Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Lent.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
I give up.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard that phrase in the last year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said it, either.
Another lockdown? I give up. More at-home schooling? I give up. Trying to plan any kind of in-person event? I give up. Arguing about masks? I give up. Trying to even remember what day of the week it is? I give up.
I have a friend who is particularly vehement about her dislike of virtual school. Her social media posts on the topic will have you rolling; in hilarious detail, she shows what it’s like to try to wrangle two kids with limited attention spans into one more online class or “fun” learning project. The pictures that accompany her posts usually show kids with paint on them, or craft supplies strewn all over the house, or the cat sitting on the computer.
“I give up,” she jokes, even though she hasn’t, not really, not once. Because honestly, we can’t. We don’t have a choice.
I’ve heard the jokey, exasperated, so-over-it tone when my friends tell me they’re ready to give up. But I’ve also heard the pain, the exhaustion, the resolution from a few. They’re ready to be done. And not in a jokey way.
This pandemic has been hell—and I do not use the term lightly—it has been hell on mental health. I’ve had more than one friend consider giving up, in the most serious sense of the phrase.
If that’s where you are today, please, let me or someone else you know and trust know. We’re not ready to give up on you, I promise.
There has been too much giving up already this year, and yet here we are again, in the season of Lent. The season where even the barely churched know that you’re supposed to give something up.
And y’all, I can’t. Not this year.
I mean, did Lent ever even really end last year?
That’s the question my clergy colleagues and I kept asking each other as we planned for this new season, Lent of 2021. I know we had Easter last year. There’s video proof, if I had the heart to go watch it. But it didn’t really feel like Easter. It feels like Lent never ended.
When we began Lent last year, things were normal. We were eating out and planning parties and singing hymns, going to school, going to work. Perhaps some of us had chosen something to give up for Lent of 2020, or a new spiritual practice to take on. Perhaps we were going to give up chocolate, social media, or gossip. Perhaps we were going to journal, or volunteer weekly, or read the Bible more regularly.
And then the world fell apart.
We gave up more than we could have ever imagined, and we took on almost more than we could bear.
We gave up so much this past year, and we took on so much more. We had to give up gathering, singing, praying, and eating together in person. Having easy conversations with people at the office or at the store. Celebrating birthdays and weddings and graduations and proms. Visiting loved ones. We had to give up our own sense of daily safety and security. And we have taken on layer upon layer of anxiety and uncertainty. We have taken up the practice of masking, hand washing, carefully planning our outings. We have taken up following the numbers, seeing the death toll rise, waiting on the phone for hours to get a vaccine appointment. Some of us have taken on the work of grief, of missing the coworkers and neighbors and relatives and childhood friends we never got to say good-bye to.
We have given up and taken on enough.
This is not a normal Lent. It can’t be. Most Lents the job of the season is to invite us to imagine a world of scarcity, of shadows, of wilderness, of want. This year there is no need to imagine it. This year we are living it in full color.
When I was a kid, I was taught to give up something I loved for Lent, because it would teach me the suffering of Christ. Forgive me, but spending a month and a half without chocolate (it was, almost always, chocolate) never gave me an inch of understanding the depth of Christ’s sacrifice. Mostly it made me cranky, self-righteous, and obsessed with my own piety.
Friends, this is not the year to give up anything that brings you joy. This is not the year to give up anything that helps you cope. This is not the year to add a single ounce of hardship to the weights already hanging around our necks.
The point of Lent is not to suffer. Suffering may bring us great blessings; it may show us God’s face; it may reveal to us our own strength; but it is not something to take on lightly, like the season’s latest fashion. Christ did not say he came to bring suffering, but life, and life abundant.
At first I was bewildered on how to preach the temptation of Christ this year. But then I saw that we were in Mark, and Mark barely notices it. Two small verses are all we get: after his baptism, Christ is immediately driven out into the wilderness. He is there forty days, tempted by Satan; he is with the wild beasts; and the angels wait on him.
Mark does not bother to record what the temptations are, or anything about how Christ handled it. The wilderness is a waystop, a place to wait and gather strength, because the real work is not with Satan, but with the people.
Jesus leaves the wilderness as quickly as Mark threw him into it, to go to Gallillee and proclaim the good news, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Believe in the good news. The kingdom of God is nearer than you think.
This is Christ’s work: stitching the gap between wilderness and kingdom so that every last one of us would know that we are found, and safe, and beloved. Christ is not hung up on the wilderness. He never mentions it again. He is laser-focused on the kingdom of God, where all will be made new.
After all, Christ did not enter the wilderness just to be tired and hungry, but to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God.
I said this is not the year to give up what brings you joy, and I meant it. The last thing we need in this pandemic is caffeine-deprived, disconnected, cranky people. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth giving up.
Each week during Lent, we’re going to look at what hurts us, hurts our relationship with others and with God. We’re going to look at what it would take to give up those things, so that we might be knit ever-tighter to the heart of God, and find ourselves living a bit more each day in the light of God’s kingdom.
I was inspired by the words of Rev. Stacey Midge this week, a friend and colleague in this presbytery. In her usual determined, defiant, and compassionate way, she wrote,
“Personally, I am giving up nothing this Lent. I am refusing to urge myself further into penitent space, or to spend extra time pondering my mortality, because God knows I’ve been doing plenty of that for the last year, and I’m sure there will continue to be plenty of it without any intention on my part. Instead I am seizing every possible instance of joy when it comes. I am taking every opportunity to celebrate, even though my celebrations will not take their usual shape. I am seeking every tiny sign of life in this barren landscape.
That is the only discipline I can bear this year. That is the only discipline I need this year.”
Lent is a good place for us to linger for awhile. It is a soft place, where the lights are dimmed and all we need to do is follow, follow Christ, along the path we’ve walked so many times before.
But keep a weather eye on the horizon, my loves. Easter is there, glimmering bright.
And Christ will not give up until we see it.