This sermon was preached at the start of Lent. As a church we are using Lent for Everyone: Matthew by Tom Wright, as our Lent book, so I made use of that as the basis of the sermon.
Lent; Matthew 4.1-11
What have you given up for Lent? That’s a question I’ve been asked recently, as I get asked pretty much every year. What have you given up for Lent? That’s basically the part of Lent that people still recognise. It’s a time to give up something. To give up chocolate, or Facebook, or alcohol, or cakes, or whatever it is. But, the reason for giving up something tends to get a forgotten.
So, people often give up something so that they can lose weight, or be healthier, or so they can spend more time with their families, or for some sort of self-improvement. Now, none of that is a bad thing to do, and Lent might be a good time to do it. It’s certainly a better time to do it than making and trying to keep New Year’s resolutions! Remember them? Probably not…
But, none of that is really what Lent is about. It’s not even what fasting is really about.
We heard the reading from Matthew gospel that starts the season of Lent. Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. That was an essential part of his preparation for what he was preparing to do. An essential part of preparing for his life and work, and also for his death and resurrection.
And so our season of Lent is 40 days long. 40 days plus the 6 Sundays, because Sundays don’t count. Why? Because, Sundays are always a mini-celebration of Easter, a celebration of the new life that Jesus brings, a reminder of the kingdom of God that has come and is coming.
Which is what we also do during Lent. Prepare again for our life and work, and prepare again to remember Jesus’ death on the cross and his rising to new life at Easter, to open up the way for us to come into God’s kingdom.
And so Jesus fasts. Gives up food for 40 days and 40 nights. That was the same length of time that we’re told Moses was on Mount Sinai when he was in God’s presence and received the 10 commandments. And they also make us think of the 40 years that the Israelites then spent wandering in the wilderness before they were allowed into the Promised Land. Not least because of the quotes that Jesus uses to resist the devil. He quotes from Deuteronomy 8, and then Deuteronomy 6. All of which is Moses’ sermon to the Israelites as they are in the wilderness, telling them what is going to happen, reminding them of the need to stay faithful to their loving God who rescued them and will remain with them.
Jesus is tempted to misuse his power. Jesus is tempted to misuse his power to satisfy only himself. Jesus is tempted to misuse his power to gain more power, to take the quick and easy route, not the longer, harder, more painful route that will ultimately bring more healing, more help, the true coming of God’s kingdom, but at much greater cost. And Jesus is finally tempted to get his power from another source, from the devil and not from God. If ever we needed an example of why the ends can’t justify the means it’s this temptation.
Our temptations might be different to Jesus’. Or they might be similar. To misuse our power. To take short cuts. To think ‘oh this one little thing won’t hurt’. But, what we can learn, is how Jesus responds. He responds by acknowledging that this is a temptation and by knowing why it is wrong. He has spent time in prayer, has spent time reading the Bible, and so his
That reading from Matthew’s gospel was also yesterday’s reading, if you’re following the Lent book that as a church we’re reading. It’s Lent for Everyone: Matthew, by Tom Wright. Tom Wright is a bishop and leading theologian, and can also write very well and very clearly. So, it’s well worth a read, and it’s not too late to get involved with reading it.
And in this book, Tom Wright talks about how the temptations Jesus struggled with were part of the ongoing battle in the coming of God’s kingdom. And how our struggles with our temptations are also part of that ongoing battle. And it’s a battle that we are more equipped to deal with if we, like Jesus, steep ourselves in the Bible, if we, like Jesus spend time in prayer, and if we, like Jesus, seek to shape our lives around God’s loving call.
What does that look like? That’s going to be different for each one of us. Notice that Jesus quotes from a couple of chapters of Deuteronomy. Perhaps that was what he was reading that day. Perhaps that was what he was spending the 40 days reading. Finding something that helps us to get closer to God, to discover more about him is what’s important. Whether that’s an app on our phone or tablet, signing up for a daily or weekly email, listening to a CD, or a Christian radio station like Premier or UCB, following along with the Lent book, or whatever it is that works for you.
Because giving up something for Lent, and better, taking up something for Lent isn’t about self-improvement as a goal, although that will probably be one of the side-effects. Because giving up things for Lent, or taking up things for Lent is really about getting closer to God, about giving us the time and space and opportunities to spend more time with God, discovering more about him, about our lives reflecting something more of his love and his call on our lives.
And giving up something for Lent is only part of it, and not even the most important part. Traditionally, there are three elements of Lent, three disciplines we’re particularly encouraged to practise during this time of preparation. They are prayer, fasting, and giving to those in need. So, if we’re giving up something it’s so that we have time to spend with God, it’s so that people less fortunate than us will benefit. God isn’t interested in making us suffer, in having us deprive ourselves without reason.
Which also brings us to today’s reading from the Lent book, which is Psalm 32.
We’ll read this together. I’ll read the odd numbered verses if you can respond with the even numbered verses.
This psalm picks up on another important aspect of Lent. It picks up on the importance and need for forgiveness. That’s why we start our services with a time of confession, a chance to recognise that we have fallen short of God’s loving call for our lives, and a chance to hear the promise from the end of Psalm 32 (verse 10):
the Lord’s unfailing love
surrounds the one who trusts in him.
This psalm reminds us of the importance of saying sorry, of confessing the wrong things that we have done, and the good things that we have failed to do. Otherwise, our relationships our damaged, our own lives are damaged. Things are distorted and twisted. But, the good news of this psalm, the good news of Lent is that (Psalm 32:1):
Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
We can know God’s blessing. And that makes a difference to how we live our lives, to what we do and say and think. And we’re called in turn to be a blessing to others, with God’s help, with God’s unfailing love surrounding us, and overflowing from us to those around us.
In the book, Wright ends today’s section by saying:
Father, help me, this Lent, to confess my sin honestly and to celebrate the new life which you give to those who trust you. Amen
Lent is a time for discipline, for confession, for honesty, not because God is mean or fault-finding, or finger-pointing but because he wants us to know the joy of being cleaned out, ready for all the good things he now has in store.
So, what have you given up for Lent? Have you given up anything for Lent? Either way, what have you taken up for Lent? If you haven’t, it’s not too late! What thing or things can you take up that bring you closer to the presence of our loving God? It might be to do with prayer and Bible reading. It might be to do with receiving release and accepting forgiveness, or seeking to forgive others. It might be giving of your time, your talents or your money to draw others closer to God. Through helping out here in church. Through giving to the foodbank or another charity. Through volunteering. Through helping a friend or neighbour.
And most of those will require some sort of fast, some sort of giving up to make room for the better thing that you are doing. And part of that might indeed be a fast, a giving up of food, in order to do some of those things. But it doesn’t have to be. The important thing about Lent is that it gives us the time and encouragement to focus on the God who loves us too much to leave us as we are. To hear afresh our loving God who longs for us and the whole of his creation to be brought into his kingdom, and gives us the privilege of being part of how that is going to happen.
I’ll finish with today’s prayer from the book: