February 26, 2023 – The First Sunday In Lent

Fr. Cal Calhoun

In the Name of God: who doesn’t leave us in the wilderness, but rather is with us and sends angels to lead us and help us. Amen.

This is the first Sunday in Lent. Our gospel reading on this Sunday is always one of versions of Jesus in the wilderness. As we begin 40 days of Lent, we are reminded of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. Jesus’ time in the wilderness follows immediately after his baptism. That makes sense to me. He is baptized, this unusual event happens, the voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This event seems to force Jesus into the wilderness. Well, this event and the Holy Spirit, we are told. Jesus has questions. What just happened? What does this mean? It is after this time in the wilderness that Jesus emerges and begins his ministry, that he begins to call disciples, that he begins to share his message. This time in the wilderness seems to have been his time to discern what is next for him.

When our group of pilgrims went to the Holy Land last year, I think I can say that our visit to the Judean wilderness might have been the biggest surprise for most folks. I heard many times: “Wow, when I think of wilderness I think of forests or woods (of course, in East TN we have forests for our wilderness). This is so desolate,” they would say. The Judean countryside outside Jerusalem is a desert. Not a sand dune desert, but hills of dirt and rock where the only vegetation is deep in the crevasses or gullies that run between the hills. Weeds and small bushes have a bit of a chance in the gullies where they are nearer what little water there is and have more shade. When we were there, I thought about Jesus being there for 40 days, and I thought the only way to survive would be to spend most of your time in those gullies with the possibility to get out of the sun.

Besides hearing about Jesus in the wilderness, there is something else we do on the first Sunday in Lent. The Great Litany. First of all, it is different. It signals something has changed. Our entry into the season of Lent may be more dramatically different than the entry to any other season. I mean the celebration of Easter to begin the Easter season is obviously a big deal, but we don’t shift things up liturgically near as much as we do today! So the furniture has been moved. This is indeed a wake-up call in today’s liturgy.

The invitation to a holy Lent at the Ash Wednesday service a few days ago, calls this a season of penitence and fasting. Penitence is the action of feeling or showing sorrow or regret for something you have done. So, Lent is a time of meaningful reflection. The Great Litany asks that we be delivered from those many things for which we should be penitent. Fasting is denying yourself something, food or maybe your favorite foods with the purpose, not to make yourself miserable, or lose weight, but to keep your focus on God. You deny yourself something so that you can focus on deepening your relationship with God. Now, I often recommend taking something on rather than giving something up. I think reading a chapter of the Gospel of Matthew each night, or getting up 30 minutes earlier to spend some quiet time with God, will likely deepen your relationship with God more than giving up chocolate. I could be wrong about that, but it’s something to think about.

In this season of Lent, we walk with Jesus, to Jerusalem, through Holy Week, to the cross, and finally to the empty tomb. The season of Lent ends with the surprise and the promise of resurrection. The explosion of life and light on Easter morning.

What has time in the wilderness been like for you? What has been a difficult time that maybe at times you wondered if you would get through it? That answer will be different for most of us. It may have been the death of someone very close. It may have been an illness. Perhaps it was a betrayal or a broken relationship. Maybe it was addiction, yours, or someone you love. Maybe you lost a job. Perhaps there wasn’t an event so much as you were dealing with a serious depression.

Coming through the wilderness may be one of the most positive moments of our lives. When the clouds finally part and we can see the sun again. When we can look to the future again with hope and plans. When we realize that people who were “bugging us,” were just trying to let us know they care. We can see where we have been and know we are somehow better for having gone through that wilderness.

Maybe you are still in the wilderness. Your temptations, or issues, might be similar to Jesus. There was material need for Jesus. He was hungry. There was spiritual need, he was tempted to play God. There was emotional need. It is not easy. But there is help. And there is hope. There is new life. It may not feel like it now, but it is there.

The journey through the wilderness is in many ways similar to our journey with God. Author and scholar Diana Butler Bass describes the quest to know ourselves and to know God. The quest, she says, is a mapless journey. There is no single road. The only guides to it are nature, saints, poetry, song, and the Holy Spirit. When you dare leave the map behind, Jesus emerges as the road itself and the Light that guides. You get that? Jesus is not the destination, Jesus is the road itself and the Light that guides. That gives the term “following Jesus” new meaning and depth, if Jesus is the road. Meister Eckhart, the 13th Century German mystic wrote: “There is a journey you must take. It is a journey without destination. There is no map. Your soul will lead you. And you can take nothing with you.” On the mapless journey with God there is no destination. There is only the enveloping presence of love. You may not always feel it, in fact, you may feel the absence of that love more than its presence, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

After suffering through the Great Litany, it may not feel like it, but Easter is coming. But not before we journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and to the cross. You can’t get to Easter morning without the journey to the cross. We can’t side step the wilderness. But Easter is not the destination. There is no destination, other than the enveloping presence of Love. And that is new life. That is resurrection. Amen.

Year A,  –  The First Sunday in Lent   –   February 26, 2023   –   The Rev. Cal Calhoun