Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, 17 February, 2013
Texts for Lent 1, Lectionary Year C: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2,9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (Romans 10:8)
“What are you giving up for Lent, Padre?” I’ve been asked that question a few times the last few days, and no doubt I incurred them after advertising the start of Lent on Wednesday with my ash-smudged forehead. If the questioner had some time, I tried to point out that Lent is not just a time of self-imposed abstinence from some luxury or pleasure, but can also be a whole range of spiritual disciplines. For me, I explained, I wanted clear some clutter and business in my day so I could try to be more attentive to the voice and presence of God.
It seemed to come as a shock to one person that I should say this. “Don’t you have a direct line to the Big Guy, Padre?” I like to think we all do, I replied, adding that God is interested in communicating with all of us, and not just the professionally religious. Those in the evangelical and pentecostal wings of the church might find it odd that we need a season called Lent to assert the truth that God wants to communicate with us, and I have some sympathy with their viewpoint. However, as a creature of the liturgical church, I find the seasons of the church year, each with their own theme, to be helpful, each in their own way. Lent is a reminder to me that the "direct line to the Big Guy" is there for a purpose. Have you ever lost your cell phone on your desk, under a pile of clutter? Ever had to call your cell phone to find out where it is, as I do at least once a week? Perhaps this analogy is one way to explain traditional Lenten practices, as an opportunity to remind to remind ourselves that God is closer than we think.
We need to be reminded of the presence of God not just in times of business and distraction, when we merely forget or become lazy, but also and more importantly in times of adversity, when despair and frustration leads us to think that we are alone and helpless. If you were wondering why our first lesson today, from Deuteronomy, with its talk of first fruit and harvest, seems to be more suited to the season of Thanksgiving, that’s because this reading comes from a time of adversity. The person speaking in this lesson is Moses, and the time is the forty years of wandering in the wilderness after the people of Israel have escaped from exile in Egypt. The Christian tradition has always seen the forty days of Lent as reminder of the forty years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, but it’s more than just a bit of number symbolism.
Think for a moment about the context of this passage. Where are God’s people when Moses is speaking. They are in the wilderness. They have no home, no certainty, no comfort, no security. God hasn’t spared them from these things. And here is their leader, old Moses, going on about this land that God is going to give them. Did they have faith in Moses’ promises? Did they have an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude? Surely, if they were like us, it was a bit of both. But notice how Moses is speaking to them. It’s very ritualistic, formal language, as we might expect from a book that had become part of the DNA and memory of Israel, centuries after the Exodus. But that formal language has a purpose. Look at the phrase “the Lord your God” and how often it is repeated in this passage. It occurs nine times by my count, and once a variation, “the Lord of our ancestors”. Why this repetition?
This repetition seems designed to stress the relationship between God and his people. The possessive adjective “your” is key here. In the middle of the wandering, in the middle of adversity, the relationship is unbroken. It is not a distant God. It is not an abstract God. It is “your” God. It is a God who is intensely interested in his people, and who has promised to be with them in their adversity and to bring them out of adversity into a better place. It is a faithful God. It is our God.
Notice how in our Gospel reading from Luke, in the temptation of Christ during the forty days in the wilderness (another Lenten echo!), Jesus remembers the promises of Moses. Jesus twice quotes from the Old Testament, the scripture of Israel, and says “the Lord your God”. It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t speak of “my Father”, for Satan has twice taunted him with the question (later to be heard at the foot of the cross) “If you are the Son of God”. But Jesus, as a faithful Jew, as someone who as a boy (as we saw in the story of the young Jesus in the Temple) responds with the promise, the covenant made by God, that he is “your God”, the God of his people. Perhaps he is reminding Satan that God is “your God”, that even Satan is not exempt from God’s power (as indeed he is not), but Jesus also reminds us that God, his father, is our father too, and will be faithful to us.
And what of us? We have the reminder, from St. Paul, in our second lesson from Romans, that the promise of God applies to us as well, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him”. The promise of Moses is made in turn to us. God is “our God”. He is and will be faithful to us in our turn. He is not a distant God. He is personal and real and he is, as Paul reminds us, near us. Lent is not about tuning into a distant, faint voice on the spiritual radio. It’s a time for reminding ourselves that Jesus, the Word made flesh, is right here, with us, by us, for us, and so we need not fear or be alone.
“The Lord your God”, Moses said. This week, my suggestion is that whenever we feel that we are in a wilderness moment when God seems far away, or indifferent to our situation, or just impersonal, is to remind ourselves what that “your” stands for. Substitute your own name for the pronoun. Say “The Lord [insert your name here]'s God”, do a bit of a mashup with Romans, so it becomes “The Lord [insert your name here]'s God is near”. Once you've reminded yourself that God is near, find a way to take advantage of that proximity, in whatever spiritual practice (quiet time, lectio divina, prayer, meditation) works best for you. You will find, I am sure, that it deepens your experience of Lent in a way that giving up some favourite treat can't do by itself.