Holiday Feasting – Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Some of you may be clever enough to realize, if you count the days until Easter from today, there are less than forty days. And yet we speak of Lent as a season of forty days before Easter. What gives? Well, the long and short of that is that we don’t technically count the Sundays in Lent as part of Lent…They aren’t “of Lent,” but rather are “in Lent.” Sunday, the Lord’s Day, has long been considered the chief day of the church’s life together—the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the day when we remember his victory over death. That is, after all, why we come together each week on Sunday to worship. Unlike Jews who still keep Saturday as their Sabbath, we Christians understand Sunday, the first day of the new week, to be the day when God begins the work of new creation in Jesus. And so this is our day of worship.

But what of the forty days of Lent? Well, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which happened earlier this week, and if you count the days leading up to today from Wednesday, you will see that you have forty days if you don’t count today and the remaining Sundays. It’s for this reason that some folks believe they can suspend their Lenten fasting on Sundays in Lent. The Sundays don’t “count.” If you’re suspending your fast from chocolate on Sundays in Lent, however, just so you can have a break and have a “cheat day,” instead of using your indulgence of chocolate on Sundays in Lent as an occasion for rejoicing in God’s gift of victory over sin, death, and the devil, then I’m afraid you’re missing the point. But whatever the case, these forty days, from Ash Wednesday to Easter, are a time of fasting for us—a time to reflect, to contemplate, and reconsider what our relationship with God, with each other, and with all creation is actually about. What is God doing for us? What difference all this make? How does it affect us today? That’s what the Lenten fast is about—getting back to the basics of our life with God, each other, and the world God made. As we go forward today, think about fasting in that way.

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Holidays—times when we get together with family and friends to celebrate. And what do we do? If you’re anything like me, you eat. Holidays are an occasion, or an excuse, to eat. And how! Maybe a better way of saying is that holidays are an excuse to feast. We get together to eat for Memorial Day. We get together to eat for Independence Day. We get together to eat for Labor Day. We get together to eat for Christmas. We get together to eat for New Year’s Eve. If you’re in New England and the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, you get together to eat for that. In the United States, we have a whole holiday dedicated to feasting. The last Thursday of November, Thanksgiving, is dedicated to…eating. We remember the folkloric “First Thanksgiving” by getting together to feast on turkey, mashed potatoes, butternut squash, different casseroles, and pies of all sorts and varieties. Holidays are an occasion to eat.

The reason that holidays are days for feasting is because, historically, holidays fell at the end of a fasting period, a time of moderation and denial. These times of fasting were set forth by the church as spiritual disciplines to prepare the faithful for the celebration of the feast day that came at the end of the fast. These feast days, the days when the fast ended, or broke, were called holy days. Over time, that got shortened to “holiday.” And so a holiday is, most strictly speaking, a holy day—and the feast day was the day the fast ended and that day itself was called a holy day, or a holiday.

The feast day of Christmas, the holy day of Jesus’ birth, is preceded by the fasting season of Advent. The feast day of Easter, the holy day of Christ’s resurrection, is preceded by the fasting season of Lent, which we find ourselves in now. This time of Lent and the fasting that we do during this time is meant to prepare us for the celebration of the Easter feast—Jesus’ triumph over death to life again and the promise that his victory is our victory as well. During this season of Lent, we use this time to prepare ourselves for the feast of Easter—a feast, that on Easter morning, the prophet Isaiah will remind us, is a feast of “fat things, a feast with vintage wines, a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts.” The feast of Easter is the biggest and best feast day—the finest holy day, the holiday of holidays. And like any other holiday, Easter is an occasion to eat.

During this season of Lent, we are looking at the five acts of discipleship. This first week, we are looking at the act of worship. In today’s gospel, Jesus finds himself in the wilderness with the devil, and the devil tempts him in various ways. Jesus counters him, turning down the temptation and demonstrating his supremacy over the devil’s cunning.

Today, as we heard in the gospel text, the devil first tempts Jesus by telling him to turn stones to bread. Jesus response? “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Luke’s gospel doesn’t include the additional provision that Matthew does, who tells us that we don’t live by bread alone—that is by the food in our bellies—“but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus is saying that it takes more than food to stay alive. Perhaps, we might say, Jesus is saying it takes more than food to live, to have abundant life. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth for a fully, wholly, and truly satisfying life.

But the devil doesn’t stop. He tries another approach. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and tells Jesus if he would but fall down and worship him, he’ll hand over the authority over the world to Jesus. Now—we can get bogged down in what it means that the devil promises Jesus authority to rule over the world, but suffice it to say for our purposes today that when the Prince of Lies speaks, he’s speaking in, well, lies. Authority over the world might be his to give, or it might not, but either way, he’s a deceitful conniver who only seeks to puff himself up. What better way than to lure the Prince of Peace, God himself, to fall down and worship him? Then his first rebellion—“to ascend to the tops of the clouds and make himself like the Most High,” as the prophet Isaiah tells us—then would his rebellion finally realize its goal. But Jesus? How does he respond? “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus knows the tricks of the devil, and he won’t fall for it. Life isn’t sustained by material things alone, and worship is centered on God, and on God alone. Our devotion is to him alone.

But what does this have to do with us today? What does this matter? And what does it have to do with eating, with feasting? What does it have to do with holidays? This time that Jesus spends in the wilderness contending with the devil’s temptations we’re told is forty days—the same length as our Lenten fasting before Easter. Each year, we read the story of Jesus time in the wilderness on the first Sunday in Lent. We remember how his time in the wilderness of denial and testing foreshadows our own time of fasting—of denial and testing. And we take this time in Lent to intentionally reflect on that.

This time of Lent is meant for us to recenter ourselves on our lives of faith, to recenter ourselves on our relationship with God. The best way to do that is to peel away all the extras and get down to the nitty gritty, to look at what is most important. And what’s most important? For us, in relationship with God, our lives center on God—on his sustenance, on his promise. We aren’t kept going in our relationship with God by all the things we do, but by what God does for us. We are kept going by God’s promise to never abandon us, to be with us. God promises us that for us who love him, all things work together for good—even when we might not understand everything. God is busy and active in our lives, working life from death. God’s promise is what sees us through our difficulties, our hardships, our worries, and our fears.

Anything and everything can swoop into our lives, like the devil swooping in on Jesus in the desert, and assault us from different angles. How will we pay the bills this month? What if there’s a new variant of COVID? What will the biopsy results say? Will I find a job that supports me and my family? These things can overtake us, overcome us—and we feel lost, overpowered, defeated. But God promises us that nothing can separate us from his love. When we reprioritize our lives, recenter ourselves, not on the cares and concerns of this life alone, but on the bigger picture, the bigger picture of God’s grand design for everlasting life, which includes you and me, then we see things in a wholly different light. We see things in a holy light…We see it in the light of God’s Word—the Word made flesh who lives among us. And we come to life. That is to say, we aren’t merely living, but we have life and have it abundantly.

That promise is the cause for our worship. The most important thing we do as Christians is come together to worship—we confess it when we say we believe “in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” We confess, we make a public statement that we believe the church is where God shows up among us and renews the promise of his love for us. In worship, God feeds us, not with bread alone, not only with material things, but with his the Word of Life, with Jesus himself. The center of our life together as Christians is our worship, and the center of our worship is the crucified and risen Jesus—the one who gave himself of us.
When we gather for worship on Sunday morning, we take part in the great Easter feast that will never end.

Worship is a time when God’s promise becomes real for us, as real as bread and wine on a table. We hear again and again, each week, and every time that we worship, how God loves us—so much to give everything up, even his very own life, to be in relationship with us, to live life with us beyond the mere material world, but in a world as God first envisioned it. In our worship, God tears down the barriers that divide us from full and abundant life with him, with one another, and with all creation, and for a time, in our own lives, unites us and heaven in the glorious feast that knows no ending. In worship, when we center ourselves on God alone, we are reshaped, reformed, and reawakened to the life God wants for us and for the world. Wherever and whenever worship happens, wherever and whenever our devotion is directed at God and God’s promise of relationship with us takes central place—there a holy day springs forth. There we have a true holiday, a time for praising, for celebrating, and for feasting.

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”—these words guide us in our lives of discipleship, and they are a strong, sturdy bedrock for our faith, for our relationship with God. They support us because in them we have wrapped up the promise of God’s presence in our lives, a promise to come to us and be with us, such that even all life’s troubles, not even death itself, can stand in the way. In worship, God opens our eyes, and we see our lives in a new, holy light—the light of Jesus. We come to more fully and truly understand God’s love for us, so that we can embody that same love in our own lives, fed and nourished, not only on things of this world but on every word that precedes from God.

Worship is a holiday for us, a time to praise, celebrate, and feast—to feast upon the promise of God made real for us in ways that can only be experienced to be truly believed. We are fed and nourished, to feed and nourish others as we have so been fed and nourished. And from worship, God sends us forth, blessed to be a blessing. And so let us take this holiday, this holy day, to worship the Lord our God, to feast on his Word, and serve only him.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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