do not know who that voice belongs to, read Luke’s story again. Then tell the voice to get lost and decide what you will do for Lent.

Expect great things from what you know to be true. Believe that everything is possible. Why should any of us settle for less?
Sharon Ferguson-Hood
Preaching Resource: Barbara Brown-Taylor
Story is from:
Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer