The following is my meditation for Ash Wednesday, 2019.
“What are you giving up for Lent?”
That a refrain that is quite common this time of year, even among a number of folks who don’t consider themselves “religious.” People use the practice of giving something up for Lent for all sorts of reasons — some want to lose weight so they give up dessert, others want to check something our culture considers an “acceptable vice” so they give up certain behaviors, and still more just like the challenge of it. Grammar school students like to try to give up homework, “I’m sorry, I didn’t do my math homework Mrs. Shields. I gave it up for Jesus.”
When I was a much younger Christian, I was the type of person who loved the challenge of Lent. Why? Because it was a way to demonstrate “real spirituality.” There are many times where I’d like to meet my younger self and smack him in the head. I was also the kid trying to give up homework, but I just think that’s funny.
But I digress. The point is our cultural focus on “giving something up,” especially inside the church, actually misses the point of Lent entirely. Fasting from something during Lent is not about a challenge, or about checking a vice, or losing weight, or anything that puts the focus on what we are giving up. On this forty day journey we are, in a sense, joining both our ancient Israelite cousins and our savior out in the wilderness. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen pictures of the Biblical “wilderness” but it’s a rather inhospitable place — it’s rock and cliffs and very little is available there to sustain life. And during Lent we go there willingly, but not but not to see what it is we can live without. We go to the wilderness to discover anew how God provides. And we saw this in both the passages we read this evening.
When the Israelites grumble about not having food God calls Moses in and tells him to pass on a message, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you share have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.” The Israelites complained about God bringing them out into the wilderness just to let them starve to death, but they would discover that the LORD was the one who could provide life, even in the desert.
When Jesus is being tempted by the devil in the wilderness one of the temptations was for Jesus to turn stones into bread, to which Jesus replies, “A person does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He said this after fasting for forty days and nights, and he was famished. He needed food, but even then he remained convinced that real sustenance came from God and not simply by stuffing his belly. And then, once Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness were over the angels came to serve him. Jesus was given provision in the wilderness, first through Scripture and then again when the angels came and met his physical needs.
Both these stories are, in effect, the same tale, a great many of Jesus’ actions in Matthew are meant to show him re-walking the story of Israel, but there is one main difference. In the first a grudging Israel discovered the LORD’s ability to provide for life when they encounter manna, literally, “What is it?” In the second a willing Jesus doesn’t need to discover the LORD’s ability to provide for life, he’d already embraced it.
And in Lent, we’re called to head out into the wilderness and be like Jesus. Who, for 40 days and nights denied himself good things, and in doing so experienced just how much God is able to grant provision in a space where it seems like only death can thrive.
Over the course of our Lenten journey that’s what I hope for all of us — that we’ll use the Lenten discipline not to bemoan what we’re giving up. And we all know what that sounds like, right? “Oh… I can’t wait util I can have chocolate again, this is so hard.” Rather whatever we do as our Lenten practice — fasting from something, practicing a spiritual discipline we’ve not before tried, offering a caring hand to others — may we do it with our eyes open to see how God provides for us. And not for the warm fuzzies of it. But so that we’ll know, when the time comes for us to go to the cross with Christ we’ll will have tasted the goodness of God’s provision so deeply that we won’t shy away from its hurt and shame. Instead, we’ll look at the path up calvary’s hill and say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” To the glory of God. Lent is a time of preparation, may we be ready to meet what is coming. Amen.