The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Clear Out Your Larder: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
“Almighty and everliving God, you hate nothing you have made, and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” Those are the opening words of Lent. They began our Ash Wednesday service last week: “Almighty and everliving God, you hate nothing you have made.”
I know not all of you were able to make it here last Wednesday, or you received your ashes somewhere else. But those opening words, that opening prayer, is so important as we begin this season of Lent together. It was written by a church reformer in the 16th century. He wanted to be sure people understood that Lent is not about appeasing an angry God, or earning the love that is already there. The things we do this season, the extra disciplines we take on for these forty days, the self-examination, the reconciliation with those from whom we’re estranged–these are our response to love. Think of it as our chance in the year to give God more proportional devotion and attention than what we give the rest of the year. “You hate nothing you have made.”So now that we have a right beginning, Welcome to Lent. Each year we start the season with a familiar Scripture reading, Jesus’ Temptations in the Wilderness. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. The proximity of this event to his baptism is important. The baptism was a joyous moment when the heavens broke open and God’s voice was heard: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” But no sooner does he receive that message than he is driven out to the desert for forty days and forty nights. Mark’s Gospel adds “immediately.” We’re to assume this was all in one day. It’s like when everything in life is going fine, the kids are OK, our mood is upbeat, work is humming along … and then the phone rings, with bad news that, in an instant, knocks our world off course.
“Whether I fly with angels, or fall with dust / Thy hand made both and I am there.” That’s from a poem by English priest George Herbert. “Thy power and love, my love and trust / make one place, everywhere.” It’s all God’s domain, the rivers and the deserts of our lives.
In the wilderness, Jesus fasts and prays for forty days, just like Moses and Elijah did before him. When he’s famished and more than a bit delirious, Satan comes to him with three temptations. Someone last week at our Bible study pointed out that this hardly seems historical. You can’t go without food that long, and who was there to even witness the event? How do we know this happened? The genre of this story is unclear. But Isolation and Testing are certainly part of any good leader’s development. I’ve heard it said that Myth is something that never happened but is always happening. Temptation certainly happened to Jesus throughout his life. Temptation is always happening to us, too. Nobody is spared temptation. It’s universal. It’s unending.
His three trials in this story are to turn stones into bread, thus break his fast; to throw himself down from the temple pinnacle, putting God to the test; and the sort of Faustian bargain, to rule the kingdoms of the the world in exchange for serving the devil. They’re grand but familiar, and made manifest in many ways. The temptation to lord it over others, to test God, to give up. We know these well.
Last week I spoke about how the Bible is hyperlinked. Literary critics call it “intertextuality.” One passage links to another and to another and so on. This reading is another good example, only it’s even less subtle than last week’s. Each time Satan tempts Jesus, he fends off the temptation with a quote from Deuteronomy. “Man shall not live on bread alone.” That’s from Deuteronomy 8, and also reference to today’s Old Testament lesson, where the supplicant is instructed to take his first fruits to the Temple, to worship before feasting. Then he quotes a slightly later passage in Deuteronomy, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” And finally “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Satan even does his own quoting of Scripture, from today’s Psalm, Psalm 91: “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The Church Fathers who put these readings together many centuries ago deliberately made them link up. We’re supposed to recognize and make these connections.
Learning from Jesus here, in times of difficulty, what we draw from to withstand the hardship must already be in us. As our Epistle reading from Romans says, “The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” That was true for Jesus here. He had absorbed his tradition, its Scripture, so completely that he could summon them even here, starving and thirsting in the desert.
That’s an important lesson for Lent. The poet Brad Leithauser, in an article called “Why we memorize”, wrote that “memorized poems are a sort of larder, laid up against the hungers of an extended period of solitude.” Memorized poems are a sort of larder, a pantry, cupboard where we store our food and from which we draw, for sustenance. It’s a fitting metaphor for Lent. The night before Lent begins is Shrove Tuesday when it’s the tradition to empty your larder of all the fat and sweets. It’s exactly what we’re called to do spiritually this season. Empty our larders, our hearts, of the stuff that isn’t good for us, and then begin stocking it with what is. Words from Scripture, our Sunday prayers or hymns, time in silence and meditation, poetry, music, art. That way, when we’re undergoing our own trials in the wilderness like Jesus in this Gospel reading, we already have within us all we need to survive.
Lent is an archaic word for spring. It means lengthening, for the lengthening of the days. Clear out what won’t save you, and begin to stock your larder with what will. That’s the calling of Lent. Amen.