The First Sunday in Lent — The Rev. Katharine Flexer

Kate Flexer headshot

The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The First Sunday in Lent: March 10, 2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11  |  Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13  |  Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Is there a stranger sentence than this in Scripture? Listen to it again:

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. 

With friends like the Holy Spirit, who needs enemies? Just imagine the conversation: Well, Jesus, you’ve had a wonderful experience at your baptism, a mountaintop experience (as David talked about last week) – now off you go to the desert without food or water – the devil is waiting for you. Have a great trip.

And yet this is how Jesus begins his ministry – first he is baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, and then he spends 40 days in the wilderness doing battle with the forces of evil, while fasting. And you were hoping this spiritual journey thing was going to be fun.

But no, it’s Lent, the season when we’re made all too aware that it’s not just fun and games. Lent, the season when we come face to face with ourselves and realize how great is our need for change. 40 days in the wilderness, wishing we could just skip to Easter. C’mon, admit it. Some of you tell me how much you like Lent, and John says he loves the Lent hymns more than any other hymns of the year, but really – wouldn’t we really rather be vacationing on the beach? Yet here we are, in the desert.

Well, we may as well make the best of it, and see if we can improve in some way.

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry began his ministry a few years ago inviting us to join the Jesus Movement, and this year his office has provided us with some wonderful tools for teaching what that looks like in our lives. This Lent we’re using some of those tools, something called the ‘Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life.’ Each Sunday in our forum time we’ll focus on a different one of the seven practices –and our Reflection Day this Saturday will cover all of them. The practices begin with Turn, then go through Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest. If we want to live intentionally, we might include each of these in our rule of life, our template and toolkit for growing in the faith. But maybe what you’re really thinking is, add seven more things into a life that’s already too full? What is it with these church people, don’t they get how busy I am? I’d rather go off into the desert.

So relax. Take a deep breath. This is supposed to be fun, after all. Let’s just focus on that first practice today: Turn. In our baptism service we use language to speak of turning from spiritual forces of evil and sin, and turning toward Christ. In the old liturgies baptismal candidates may have quite literally done just that – face the West as they renounced their old ways, and then turn physically to face the East as they were baptized into new life. It’s the language of repentance, of course, to turn back. Or as my new favorite biblical translation, the Common English Bible, has it, the word ‘repent’ is translated ‘change hearts and lives.’ It’s a change of direction, facing into a new way – inside and out, in our hearts and souls, and in our lives and actions.

Paul’s letter to the Romans lays it out clearly: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ But I can see your alarm bells going off. There’s that language about ‘being saved,’ words that we don’t use as easily in our tradition. And there’s that language attached to it that sounds so conditional – if you do x, then you will be saved. It sounds like a transaction again – do something to get something. And there’s the devil, tempting us right when we hoped to feel filled with the Spirit. We turn, and find ourselves out in the desert all over again.

First, let’s remind ourselves about the language we use. ‘Repent’ might conjure up a fiery prophet holding a sign that says, The end is near! But ‘change hearts and lives’ – that says something deeper, something that most of us long for in ourselves. Integrity, right relationship, right living.

‘Believe’ can make us worry over our intellectual assent to doctrines and creeds, agreeing with the theology we’ve been given – until we remember that the word history of ‘belief’ has more to do with trust, relying upon, giving our heart to. Fretting over ‘belief’ can trap us in our own heads; to ‘trust’ pulls us more deeply into relationship.

And then the word ‘saved’ might remind us of uncomfortable pressured conversations with some zealous guy on the subway – but when we realize that the word Paul uses for ‘salvation’ is also the word for ‘deliverance,’ or ‘setting free,’ that feels different. To be ‘set free’ opens our hearts to God’s grace, rather than fearing whether we’re in or out of favor. Words do matter – it’s important to recognize the words that have become poisoned for us.

So, back to that sentence from Romans. In order to turn towards God, to change our hearts and lives, we confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord. And we trust in the good news of his resurrection, that life comes out of death, that God is the one who makes a way out of no way, that the worst that we can think of is never the end of the story. What would it do in our hearts and lives if we really trusted that good news? Just imagine how wild and reckless and free we could be if we really relied on, leaned into, the news that God opens doors we thought were locked and unburies us from the grave. We’d be totally without fear. We could talk to anyone, go anywhere, love freely. We would be healed. Ain’t-a that good news? Yes it is.

But wait, what was that other part the preacher just skipped over – confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord? Words that send a shiver down every Episcopalian’s spine? We’re still working on this ‘Jesus movement’ language Bishop Curry has thrown us, and on the idea of following Jesus in our lives. But ‘Jesus is Lord’? Suddenly my personal freedom is in question. I thought we were talking about reckless abandon and doing what we wanted, but if Jesus is Lord over us, then that imposes a certain set of limits on us, doesn’t it? And we don’t like limits – I don’t like limits, anyway. I’ve been struggling all winter with limitations of my physical self, succumbing to too many illnesses and not being able to go at 180 miles an hour right when my life so clearly needs me to. And I’ve never liked limits others set on me either – I can get quite stroppy with the TSA agents at the airport when they start barking arbitrary orders at me. Arbitrary! So I might be ok with choosing myself, freely, to follow after Jesus as long as I like where he’s going and how it’s all unfolding, but letting him lord it over me? He might just make me go out into deserts and battle demons…and I really don’t have time for that, you know.

And yet. To call Jesus Lord is not like being stepped on by petty bureaucrats. To call Jesus Lord is to recognize that I don’t have a full grasp of the situation and don’t always know where the way is leading. And it’s to give control over to one whose very path is about powerless, self-giving love. Jesus is Lord – that means I am not. Neither is money or time or the perfect marriage or the promotion or anything else we might be craving. Neither is any political leader Lord, even if they think they are. Jesus, the one who incarnates in his life God’s deep, abiding, life-full love – he’s the one I give my heart to. He’s the one who calls the shots – in that loving, embracing, freeing way he does.

And if I really can believe that – if I can trust God’s love, if I can trust God’s life-giving authority over me, then I can do what we Episcopalians may fear most: I can confess it with my lips. I can say so with my words, I can manifest it in my actions, I can live it in my everyday. I don’t have to walk up Broadway crying ‘Glory!’ – though I wonder if I really fully trusted God, maybe I would, because maybe it would just have to come out of me like that. But I can say, yes, I’m Christian, and I belong to a wonderful community called St Michael’s, and I’d love for you to come check it out; I can say ‘I love you’ to people; I can speak gently in conflict and pray for insight in difficult situations and share peace with others when I have it. I can be part of God’s love in this world.

We are in the wilderness, this season of Lent. We’re working on our stuff to prepare our hearts for Easter, and it often feels like the devil’s worst weapons are in play, fighting against us. The Spirit leads us into this because there’s no other way – because when we begin to trust, it’s hard to do. There’s often a backlash, all our fears rising up to keep us captive. And yet God keeps drawing us forward, turning our hearts and changing our lives, laying aside what does not satisfy as we fall more and more in love. It’s a journey worth making; it’s a journey that we’re on one way or another, whether we mean to be or not. And God is there with us every step of the way, our refuge, our rock, bearing us up. Walking with us right to the dawn of new life.