First Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXT: Luke 4:1-13
“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Those are the first words out of the devil’s mouth, in today’s gospel lesson. And all the temptations that Luke tells us about were like that—during his 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus had to face some tough questions about himself.
What was he supposed to do with the powers he possessed? Was he to prove himself? Should he conjure up bread—like manna in the wilderness? Should he test God to look after him? Why not? The devil asks him that, quoting Psalm 91’s promise to the Messiah:
“For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:11-12)
But of course, Jesus knew that it was part of the Mosaic law not to test God (Deut. 6:16). That was something the people of Israel had learned in the desert (Psalm 95:8-11).
In a brilliant reflection on this text, Barbara Brown Taylor—who is one of the best preachers around today—writes about Jesus’ ordeal in the desert, and how he passed his test with flying colours:
“Since you’ve already heard about a million sermons on what Jesus and the devil said to each other, I thought I’d skip that part today, especially since neither of us is likely to be put to the exact same test. When it’s our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We’re going to get the regular old Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won’t need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to turn our heads.” *
Barbara Brown Taylor is quite correct: you and I are not going to get the “Son of God test.” And thank heaven for that! But you know, we are going to get a test, if we say we’re serious about this discipleship thing. Maybe we’ll get it during Lent this year. Maybe not. Maybe it won’t happen like that. Maybe it won’t last 40 days. Maybe it’ll be less … maybe it’ll be more!
Our wilderness probably won’t look like the Judean desert. Maybe it’ll look like a hospital room. Or the face of someone we’ve hurt, with eyes that ask us, “Why?”
As Barbara Brown Taylor also said, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.”
But whatever your “wilderness test” is going to look like—and whenever you’re going to find yourself taking it—Lent is a great opportunity to cram for the examination!
The Lenten season, traditionally, is not just about starving yourself or temporarily giving up chocolate. It is a time when those who are serious about Christian discipleship are invited to undertake some kind of serious spiritual discipline—the sort of thing that will make us ask hard questions … Like: What are we going to do with the powers—the gifts, the talents, the blessings—that we have been given? Or: How can I become the kind of person God wants me to be? How can I discover God’s purpose for my life?
If you care about questions like that, I have a suggestion for you. Once upon a time, someone asked me what kind of “spiritual discipline” I would recommend for Lent. That kind of surprised me—because people almost never ask me questions like that. Usually, the questions I get asked are more like: “Why do I have to fill out a pledge card?” Or: “What’s the bare minimum I can get away with doing, in order to satisfy God that I’m a good person?”
But, what kind of spiritual discipline would I recommend? Wow. The person who asked that question had obviously noticed that “discipline” is the root word of “discipleship.” The person who asks a question like that is ready to move up in the school of Christ—up beyond kindergarten! And that’s something—because very, very few of us seem ever to want to do that.
So, today—just in case some others of you are eyeing the first grade, and wondering whether you’ve got the right stuff—I’m going to give you my recommendation. I’m going to describe to you a very simple spiritual exercise. This is something any one of you can do at home, and it will cost you almost nothing (in terms of money, anyway). It’s called a “spiritual inventory”—and all you need is a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Or a crayon.
I recommend doing this at the end of the day—and then reviewing it in the morning. You begin by drawing a cross on your piece of paper—so you have two columns on the page. Label one column, “positive.” Label the other one, “negative.” (Or “good” and “bad,” if you like.)
Then look back over the previous 24 hours.
In the “positive” column, list all the things you can think of that have been good about the day: things that went right; temptations you resisted; problems you overcame—stuff that makes you smile when you think about it.
In the “negative” column, list all the stuff that does not make you smile: problems and temptations that overcame you; untruths you told—or truths you should have told, but didn’t; people you hurt, or treated unfairly … you get the picture!
And then, underneath the columns—beneath the cross—make a space to write “actions.” Here, you need to explain what you’re going to do about the stuff at the top of the page.
Are there blessings you need to celebrate somehow? Bow your head right away, and say “thank you” to God. And make sure you tell somebody about how good the Lord has been to you. Write down some musings about how you might go about “paying forward” the blessing you’ve received, by doing good for someone else.
And then, there’s the tough stuff …
Do you have amends to make? A lie to own up to? Someone to whom you owe an apology? Is there a debt it is now time to repay? Is there something that’s been eating away at your conscience—not just over the past 24 hours, but for days and weeks and months and years? Maybe now is the time to finally decide to face the problem, and resolve it.
Remember how I said this was a simple exercise? I never said it was easy—I just said it was simple. It’s funny, isn’t it, how many things in life are like that—especially the stuff that’s really worth doing. So if you decide to undertake this Lenten exercise—this “spiritual challenge”—I would counsel you to begin, always, with prayer. Ask God to help you face your demons—to guide you and keep you honest as you examine your heart and prepare your inventory. Do that every night, before you set pen to paper.
Then, in the morning, before you sit down to read what you’ve written the previous evening, pray again. Ask God to give you the diligence and the courage to carry out your “to do” list—both the “celebrating” part and the “making amends” part.
Do I really recommend you undertake this spiritual exercise? Yes! Yes, I absolutely do. I don’t recommend that you show your list to anybody else—because it’s a lot easier to be completely honest if you keep it private. But yes, I commend this little bit of wilderness-type reflection to you through Lent. I recommend you start right away—tonight, or tomorrow night. And I recommend you keep it up every day from now until at least the end of the Lenten season.
Why? Because if you make this inventory once or twice … well, it’ll open your eyes to some things. But if you make your inventory every day for the next month—and especially if you then act upon what you learn about yourself—I promise you: it will change your life!
And that’s what Lent is supposed to be about, isn’t it?
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Gracious God, as I review my day, I come before you in prayer. Grant me the willingness to see what you would have me see, in the light you would have me see it. Liberate me from morbid reflection, fear, obsessive guilt and dishonesty. I am in the dark, blind to my own selfishness and greed. I do not see my pride and defensiveness. I am anxious, but I deny even my anxiety. Reveal to me the error of my ways. Show me where I need to change. Show me where you would correct me and heal me. Help me to take inventory, leading me in the way of Jesus. Amen.