When I was a kid my grandmother lived with us for half of every year. It was always fun for us to have my Dad’s mom right there with us; I am not so sure my mother felt the same way…. See, Grandma had her sacrosanct routines: Grapenuts cereal with bananas for breakfast every day, mass very early on Sunday mornings, and, as she called them, her shows. Every weekday beginning at about 11 am, no one was allowed to interrupt Grandma, who would be glued to the television for several hours watching her favorite soap operas.
Maybe you had a Grandma like this, too. If you did, then you and I might share a common soundtrack of childhood. You remember, the dramatic voiceover at the beginning of every episode of The Days of Our Lives, the picture of an hourglass with the haunting recitation: “Like sands through the hourglass…so are the days of our lives…”.
That soundtrack kept running through my mind this week as we dressed the altar with black and mixed the ashes for Ash Wednesday and did all that we do around here to get ready for Lent, because if there’s any liturgical season in which to be mindful of the fleeting nature of our lives, Lent is it.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and as we make our way through these next forty days, following Jesus through his ministry all the way to Jerusalem and the dark days of holy week until Easter, we’re using as our guide the Gospel passages provided for us by the lectionary. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the lectionary is a three year cycle of assigned passages followed by many churches in the Christian world; the lectionary is a place to start with our holy text each week. If you’ve never noticed, in small print at the end of the service on your bulletin is a list of the passages we’re assigned for next week, in case you want to read ahead.
As I was looking at the Gospel passages for the season of Lent this year, I noticed that each of the passages we will read for the next five weeks or so contains a numeric reference to time. Today’s is forty days, others include phrases like: three days later, the third day, one more year, a few days later…you know, numeric references. And, I thought, this seems unusual to me; perhaps it bears taking a closer look this Lent.
Now, for those of you who know me well, you may have some doubts about this approach to looking at the message of scripture by the numbers. I know my kids do. The other night my daughter Hannah was showing me a homework assignment from her precalculus class in which she had to graph something. She was happily displaying her A on the paper and explaining to me the parabola, asymptotes, and x & y coordinates, when she paused, looked up at me, and said, “Mom, I know you have no idea what I am talking about, but I am just going to tell you about it anyway.”
Thank goodness these Lenten gospel passages don’t ask us to graph anything with all their numeric references. Still, I wonder if the careful marking of time using specific numbers has something to do with the gospel writers’ emphasis on intention. That is, maybe they are trying to say to their readers, to us: listen carefully…this is important…walk through these experiences with intention…think deeply about each step you take during this trip toward the cross…live your live meaningfully and carefully…this stuff matters.
In all the craziness of our modern lives, in the frantic and unrelenting pace of this power-hungry, self-important city, in the constant push to do more, achieve more, be more…we can easily lose sight of what it means to live with intention and careful thought, to take every moment of our precious lives and to make them count. But the Psalmist knew better; he wrote: “Teach us to number our days, that we might gain a heart of wisdom.”
And so we begin this Lent, by the numbers.
Today, imagine, if you will, a man left for more than a month in a remote desert, parched landscape all that surround him. He has suddenly been taken away from his friends, his family, the comforts of his home. Unlike any time in this man’s life previous to this experience, he is now engaged in trying to survive—scrounging for food where it does not exist, living off whatever he can find, struggling to extract enough clean water to keep himself alive. No shelter awaits him; he has to come up with a make-shift alternative to keep himself covered. He’s fighting the elements, the sun burning his skin, the dust flying in his face all day long. The bugs are biting and the wildlife all around seems threatening.
To make matters worse, the environment seems to bring out all the character flaws this man never thought he had. He went into this feeling like his life was on the right track, but all of the sudden the desires he had banished came to the surface again. The austere and disciplined life he had achieved starts falling apart when he finds he’s tempted to sell his soul just for one slice of bread. The man is surrounded by voices of greed, jealousy, dishonesty and competition. He’s drawn into the temptation of giving everything up for what looks, off in the distance, like utter happiness and total fulfillment.
I love the TV show, Survivor!
And, we read about a similar experience Jesus had in today’s Gospel passage, a story we read every year on the first Sunday of Lent. It’s the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the desert, where he went for forty days at the very beginning of his ministry, and it’s a story that all three of the synoptic Gospels include: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so they all must have thought it was important.
From a biblical scholarship standpoint, this number, forty, should immediately make us take notice and pick up on the biblical allusions it carries with it. The people of Israel, remember, spent forty years in the wilderness, the desert, wandering around trying to find their way to the promised land. The prophet Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness, too, waiting for the voice of God. Moses also hung out for forty days in the wilderness waiting for God to give him the law.
This reference to forty days in the desert seems to carry with it deep meaning, to symbolize a time of waiting in a desolate place, a wild place, a place of total dependence, a place to grapple with questions, a place to wait for an answer to emerge. Forty days, just like our own season of Lent.
This story appears in Luke’s Gospel right after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, ready to get going on saving the world, when, Luke tells us, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. For forty days he was all alone in a barren, desolate place, without food to eat, alone with his own thoughts and fears and hopes and doubts. Alone…except, the text says, for the Devil, Satan, the embodiment of all the doubts Jesus had about who he was and what he was meant to do with his life. Like all of us, Jesus was seeking meaning for his human experience, and he had questions, doubt, deep wondering about what his life would mean.
The Devil must have known this too, because he tried to get Jesus right at his most vulnerable. First, knowing Jesus was hungry after his starvation diet of forty days, the Devil taunted him with the temptation of bread. If you are really the Son of God like you say you are, then why not turn these stones into bread?
Jesus, stomach grumbling and mouth watering, surely could see the Devil’s point, and it was a good one. Jesus was feeling discomfort and he had the opportunity to use his time and intention and power to ease his hunger, to meet his immediate physical needs, to give in to that very human desire to consume something, anything, in an attempt to fill the emptiness—physical, emotional, relational—that gnaws away at us and distracts us from deeper reflection.
The Devil’s second temptation was to show Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and tell him they were his for the taking. Just worship me, the Devil said, and they’re yours. And think what you can do with all the kingdoms of the world! There won’t be any inconvenient tussles with the authorities for you then, no threat of death or anything like that—you’ll have all the stuff you need to make yourself feel secure!
And the third temptation the Devil presented to Jesus was identity…throw yourself off the temple and show the world that angels will catch you. Everyone will see how powerful and prestigious you are. They won’t have any doubts that you’re the Son of God then! It will be a much quicker way to impress folks than walking around the countryside telling them to love their enemies and crazy stuff like that!
Almost all the commentators who write commentary on this text take the approach of breaking down these three temptations and finding each of their deeper meanings. There are books written about what each one of these temptations represents, why the Devil chose those three particular temptations, and what each one symbolizes for us.
I prefer today, however, to keep it simple, because it seems to me that there is something that all three of these temptations have in common, and maybe it’s something, as we start this forty day journey through the desert of Lent ourselves, to which we should pay attention. That commonality is: distraction. Distraction from the real and painful internal work of finding out who we are in this world and who we’re meant to be.
Can you see it?
This Lent: you may be giving some thought to who you really are and how to make your life meaningful. But here’s the distraction: a voice that says, “Don’t be silly! That’s too much work…it’s painful and hard to live with intention. Instead, here…exercise some more, have a drink, eat another brownie or three or four…”.
The Lent: perhaps you’ll have some time to think about how to intentionally build a life that reflects God’s hopes for the world. But then the distraction will appear: “Why don’t you get your mind off things by making sure you have enough stuff? Staunch that fear of living intentionally by buying stuff and bringing it home to your already over-crowded house, by spending your time worried about money, by buying that new whatever because it feels good, then desperately clutching all this stuff in an attempt to feel secure in an ever-changing world.”
The Lent: maybe you’re ready to look in the mirror and be honest, to be honest with yourself about who you really see staring back at you. But then the voice of distraction sounds again: “That might be too painful. It might change what other people think about you. It might force you to see yourself for who you really are. Instead, go to school a lot. Get a whole bunch of diplomas to hang on your wall. Build professional acclaim that will define who you are to the world and save you the trouble of looking within! Fill your life with work…work, work, work. It will keep your mind off the feeling that you might not be good enough! And work hard at climbing the social ladder; if you do that, then everybody will think you’re somebody and maybe, just maybe, you won’t even have to look too closely in that mirror yourself.”
Right there at the beginning of his ministry, his true meaning and purpose spread out before him like the challenge they were, Jesus was tempted by distraction. All the voices around him urged him NOT to do the work it takes to live intentionally. There was plenty around him to take his attention, and there’s plenty around us to do the same.
As we begin these forty days of Lent, it’s more than the chocolate we promised to give up that’s calling to us, tempting us to give in. It’s all of the distractions of this world that lure us into lives of complacency and numbness, of living day in and day out with no intention whatsoever.
And as we watch Jesus resist the attraction of all these things he could have used to distract him from the very purpose for which he was created, we must acknowledge that we can, and we do, often face the very same temptation. We can, so very easily, distract ourselves from the real work of living intentional and faithful lives.
The question for us today is: what will we do with our own forty days? We are faced with the temptation to set the hard internal work aside and glide through. But if we want to be people who live faithfully and intentionally in this world, then we can’t afford to waste any time in the task of becoming who we’re called to be.
In these next forty days, how will you live?
It’s an important question as we start out, because life is fleeting, and: “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives…”