You’re going the wrong way – Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, on Matthew 4:1-11

Lent can be a dour time. It shouldn’t be. It’s a time of reflection, but it’s not supposed to be a time of self-flagellation or self-deprecation. Sometimes people confuse reflection and honesty with guilt and loathing. That’s not the point at all. Lent is a time for us to be honest, sometimes brutally honest, about what our life is like. But it’s not about making ourselves feel bad. If, upon reflection, we do feel bad, that badness shouldn’t be cause for us to wallow, but cause for us to consider why it is that we feel bad, and if there’s something that can be done to change that badness to good. Too often the bad feelings of Lent stop right there, at the badness, as if that’s the point. The point of Lent isn’t to feel bad about yourself, to make an idol of your wretchedness, but to accept that it’s a part of your life and to seek out ways to embrace something different—a change, if you will. Lent is a time to return to the goodness of God’s creation, and so sitting, wallowing, in the badness we feel about our state of affairs is really the exact opposite of what Lent should be about. Lent is a time for change, not for guilt. Keep that in mind as we go forward.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

You can imagine that when I was in high school, my least favorite class was gym class. In fact, calling it my least favorite class is an understatement. I dreaded gym class. I despised it. I hated it. I also wasn’t good at it, for many a various reason, not the least of which being that I really didn’t care. But there was one thing we did in gym class that I was good at, and if there was anything that I halfway enjoyed, it was something you might not expect—square dancing. I can even say that the Mr. Lenig, the gym teacher, invited my square from gym class to come to other gym class periods and demonstrate what good square dancing looks like, at least for high schoolers.

At any rate, for those of you who might not know much about square dancing, it’s a kind of a dance for four “couples,” or eight dancers in total, arranged in, well, a square formation. The couples do particular dance moves based on “calls” from the astutely named “caller.” Square dancing is very similar to Irish set dances, and Scottish country dances.

Our caller in gym class was a record player. We did one dance in particular—Marching thro’ Georgia. It had a strange call as part of the chorus that I remember well. The lyrics were, “Hip! Hip! Hooray! You’re going the right way! Hip! Hip! Hooray! You’re going the wrong way! When you get to your backyard, stop and take a swing! Swing like we used to swing in Georgia!”

You’re going the wrong way…That was a particular call, or directive, that told us to turn around and go the opposite direction. So instead of going clockwise, we turned around and went counterclockwise. We kept going that direction, until that chorus came up again, when we’d hear “you’re going the wrong way,” and we’d change direction again—this time going clockwise again.

You’re going the wrong way.

Turn around.

These are Lenten themes, perhaps the Lenten theme, really.

How so?

This is how you describe repentance. Repentance is twofold—recognizing that what’s going on isn’t right, and doing something about it. Quite literally the word means “turning around.” The Lenten call is about repentance. Lent is a time for us to take stock of our lives, to look at what’s going on in them, particularly all our relationships, and to seek restore them, to revive them, to return them to something good where they’ve fallen short. During Lent, these six weeks before Easter, we’re called to intentionally evaluate all the relationships of our lives—our relationship with other people, our relationships with things, our relationship with God, and even our relationship with ourselves. Our lives are comprised wholly of relationships, and so when we engage the Lenten call to repentance, we recognize in everything about our lives that we’re going the wrong way, and we completely turn our lives around. Lent is a time for us to be honest about where we are and what we’re doing, and to be honest about where we want to be and how we’re going to get there.

So where are we going?

What are we doing?

The short answer to that is sin.

We all live lives that fall short of the glory of God. We must acknowledge that, no matter how unpleasant it might be. No one is without sin. We all are assaulted daily by any countless number temptations that lure us into sinfulness, and sometimes we succumb. We are self-indulgent. We exploit other people. We don’t pray like we should. We make excuses for not worshipping or otherwise living up to the expectations of a disciple of Jesus. We don’t care for all human need and suffering the same. We are indifferent to injustice and cruelty—unless of course we feel wronged. Then we’re righteously incensed. We make false judgments, have uncharitable thoughts toward other people, and are prejudiced and contemptuous toward those who differ from us. We don’t love God with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves. We don’t forgive as we have been forgiven. We don’t love as we have been loved. We don’t listen to God’s call to love one another as he has loved us…

We recognize this during Lent. We acknowledge it honestly because it’s only in honesty that we can make a change. It’s only in seeing that the direction we’re headed is the wrong way, so that we can turn around. In Lent, we acknowledge the truth that we live in a world full of temptations luring us away from the fullness of life God wants for us and everything, and we often give in to those temptations. We often end up going the wrong way. We admit we don’t listen to God’s call.

And so Lent is a time for us to turn around and go a different direction. To listen to God’s call. But in turning around, we turn away from something—from the devil and all his empty promises, from all the ways of the world that rebel against God, and from everything that popular wisdom tells us is the right way to live. We turn away from sin. We turn away from “desires of the flesh,” as St. Paul might put it—uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions, all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants, brutal tempers, paranoid loneliness, cutthroat competition, mental and emotional garbage, vicious cycles of reducing everyone to a rival, small-minded and lopsided pursuits, ugly parodies of community. We turn away from these things in our lives because they are opposed to God’s goodness. They prevent usfrom doing what God wants, from what God calls us to.

But in turning away from sinfulness, from these things that tempt us and even consume our lives in ways we don’t even immediately see, what are we turning to? If we’re going the wrong way and if we turn around, what are we turning toward. What’s our new direction?

You’re going the wrong way. Turn around. But turn toward what?

Well, maybe we ought to rephrase that…Turn toward whom?

When we repent, when we turn our lives around, as disciples of Jesus we turn them around to reorient them toward God and his will. Repentance means to turn around and return to the Lord you God. In other words, listen to God’s call. It means to get your priorities in line with God’s priorities. It means instead of chasing after all those things popular wisdom tells you will satisfy us, we strive for the greater good—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Affection for others, contentment in life, serenity, willingness to stick with things, compassion, and a conviction that God’s basic goodness fills all things and all people—even fills ourselves, when we can least admit it. Turning toward God means we seek out ways to have good relationships—good relationships with other people, good relationships with things, good relationship with God, and good relationship with ourselves, not thinking too highly of ourselves, but also not considering unworthy or ungood what God has most certainly called good.

This sort of turning around isn’t easy, and in fact we can’t do it on our own. The temptations are all around us and we do succumb. It’s in our nature, but God doesn’t let us abandoned. God knows what we face precisely because he has faced the same temptations. Just look at today’s gospel. Jesus knows the temptation to sin. Yet God accompanies us through life, and is continually and constantly calling us to repentance. God is constantly telling us, “You’re going the wrong way. Turn around. Turn toward me.” And to be sure, it is a strange call—a call that doesn’t look right to the outside world and sets us apart as mighty different than others. God is with us in our struggles against temptation and calls us every day to the goodness of his promise—like a repeating chorus. We don’t rely on ourselves to find the way, but the Holy Spirit, the very power of God, guides us and strengthens us. She shows us the way and drives us forward and turns us around when we’re going the wrong way. The Holy Spirit fills us with peace in knowing the love of God and turns us around, gives us new direction. She turns us toward the ways of God, toward the ways of life that please God, and toward God himself. The Holy Spirit guides us in loving God and honoring him by loving others as he has loved us. The Holy Spirit is our caller.

As disciples of Jesus, as his followers, we are called by and filled with the same Holy Spirit that called him and led him not into temptation, but through it, and delivered him from the hand of the enemy, so that he might love and serve us to the greater glory of God the Father in heaven. And so it is, that we, disciples of Jesus, even as we go the wrong way, are called by and filled with the same Holy Spirit, who leads us not into temptation, but through it, and contends with us against the enemy and everything he hurls at us, so that we, like our Lord Jesus, might be instruments of God’s peace in a chaotic, confused, cruel world, demonstrating what good living looks like.

You’re going the wrong way. Turn around. That’s God’s call. Are you going to listen?

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

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