At the end of today’s gospel account, Jesus says, “repent, and believe in the good news.” Of course, the good news that he’s referring to is that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. But before believing this good news, Jesus tells people to “repent.” Lent is a time that we use to repent—to alter, to change, literally, to turn around. This repentance is about reorienting our lives to the most important things. That’s why baptism is so central to this season, and historically the church has seen Lent as a time of preparation for baptism. Baptism is the real sign of God’s promise to change our lives in Christ—to literally put us to death with Jesus and raise us up again to newness of life.
That in and of itself is a repentance—an upending of the way things normally work, and a change of direction. But Lent is also a time for us to consider what the baptized life is like. What does it mean to repent? What does it mean to have our lives turned upside completely as disciples of Jesus? What does it mean to live a life that is in the world but not of the world? We consider these things as we journey through Lent, and in considering them, we grow in understanding of our relationship with God in Jesus. Because ultimately, it’s this relationship that brings about in our lives repentance—a complete change that sets us on a new path for life—the way of truth and life. And so, as we go into the sermon today, I once again call you to repentance—to reconsidering what it means to call yourself a disciple of Jesus. What does that matter in your day-to-day life? Does it matter?
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
In third grade, I did a report of Harry S Truman—the 33rd President of the United States. I had always had a fascination with Truman, even at a young age. He was a bit of a hero for me. Don’t ask me why. He just was. Something that I learned about Truman was that when he was ten years old, he contracted diphtheria, an infection that affects the whole body. Diphtheria can cause serious problems—like pneumonia, different forms of paralysis, because of poisoning in the nerve cells, encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, problems with the kidneys, inflammation of the heart, which can ultimately lead to death. It’s no small matter, diphtheria, and one of the long-lasting effects of diphtheria are eye problems, in particular, farsightedness. Diphtheria can paralyze the ciliary muscle, the muscle that allows the eye to focus close in.
Not only did young Truman have diphtheria that affected his eyesight, but he was diagnosed with a rare eye problem early as a child. He had what are called “flat eyeballs.” He started wearing thick glasses—think Coke bottle glasses—beginning at the age of eight. This was once his mother noticed he was able to see the large print in the family Bible, but couldn’t to see things far away.
Together, his congenital farsightedness and the diphtheria attack made Truman’s vision especially bad. But he didn’t let his eye problem stop him, though. He was voracious reader, rumored to have read ever book in the public library of Independence, Missouri, his hometown already as a child. He was also a skilled piano player—something he needed his eyesight for to get much further along in other than mere improvisation. He wasn’t going to let an eye problem stop him.
When he was older, Truman wanted to attend West Point, but he was turned down because of poor eyesight. So instead, he enlisted in the Missouri National Guard in 1905, where he rose the rank of corporal. Before he joined the National Guard, he failed the eyesight test. His eyesight without glasses was 20/50 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left. Together, this was past the legal standard for blindness. Undeterred, Truman took the test again, and the second time he passed by secretly memorizing the eye chart. He didn’t let an eye problem stop him…
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which he heard from Mark’s gospel this morning, is always the gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent—no matter which gospel we read it from. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story, with different details. Mark’s account is the leanest when it comes to details, but it still has some good stuff for us to look at. Whichever account we consider, this story is held up for us as paradigmatic, as a model for our own Lenten journey toward Easter. As Jesus was in the wilderness, tempted by Satan, for forty days, so too we go through a period of forty days of penance before celebrating Easter—the greatest feast of the Christian calendar. The penance that is often held up, again because Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is paradigmatic for us, is the penance of fasting. A popular way to observe Lent down through the ages has been “giving up something for Lent,” in reflection of Jesus’ fast in the wilderness. But what’s this fasting all about?
In its own right, fasting is a good thing. Fasting is some sort of abstention or abstinence from food or drink. Sometimes we fast before bloodwork because it cleans out our system so the lab can get a clear reading. Or we might eat little before we have to do something that will take a lot of physical energy. We, in a sense, fast so that we don’t get sick from the exertion.
The fasting that we do during Lent is meant to purge, or cleanse us of sin—the whole summation of those things that rob us of the fullness of life that God first envisioned for us and all creation. Lenten fasting is supposed to provide us an opportunity to refocus ourselves on what’s most important—our relationship with God, our relationship with one another, and our relationship with all of creation—from all the things in our life that distract us. Our Lenten fasting is supposed to provide us an chance to slow down and intentionally consider that less is more. Life can quickly fill up with all sorts of things that take us in fifty million directions, so that we don’t have time to take care of the things that matter the most—that is, our relationship with God, our relationship with one another, and our relationship with all of creation.
When we “give up something for Lent,” we’re meant to take something on in its place that will help us refocus us on these things. Lenten fasting, like any fasting really, is meant to purify…Lenten fasting is supposed to help us purify our lives as disciples of Christ—to refocus our vision on what matters most instead of those things that catch our attention in our peripheral vision. That’s why on Ash Wednesday, the prophet Isaiah called us to fasting, but he also challenged the traditional notion of fasting.
Isaiah calls us to fasting that mirrors the goodness and mercy God shows toward us. “Is not this the fast that I choose,” says Isaiah, speaking the Word of the Lord, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” The fast that God seeks for us is a fast that leads us to shalom, to peace between us and God, between one another, and between us and all creation.
This is all well and good, really, but there’s a problem. The problem with Lenten fasting for many is that it gets caught up in the fasting itself—as an ends in and of itself. Back to that question—“What are you giving up for Lent?” People might have an immediate answer for that. “I’m giving up wine for Lent.” Or sometimes they’ll preemptively tell you before Lent begins—“I don’t know what I’m going to give up for Lent.” But did you notice how both of those statements began? They began with the word I. Too often Lenten fasting suffers from an I-problem. We’ve lost sight of what the fasting is about, what it’s for, what purpose it serves. Fasting in Lent is not about showing how strong I am, how I’m able to contend against temptation not to give in. The fasting isn’t about me. At least, it’s not just about me. The fasting we do in Lent is about our relationships…
In the wilderness, Jesus isn’t alone. He’s attended to by angels, by messengers of God. In our lives, we have many messengers of God who attend to us—right on up to the Holy Spirit, who comes into our lives and impels us forward. The Holy Spirit drives us out there, along paths which we can’t necessarily see the ending, and we’re led not so much by our own sight, but by the wisdom and vision of God.
In our lives of discipleship, the Holy Spirit doesn’t call us to live alone, but rather to rely on each other in our journeys of faith—attending to each other as messengers, opening each other’s eyes so that we don’t suffer from I-problems but instead look through different lenses, lenses that focus not on ourselves but on our relationships with each other. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” Jesus says in Matthew 25, we will ask, “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” And the Jesus will answer us, “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” The fasting we do trains us to look at our lives as Jesus’ disciples not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others—in reflection of Christ’s own life given up, not for his own sake, but for our sake.
Our Lenten fast helps correct our vision to see our lives refocused in Christ, trained on the things that matter most—our relationship with God, our relationship with one another, and our relationship with all of creation. Lenten fasting fixes our I-problem so that we see a wee more clearing what God is doing in, with, and through Jesus, not just for us individually, but for us collectively. Lenten fasting helps us see that salvation is less about me and more about us—all of us, from the tiniest creature in the deepest depths of the sea to God himself enthroned at the very highest heights of heaven. Lenten fasting helps us see the big picture and our own place within that. Lenten fasting helps us see clearly—to see that God calls us to undertakings of which although we can’t see the ending, by paths yet unenvisioned, through perils unforeseen, he is still here, in relationship with us, his hand leading us, in, with, and through the words and deeds of those who accompany us along the way as fellow disciples of Jesus. And sometimes along that way we’re the messengers for others who we see on the same journey.
And Lenten fasting helps us see that God himself is always and forever with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s very own presence poured into us at baptism that enlightens our eyes to things we could never have imagined. When things of peripheral importance stop clouding our vision, we begin to see God in the most surprising places, in places we least expect. Our fasting in Lent is about realizing more fundamentally that when it comes to helping us see his love for us in Jesus, God isn’t going to let some sin-induced I-problem stop him. You, me, all creation, God—we are in this together. Can you see it now?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.