Finding ourselves, and others

Deuteronomy 26.1–11
Luke 4.1–13

All this is the role that Jesus is acting out in the wilderness. He learns to be the precarious one in the desert. But where Moses reassured his listeners with the little word when, as in ‘when you come into the land,’ the devil comes to Jesus and thrice tempts him with the word if. If is the entry to privation, not abundance. ‘If you are . . .’ is supposed to cause Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God and feel the need to prove it. If is the trigger for me to foreclose, to grasp my identity before time, to settle for a fake identity rather than to wait for the identity that is mine already, but coming upon me, not available to be grasped. —James Alison,

…my son continued his hand-me-down exposition of the text. Leaning closer to me and dropping his voice to a loud whisper, he said, ‘If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle, and’—his hushed tones became downright conspiratorial at this point—‘there was candy…’ He paused for effect. ‘The devil would say, “You should take some!”’ I am not sure what was most startling to me in this retelling of the story of Luke 4:1–13 by my three-year-old: that he could, in fact, retell it—especially in such dramatic fashion—or that the version he had learned placed such heavy emphasis on the temptation and the personified tempter. — Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 2


What are you giving up for Lent? You have to give something up for Lent, don’t you? Alcohol, chocolate, Facebook… Something, anything.

Lent is all about self-denial. Isn’t it? 

Not really.

Jane Williams writes

Lent is not primarily about ‘giving things up’, or denying ourselves. It is about finding ourselves.

Lent is about finding ourselves… The thing is, we’ve been hiding ourselves, and hiding from ourselves, ever since Adam and Eve discovered they were naked. 

We hide from ourselves by achieving things, and defining ourselves by our achievements. And of course, an achievement can be almost anything—a well-paying job, a trophy spouse, a PhD, a child who has done well, winning a competition… 

We hide from ourselves by drinking, by using other drugs, by driving too fast, taking risks, anything really that turns our eyes away from ourselves and who we actually are. 

They’re all fig leaves of one kind or another, and we wear them to hide our nakedness and our shame. 

If Lent really is about finding ourselves, we often have to start by peeling some of these things off. So we make a step; we give something up, we fast from something for Lent. Maybe we give up alcohol. Maybe we go vegetarian.

Maybe we feel holier than thou because we’re already coffee-hating teetotal vegans. There’s nothing left for us to give up! 

It’s easy to get off the track here. We need to fast in order to pray and study the scripture with an emptiness in our belly that makes us confront who we are. 

But what happens when you get on the scales? Hey, I’ve lost over a kilo and it’s not even halfway through Lent. Hmm, maybe I’ll need to go shopping for new clothes before Easter… 

Or, I’ve lost two kilos so far this Lent. How much have you lost? Oh, only one?

And how easy would it be to feel superior because you’ve gone off Facebook for forty days? Unless, of course, you already feel superior because you’re not on Facebook in the first place? 

It’s so easy to set off on the Lenten journey with a great idea like I’ll give up chocolate this year and find ourselves getting sidetracked. 

If our were at a service on Ash Wednesday, you may have heard a reading from Isaiah 58 about the true meaning of fasting. You may have heard this verse: 

The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

The people of Israel are on a long journey, but God  will care for them. 

I don’t usually quote John Calvin, but when I do…it’s his comment on this verse. Calvin says,

God ‘never forsakes his people in the middle of the journey’.

I find that very comforting, because we’re always in the middle of the journey—whether it’s Lent, or some other time of year; whether it’s middle age or adolescence, or any other time of life. We are on a journey and God never forsakes us in the middle of the journey. 

The Basis of Union says that we are ‘the people of God on the way to the promised end’. 

But the church can wander off the path, just as individuals can. God’s care is also there for the church. Again, from the Basis of Union:

The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life. 

Lent is a reminder that we are prone to wander in the wrong direction. We need to be connected to God, through the Spirit of Jesus. 

In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses speaks to the people of Israel after they had wandered for forty years in the wilderness. They had really gone astray during that time!—yet God was still their Guide. 

Moses looks into the future, to when the are settled in the land. Moses teaches them to know their history. Not only that, but to link themselves to those who came before them;

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor [Abraham]; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor 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.

The people who were to say this had never been to Egypt; but they could still say

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice…

Through this, they knew who they were: the people of the land whose story went right back to Abraham. God was guiding them, too. 

Jesus is on a journey, as the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to be tested. Was he going to take shortcuts, or was he going to walk the long way of obedience in the Spirit? 

Jesus stayed the course for us. Jesus obeyed, and in him we can seek the way of obedience. 

Jesus was obedient to God’s way, the people of Israel were disobedient. Yet their prophets left us in no doubt as to what true fasting required. I mentioned Isaiah 58 before. It’s a crucial text for Lent. The people asked God: ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ 

What was the point of fasting, if there were no immediate reward from God? Why bother doing this stuff if there’s no return? 

The fast God has in mind is quite different:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Fasting is pointless if it doesn’t lead to justice. That’s the beauty of the Assembly’s Lent Event, which invites us to share something of our wealth with others. This year, we are invited to help the people of Timor Leste. 

Fasting—whatever we’re fasting from, whether food, electronic devices or something else—is meant to remind us that we are not the only ones in need.

So what is the Lent journey about? I said at first that it’s about finding ourselves, but we often have to let go of something, to give up something, to fast from things that are keeping us from God.

But there seems to be more. We are also to renew our commitment to justice, to sharing, to empowering those who have little. 

Which is it then? Finding ourselves, or helping others?

Or is it that we need to do both? That these are two sides of the same coin? I think they are. We find ourselves in and through the relationships we have with others. Those ‘others’ may be family, friends, people unlike us, people far away…

How could we possibly find ourselves except in relation to other people? And when we seek the welfare of others, don’t we find our own welfare in that search?

Human beings exist together. We can’t truly help ourselves without helping others; we can’t help others without being helped ourselves. 

This brings us to the Holy Meal that we shall soon share. Jesus pours himself out for us, that we my receive his life; we are called to serve others in the power of his risen life within us. 

Just as the farmer in ancient Israel trusted that his history began in the journey of Abraham, the wandering Aramean, just as Jesus trusted his identity as Son of God, so we come together as the people of the risen crucified One, and are fed by the word of Scripture and the food and drink of the Sacrament. 

We are grounded in Christ, we are led by the Spirit, God will never forsake us; this is our Lenten promise.


West End Uniting Church, 10 March 2019

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Filed under Basis of Union, Lent, RCL, sermon

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