First Sunday of Lent

I read about a husband and wife who had a turbulent fifty-year marriage. When they argued, they could be heard all over the neighborhood. The husband would shout: "When I die, I will dig my way up out of the grave and come back and haunt you for the rest of your life!"  Even the neighbors were afraid of him.

After the husband died, the wife's neighbors asked: "Aren't you afraid that he may be able to dig his way out of the grave and haunt you for the rest of your life?"  The wife calmly replied, "Let him dig. I had him buried upside down.  And I know he won't ask for directions." Is this a guy thing—not asking for directions!

We have begun our Lenten journey from ashes to Easter. Last Wednesday we had our foreheads smudged with ashes and heard the prayer, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.”  Dust represents the human condition.  It symbolizes how transitory and fragile human life is: here today, gone tomorrow.

Lent is a forty-day retreat.   It's a time to ask again who and what are our most important priorities in life.  Yes, it's a time to follow Jesus into the wilderness, into the desert not only to confront the demons or addictions within us but also to replenish ourselves with the gifts of the Spirit (for example, wisdom, good judgment, courage).    Lent is a time to recall how the Jews of old saw the desert.  It was not only an abode of wild beasts and demons; it was a place where a person encountered God and where God encountered the person.

So, what are we bringing into the wilderness where God will encounter us and we, God.  Maybe you're feeling an emptiness, a dissatisfaction.   Things are going OK, but you're starting to wonder:  Is this what it's all about?  You're building an impressive resume, but what does it all mean in the end?  So let this be the season to focus on doing the right thing.  To quote Shakespeare in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.”

Maybe you find yourself facing new challenges and problems that you may not have expected: making the family income stretch a little more; living with a serious illness; needing to support a son or daughter through an especially difficult time.

Or maybe you're encountering a new development in life: a wedding, the birth of a child; an anxious first year of college away from home.

Or maybe you're confronting the “tempter.”  You have to make some tough life-changing decisions. Listen to Jesus' response to his “tempter”: God instead of bread, service instead of a self-centered life, humility and generosity instead of celebrity.

As you struggle to find your way through a wilderness of doubts, challenges, change and decisions, remember that Jesus also trekked through the wilderness.  So this Lent, stop and ask for directions; in the solitude of prayer and in conversation with those you love and who love you.

Lent is a time to stop, to look at our options, to ask who am I, where am I going and what's my true purpose in life.  It's a time to reflect on what we want our life to be and why God gave us life in the first place. During these forty days of Lent, the Spirit leads us to rediscover the presence of God in our lives; to walk with Jesus as our traveling companion through our own wilderness; and to let his Spirit of compassion and his light of wisdom subdue the “tempter” as we strive to be a grace to others by being grace ourselves.

Lent challenges us to fix “our eyes” on the things that truly matter; to have a change of heart; to live in a better relationship with God and with one another.

The word of God carries us back to a story about three characters: a man, a woman and a snake. It explains how evil entered the world. In the beginning, the Book of Genesis says, God fashioned a magnificent universe and created man and woman to enjoy it.   They walked with God; they had friendship with God and friendship with one another.

It's a symbolic story.  There's the tree of life, like in so many ancient near east stories.  But there's another tree, the one that gave knowledge of good and evil, a tree symbolizing divine status. Enter the snake. The snake was cunning. It slithered through the grass and laid low the unwary. And it talked.  Lying talk. It set people against one another and against God. Man and woman wanted to have divine status, to be self-sufficient; and so they ate the “forbidden fruit.” They suddenly were a laughing-stock, naked. They lost their friendship with God, they fell from grace. Evil intruded into their lives.  And ever since, although we are intrinsically good, left to our own devices we have a tendency to choose evil over good.  How else explain the appalling violence in century after century.

Ever since the fall from grace, human beings have desperately cried out for God’s healing power. And that is why God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth: so we could have God's friendship again.  

The author may be asking us whether we see God as our friend, as our walking companion as we face doubts, challenges and decisions.

Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Rome says very simply that, just as we fell from God's grace or friendship through the first Adam, so now through the second Adam, the crucified and risen Christ, we have God's grace or friendship again.

Paul may be asking us whether we are living a godlike life, a life of virtue as a friend of God should.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness as the ancient Hebrews were tested in the wilderness centuries before. Would Jesus simply satisfy his physical hunger at the expense of his mission or purpose in life?  No. His food is to do the will of his heavenly Father. Or would Jesus simply work signs and wonders so that people would puff up his ego?  No. Jesus refuses to play superman to suit his fancy or whim. Or would Jesus seek political power so that people would kowtow to him?  No. Jesus refuses to worship anyone, adore anything except God alone.  Jesus will not make a god out of material goods, celebrity status or political power.  No. He will only seek to do the will of his heavenly Father.

Jesus may be asking whether we are pursuing wealth, power, celebrity status or whatever at the expense of what truly matters: our relationships with God and one another.

Lent tells us that it is time to ask God for the grace to get our priorities straight.  It's a time for prayer; a time to do without unnecessary things so that the needy can have necessary things; a time to reach out with a helping hand to others whether through volunteer service or charitable giving or whatever. For hundreds of years, Lent has focused on these three disciplines: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Re-discover and re-treat yourself to these age-old disciplines again this Lent.

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