Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The first Sunday of Lent and ‘Ash Sunday’
In last week’s Reflection I mentioned the importance of the Exodus to the people of God. As you will remember, in his description of Jesus’ Transfiguration Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus ‘of his departure [his ‘exodus’ in Greek] which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’. Today, the first Sunday of Lent, we are offered a reading from the Book of Deuteronomy that I should just have quoted instead of finding my own words:
When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
As I said, this experience of the Exodus means that the basic pattern of Judaism, and so also of Christianity, is the ‘saving reversal’ from a situation of despair to one of salvation. During Lent we accompany Jesus on the road to his exodus, as Jesus goes willingly to death for love of us, and we then experience the ultimate ‘saving reversal’ three days later when God raises Jesus from the dead.
Every year we begin our Lenten journey to Jerusalem with Jesus by reading about his testing in the wilderness. In this story of Jesus being led into the desert by the Spirit, and facing there the devil’s temptation, the devil does not suggest that Jesus do anything obviously evil. Jesus is being tempted to be relevant, to be powerful, to be spectacular, to be certain. In a world of hunger, why not turn stones to bread? In a world of violence and slavery and oppression, why not, as the Son of God, take over? In a world of indifference, why not do something as spectacular as leaping off the temple both to command attention and to reassure himself that he is truly the Son of God? There is nothing obviously wrong about Jesus doing any of this. Indeed, later Jesus will feed thousands; he will do miracles; and ultimately he will be given all authority in heaven and on earth. Every point the devil makes is true; Jesus is the Son of God, and he can do all this. He is being tempted by legitimate, if distorted, popular expectations of what the Messiah would look like. Why not fulfil them?
The answer, the reason that at this moment choosing to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful would be to choose sin, is that this is not God’s way of salvation. Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry, on a journey that will lead him to the cross. The journey on which God sends his Beloved Son leads to the scandal of the Messiah being executed as a criminal. Jesus, although he is, as the devil keeps reminding him, the Son of God, does not seek equality with God. He recognises that there must be no forcing of God’s hand, no testing of God. Jesus does not need signs and wonders to know that God loves him. So Jesus, despite being tempted as we are all tempted, refuses the devil’s wiles and the devil leaves him.
Here, as his ministry begins, Jesus chooses the road he will travel. He chooses God’s way, which is the way of humility and weakness. We hear the story of Jesus’ temptation on the first Sunday of Lent each year because during the forty days of Lent we seek to join Jesus in the wilderness, taking the same path of humility that he chose. During Lent we often fast from something to remind ourselves that, as Jesus tells the devil, we cannot live by bread alone; or we take up something, to remind ourselves that we are called to worship the Lord our God and serve only him. During Lent we try by our Lenten disciplines to live out the truth that our relationship with God is more important than the material possessions and indulgences we temporarily relinquish. And at the beginning of Lent our foreheads are marked with ashes, as a visible sign of our repentance, because for us Lent is a time of penitence as well as preparation.
Jesus was tempted by the devil, and resisted temptation. There is not a single human being who can claim to have lived without sin; to have always resisted temptation. We begin Lent in penitence, with ashes on our forehead, to acknowledge that we have not always lived as God wants. We have not always loosed the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, shared our bread with the hungry, brought the homeless poor into our houses, covered the naked, and not hidden ourselves from our own kin, as one of the Ash Wednesday readings tells us God desires. (Isaiah 58:6-7) And so, as we join Jesus on the road that will lead to his exodus in Jerusalem, we begin by remembering all the ways in which we fall short, all the things of which we must repent.
Christians are often accused of not merely being righteous, but of being self-righteous. Making our repentance visible by marking our foreheads with ash, making our following of Jesus noticeable by giving something or taking something up during the forty days of Lent, could both lead us into self-righteousness. According to Matthew, in one of the other readings for Ash Wednesday, Jesus warned his disciples:
whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
How do we seek to live a holy Lent, while avoiding the danger of being self-righteous hypocrites?
It is this very danger that Ash Wednesday seeks to overcome, by making visible the fact that every single one of us is a sinner who needs to repent. None of us is perfect, and today that truth will be marked on our faces. And we can acknowledge and accept our imperfection, because God does not save perfect people. Jesus told the Pharisees and the scribes who complained that he was eating and drinking with tax-collectors and sinners: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ (Luke 5:30-32) God rescued the descendants of ‘a wandering Aramean’ when they were afflicted and oppressed, toiling in slavery. God came to them, cared for them, kept them safe in the wilderness, and brought them to a homeland of peace and prosperity, not because they were wonderful and special, but because they needed God’s love. In the same way in Jesus God has come to us, spoken to us, made provision for us out of God’s abundance, not because we are wonderful and special, not because we are perfect and able to resist every temptation, but simply because God loves us.
The people of Israel were to remember God’s care of them by re-telling their story every year, as they brought the first fruits of the harvest to offer to God. They were to remember it in the way they treated ‘the aliens who reside among you’ who were to celebrate with a share of all the bounty God had given then, because they themselves had lived in Egypt as aliens. We do the same thing: we constantly remember and retell the stories of what God has done for us in the past; we recite it every time we gather around the altar at which we receive the bread and the wine; we offer our gifts back to God from the goods God has given us; we seek to love and treat with justice the strangers who live among us because we remember being strangers and aliens ourselves. As the people of Israel did all this because God loved them, so do we.
Today, ‘Ash Sunday,’ the first Sunday in Lent, as we are reminded both of our sins and that God loves us despite them, let us seek to live a holy and disciplined Lent, to live lives of righteousness, as the people saved by God, the people for whom Jesus died – but without being self-righteous. Just in case following our Lenten disciplines tempts us into self-righteousness, I want to end with a couple of verses from the ‘Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous’ by Scottish poet Robert Burns, drunkard and fornicator and gift of God to the world:
Then gently scan your brother Man,
Still gentler sister Woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark,
The moving why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.
Who made the heart, tis He alone
Decidedly can try us,
He knows each chord its various tone,
Each spring its various bias;
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.
 From the Poems (Edinburgh, 1787).