Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sermon: Lent Punctuation

Sermon for Lent 1, Year A
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse, March 9, 2014
Lectionary readings for the day, click here
Open our lips, O Lord,
that our mouth shall proclaim your praise.  Amen
Welcome to Lent! 
As you may know,
Lent is a time for adopting and practicing disciplines
that prepare us to receive the mystery of Easter. 
Lent is a reflective time, to settle into
the vast expanse of God’s love for us.
Lent is a season of following Jesus to Jerusalem
and preparing for Easter, slowly, mindfully.


A few years ago, I lived in an urban neighborhood
where two streets dead-ended.
At the corner, one of my neighbors placed
a sandwich-board style sign in his yard. 
Set near the sidewalk in plain view of drivers
from either direction, it read,
There was no punctuation,
so we amused ourselves by wondering
what exactly this meant. 
Did it mean there were children nearby
who were slow to react? 
Did it mean to tell drivers to go slow, comma,
for children were around? 
Did it carry the voice of authority, telling the drivers
in all caps, to go slow, you children!

In a way, this sign and its multiple meanings invites us
to look for the punctuation in our Gospel text today. 
Many have interpreted Jesus’
temptation in the wilderness to be about
how drastically different Jesus is from the rest of us. 


Wet behind the ears from his baptism,
the Spirit leads Jesus directly into the wilderness
for the devil to tempt him.
In three successive attempts,
Jesus rejects the offers. 

Jesus declines the bread offer,
thus rejecting temptation of personal gain. 
Jesus turns away from the “angels will hold you up” offer,
          thus rejecting the lure of safety and security. 
Jesus discards the
“control all kingdoms of the world” offer,
thus rejecting the draw of power and prestige.

So, in denying these temptations,
Jesus remains without sin[1] and
*seems* to show how drastically different he is
from the rest of us.
Yet, when we slow down, children,
we can see that the real message is about
how Jesus is very much like human kind. 

In the wilderness, he feels the very human suffering
          that comes from the spurring of desires.
Over and over, Jesus faces the possibility
of distancing himself from humanity. 
Over and over, he stares down the prospect
of miraculous super-powers
Yet, over and over,
Jesus drastically identifies with humanity.

What is especially noteworthy is that
Jesus had just been baptized by John,
the Holy Spirit had just descended and
the voice from heaven had just declared him
to be God’s own beloved son.

Perhaps the biggest temptation,
having just been named the Son of God,
was to stop being human.

For us, too. 
Doesn’t our greatest temptation
(for personal gain, or security, or power)
arrive when we have just experienced
Divine grace through service with others?

Or when it seems our prayers have just been answered?
Or when our family, for once, sees things our way? 
Isn’t *that* the time when we feel we are on a roll
and can be enticed into feeling superhuman?

So it seems that would have been just the time
for Jesus to emphasize his difference
from the rest of humanity. 

Yet here, at the beginning of Jesus ministry,
there is another narrative at play. 
We glimpse Jesus’ future kenosis on the cross. 
We see him relinquishing divine traits
so that he can experience human suffering.

Jesus remains firm, over and over, in being human.

He joins us in our susceptibility
to the suffering of desire and
the distortion that desire brings.

With this punctuation,
we see that Jesus’ temptation is about
his refusal to “play God.”
By affirming his humanity,
Jesus is surely Immanuel,

This Lenten season, may we mindfully
embrace our humanity and
punctuate it with God’s love.  In this way, we can:
“Fast from fear; Feast on Faith
Fast from despair; Feed on hope.
Fast from depressing news; Feed on prayer.
Fast from discontent; Feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger and worry; Feed on patience.
Fast from bitterness; Feed on love and forgiveness.[3]

When we slow down, children,
we realize afresh what is means to be a child of God:
It means that we, too, do not ask for
miraculous exceptions to our human limitations. 
It means we live an authentic life, acting for peace and justice while being lifted up from the love of God. 
It means we recognize
the abundance of grace and
the gift of God’s forgiveness.[4] 

It means that Jesus punctuates our lives and
walks with us every step of the way
as we prepare to receive the mystery of Easter.                        


[1] This is attested to emphatically in the letter to the Hebrews, which emphasizes our confidence in the abundance of grace. See Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
[2] Inspired by The Rev. Joyce Mercer, Ph.D., “Reflection for the First Sunday in Lent,” Virginia Theological Seminary, March 5, 2014
[3] As noted in Fr. Tommy Lane’s homily for Lent 1, Year C, 2013 (adapted from A Lenten Prayer by William Arthur Ward)
[4] Inspired from the New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew 4:1-11 Reflections, p. 166.

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