Faith United Methodist Church
March 5, 2017
First Sunday of Lent
Rev. Kristabeth Atwood
Scripture: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Mathew 4:1-11
Prayer for Illumination:
Nourish us, O God, with your word of life. Bring us to our senses. Take away our uncertainty and arrogance. Grant that we may hear all you would have us hear, speak what you would have us speak, and live how you would have us live. In the name of Christ. Amen.
My birthday is in a couple of weeks. (As many of you know, I’m not shy about celebrating my birthday. Forty-two, in case you are wondering!) It’s our family tradition to go out to eat for our birthdays and I’ve got my birthday dinner all figured out. First, we’ll go to “A Single Pebble” where I will have the Mock Eel for an appetizer and the Lemon Sesame Shrimp for an entrée. Then we will walk up to Church St. and stop in at “Sweetwaters” for dessert. I will have the flourless Chocolate Torte with Vermont Island mint chocolate chip ice-cream. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. As you can tell, I’ve put a lot of thought into this.
But it is a little ironic that, while I’ve been planning my epic birthday dinner, I’ve also been planning our Lenten Series “Emptying our Plates.” Over the next five weeks we will be considering how we fill our plates too full. We can look at this literally, as in piling on too much food to the detriment of our waistlines and our health. But we can also look at this more figuratively. Perhaps our plates are full with tasks or with fears or with responsibilities. Perhaps are plates are full with opinions or grudges or offenses.
We use the expression, “I’ve got a full plate,” to mean that we are too busy ~ too committed ~ to take in one more thing. Yet, when our plates are so full we risk missing out on the joys and miracles that life can unexpectedly bring. In these weeks leading up to Easter we will follow Jesus to the cross. And, as we do, we will ask how we can empty our plates, even just a little bit, to make room for the miracles God places before us, not least of which is the miracle of Easter morning.
As we begin this Lenten journey our first stop is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. We could consider this Jesus’ first step in self-emptying and determining what, for him, is essential. As the Scripture tells us, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” The wilderness is a place of isolation and denial. There is no mock eel or flourless chocolate cake in the wilderness. Jesus, at his most vulnerable, was met by the devil who tried to seduce him with promises of ease and wealth and power.
No wonder Frederick Buechner said that in the wilderness Jesus was trying to figure out “what it meant to be Jesus.” And maybe this is what Lent can be for us as well. The Season of Lent can offer us the opportunity to look at our lives and assess what is important, what we need to let go, and where we want to focus our limited and mortal energy.
Several years ago ~ twelve years ago, I guess ~ just before my 30th birthday I was on a youth retreat with teenagers from my church. The topic of the retreat was Time. The kids were asked to consider how they spent ~ and wanted to spend their time ~ in light of their goals and their faith. One of the exercises was to take a paper plate and divide it into equal sections based on a 75 year life-span. The teens were asked to consider their goals ~ learn to drive, read the Bible, go to college, get a job, have a family ~ and determine what portion of their time would be taken up with each goal.
Wanting to participate along with the kids, I divided up my plate. As I marked out my goals I realized that I had already done most everything I had set out to do. I’d graduated college and seminary. I was serving a church. I’d married and, through my marriage, had gained a wonderful son. I was on the path I believed God had set out for me.
But looking at my plate, I felt depressed. While I ‘had’ everything I wanted, was this all life had in store for me? It was tempting to think that, having achieved all my goals by 30, I could coast through the rest of life. Yet, after some reflection I realized that there is never a time when growth stops. We continue to face challenges and meet temptations. We set new goals and revise old ones ~ at 18 and 30 and 42 and even beyond that arbitrary 75 year life-span. We can fill our plates and clear them off many times in our lives. We can continue growing until the moment we die. This realization was an epiphany when I was 30 and today, at 42, it feels like a miracle.
So today we follow Jesus into the wilderness to open ourselves, in the words of our Book of Worship, to, “…self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting and self-denial.” It sounds like hard work. While our culture dangles before us the possibility of personal fulfillment and material success and uninhibited happiness, we walk into the wilderness.
And there are temptations in the wilderness. Jesus found that out. Famished, disoriented Jesus didn’t fall prey to the devils seductions. Jesus didn’t turn stones into bread, but instead became himself the bread of life. He didn’t take authority over the kingdoms of the world, but instead became a servant of all. He didn’t throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, but instead accepted death so we all can have life.
So we go into the wilderness because it is tempting to turn the pleasures and conveniences of our lives into necessities. Trying to balance our too-full plates, we forget what makes us who we are. We go into the wilderness to re-examine our priorities and attitudes and what we hold as sacred. As Thomas Merton suggests, “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.” Too little vision. Too little creativity. Too little hope.
And finally, we go into the wilderness because all too often we forget whose we really are. As Nora Gallagher offers, “If, instead of waiting for stones to be changed to bread, we share the food we have; if, rather than waiting for the fantasy job or lover, we engage the people and work of our lives; if, rather than waiting for rescue, we lay down our lives for our friends, then we depart the world of deadly illusion for a living reality.”
This is just the beginning of our Lenten journey. To follow Jesus to the wilderness is to follow him to the cross. And to follow Jesus to the cross is to meet him at the empty tomb. Let us examine ourselves so we will be ready to encounter the miracle of life that awaits us. Let us choose God’s reality over the illusions that we create for ourselves. Let us empty ourselves so we can be filled. Amen.