Another Purpose for Lent
February 29, 2004
There is nothing like a conversation with the devil to seize your attention. A confrontation with the Prince of Darkness certainly breaks the routine of life. The story of Jesus’ temptation is the only scene in the gospels where Jesus and the devil have a conversation. It stands apart from every narrative in the gospels. It is unique. The church has wisely chosen to use this story each year on the first Sunday of Lent because its very uniqueness points to an important aspect of the 40 days we are beginning. This story reminds us that Lent is different from every other time of the year.
There are of course many ways to understand the purpose of Lent. We can view Lent as a time to turn away from sin, as a time to grow as a person, as a time to deepen our relationship with the Lord. All these approaches are valid. But I would like to suggest to you this morning another purpose for this season.
Lent is meant to break the routine of living. This is an important result because the danger of routine is all too easily underestimated. You see, once we become set in our careers; once we establish our families; once we learn the ropes of living; it is easy for routine to take over. We know all the familiar patterns. We settle into the well-worn grooves of habit which move us easily from one thing to the next. “I know this. I’ve done it before. I can do it again.” Our life becomes automatic. In doing so, our living becomes shallow. We slide from one thing to another, without much thought or reflection. We eat, we sleep, we work, we relax. We drive the children to the dentist, we make love with our spouse. Such living may seem easy, but it lessens our life. Because once we let routine take over, we are not really living but simply responding to the routine that pushes us along.
Now routine is not a problem for everyone. If you are still looking at what you want to do in your life; if you are cutting your teeth on a new job or relationship; if there is some tragedy in your life such as sickness or divorce or death, routine is the least of your problems. But for those of us who are set, for those of us who have settled in and fallen into habitual living, routine is a lethal danger. For once we have put our lives on automatic pilot, the days and the years slip by without much reflection or depth. Once those opportunities are gone they are gone for good.
Lent then is an opportunity to break the routine of life. This is what Lenten practices are meant to achieve. This is why we decide to make the Stations of the Cross or give additional time and money to the poor. This is why we give up smoking or alcohol. It is like putting a stone in your shoe. It is something to remind you, something to break the normal pattern of living. The hope, of course, is that if we can break the routine, we can begin to ask important questions: Who am I? What do I value? How do I need to change? What am I taking for granted? Those are the questions that the routine of life erases from our consciousness. Those are the questions which must be asked if we are truly going to live.
Therefore, on this first Sunday of Lent, stop and ask yourself: What am I going to do to break the routine of my life? Do I need add something that is not normally in my life? Do I need to stop something that is commonplace in my living? Do I need to reach out to others in service? Do I need to withdraw into myself and spend some time in reflection? You get to choose what step you want to take.
But please dare to break the routine of living. Dare to change the pattern of you regular routine. You do not need to run out into the wilderness and live there for 40 days. You do not need to arrange a conversation with the devil. But you do need to put breaks upon the forces that are moving you mindlessly from one thing to the next. You do need to create a space in which you can hear the voice of God. And I promise you this. If you create that space to listen, God will not be silent. God will speak a word to your heart—a word that will reveal the shallowness of routine—a word that will thrust you into the depths of living. God will speak to you a word of grace, of forgiveness and, yes, of re-creation.
Stewards of God’s Gifts
February 25, 2007
It is clear from today’s gospel that if we are to live as Christians, our lives will involve temptations. If Jesus was tempted, then certainly we shall be also. What might be less clear from the gospel is that temptation is often founded on a dispute over how we should use our talents and our abilities. When Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to prepare for his ministry, the devil comes and tries to tempt him to use his talents and gifts for his own sake rather than for God’s purpose. This text is not saying that our welfare and God’s purpose are opposed. Usually when we do God’s will we are also doing the best thing for ourselves. But the argument between Jesus and the devil is one over principle. Who has real authority over Jesus’ gifts and abilities? Is it Jesus’ choice how he will use them or does God have the higher claim? Jesus rebuffs the devil’s temptation and insists that God has the higher claim.
This gospel then calls us to consider who we really are and how our gifts and abilities should be used. Do we think that we have complete control over how we use our gifts and abilities, or do we think that God has the higher claim? The answer for a Christian is clear. We believe that God is our creator and that everything we have comes as a gift from God. Our very life is a gift. We would not exist had not God granted us life. The same is true for all that we do—our ability to think, our ability to work, our ability to run, to sing, to listen, to create—all of these abilities are gifts that God has given us. The same is true of time. Every day that we are given is a gift, a gift that allows us to choose how we will live that day and what will we use it for.
For the Christian believer, the vision is clear. All that we are, all that we have comes from God. All is meant for God’s glory. To a person that does not have faith, this is nonsense. What I have, I have, and I use it as I want to use it—as long as it is not illegal or does not hurt other people. But the Christian perspective is different. It sees everything that we have as a gift which has been entrusted to us. We are stewards of our own lives, of our own abilities, of our own time. And we know that God someday will ask us, “How did you spend your life? What did you do with the time, with the abilities and the talents that I gave you?” All of us are tempted from time to time to imagine that we are independent of that responsibility. But the Christian knows better. He or she understands that we are all stewards of God’s gifts.
Now I know that you all know this. This is not news to anyone. And yet it is a good thing every once in awhile for us to ask ourselves, “What kind of claim am I allowing God to have over my time and over my talents?” The answer to that question will vary from time to time in our lives. Parents certainly are constantly called as stewards to use their time and talent in the raising of their children. All of us are called as family members and friends to use our abilities to build unity and joy within our families and in our relationships. All of us feel called from time to time to give of ourselves to our community. The same is true of our church community. The simple truth is that we could not function as a parish unless many people gave of their time and talent to make our ministries and our life together possible.
It would be a disaster to view our relationship to St. Noel in commercial terms. It is not that the pastor and staff were providing services and you were buying them. Our parish should not be compared to a department store or gas station. It would make me the proprietor of a business and you the customers. But we are not a business. We are a parish, a community, a family in which together we share our talents and our abilities so that we can grow to know Christ better.
We are so blessed at St. Noel to have so many people who live according to that vision. We have hundreds of people who give of their time and talent. There are over fifty ministries that are active in our parish. Yet every so often it is important for us as a parish to highlight areas where there is still need. This is why last week I mentioned to you that our staff had selected nine areas in our parish where we could use more time and talent. I asked you to reflect upon whether you might be called to meet any of those needs. After Mass today there will be a stewardship open house in our Banquet Center. I invite all of you after Mass to come. There will be representatives from the nine areas we have identified, explaining further the nature of the ministries. Come even if you know already that you can not at this time offer your time and talent. Even if this is the case, we are all members of this community, and we should be aware of the needs that are present in our shared life. Moreover, you might know someone who has the time and ability to help, and you might encourage him or her to step forward. This stewardship open house does not indicate we are in a crisis. We are doing very well as a parish. If no one responds to any of the needs, we will still have a vibrant life together. It is simply a normal part of parish life to lift up areas where time and talent are needed, so that each one of us might consider whether God is calling us to respond.
There are hundreds of reasons why at this time you do not have either the gift or the time we need. That discernment is between you and the Lord. The only thing that I am asking, and the only thing I must ask you to do, is to consider: “What kind of a claim am I allowing God to have over my time and talent?” It is an important question. It is a question that’s very appropriate to this season of Lent, when we try to be better disciples. We are stewards of everything that we have. So reflect today, “Is God calling me to use more of my time and talent in any area of my life?” Of course, if you discern that God is calling you, I would suggest you respond.
A Time to Become Real
February 21, 2010
In 1922 Marjorie Williams published a children’s book entitled The Velveteen Rabbit. The book is still being read today, because in this book she devises a powerful image that reveals the purpose and meaning of life. I believe that that image can be useful for us in interpreting today’s gospel. The story is a simple one. One Christmas, a young boy receives a stuffed velveteen rabbit. When the Rabbit enters the nursery, some of the other toys flaunt their superiority over him. They say, “We are the real toys, because we have gears and switches and whistles. You are just a stuffed rabbit. You’re not a real toy.” This, of course, discouraged the Rabbit so he sought the wisdom of the Skin Horse who had been in the nursery for a very long time. He asked the Skin Horse, “What does it mean to be REAL? Does it mean that you have to have gears inside of you and switches to flip?” It is in the response of the Skin Horse to this question that Marjorie Williams sets forth the basic message of her book. Here’s that response:
“Real isn’t how you’re made, it’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt? asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes said the Skin Horse” for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, however, you don’t mind being hurt.”
The Rabbit asked, “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. These things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can never be ugly except to the people who don’t understand.”
There are four aspects to this beautiful image which are relevant for us today. First, the purpose of life is to become Real, to understand what is important, to grow in wisdom, and to live in the love of God and the love of others. Second, this is a process that doesn’t happen all at once, it happens bit by bit, year by year. Third, becoming Real sometimes hurts, it involves pain and rejection and sometimes failure. Growing is not easy. And four, once you become Real nothing else matters because you have become what you are meant to be.
Now the season of Lent, which we began last week, is another opportunity to become Real, to center on what is most important, to again claim the truth that we are called to live in the love of God and the love of others. It’s a lifelong process. It doesn’t happen all at once, it happens year by year, Lent by Lent, grace by grace. But this Lent, these forty days are another chance to take a step forward. We all know the things in our lives that we have tried in the past to make us happy and which have failed us and betrayed us. This Lent is another chance to put those things aside and no longer let them rule our lives. We all know the relationships in our lives that are broken and how happy we would be if they could be healed. This Lent gives us another opportunity to take a step to make that healing happen. We all know the people in our lives who are connected to us and who love us. We know how important it is for us to express that love, to build that love, to celebrate that love. Lent is another time to put those relationships first, to make sure that other things do not detract from them, to give ourselves to what is most important because it is through the love of God and others that we become Real.
Is this easy? Not at all. Every time we try to love we take the risk of being hurt, of being rejected, of making a wrong decision, or even of failure. We see Jesus in today’s gospel struggling with the devil. He does this because life is a struggle and growing is never easy. Even though Jesus is perfect, he still struggles because being human means that you don’t grow without a fight. But if you give yourself to the fight, if you struggle honestly, it will lead to growth and in time we can become who we are called to be.
So this Lent is a time to become Real, to put away the things that hurt us, to heal the relationships that are broken, to center ourselves more clearly on the love of God and neighbor. It’s a struggle. If we give ourselves to that struggle, there is little doubt that it will in time wear us out. In time our hair will be loved off, our eyes will be dim, our joints will be loose, and we’ll look overall rather shabby. But none of that will be important because when we live in the love of God and neighbor, we will be Real. And to be Real you can never be ugly—except to the people who don’t understand.
The Battle with the Devil
February 17, 2013
When we understand today’s gospel correctly, we understand what is at the heart of Jesus’ mission. Sometimes, we imagine this scene of Jesus and the devil in the desert is just obstacle that Jesus needs to jump over before he can begin his life’s work. But, this scene is his life’s work. It expresses in the clearest terms what the purpose of Jesus’ ministry is.
Jesus came into this world to defeat evil, to oppose all that is against God’s will. The devil in this scene represents the evil of the world, which Jesus intends to destroy. This becomes clearer when we understand that the Greek word in this text which we often translate as ‘temptation’ literally means ‘test’ or ‘contest.’ The devil is coming not so much to tempt Jesus as to fight with him. This scene is a struggle, a battle. The battle is against evil, and every subsequent scene in Jesus’ ministry is a continuation of it.
When Jesus heals a man who is crippled, he is not simply doing an action of kindness for an unfortunate individual. He is declaring that it is God’s intention to destroy every sickness, to eliminate whatever cripples human life. When Jesus heals a blind man, he is not simply reaching out to an individual in the darkness. He is declaring that it is God’s intention to eradicate every kind of blindness—the blindness which would put greed above service or violence above love, the blindness that would put coercion over human respect. When Jesus teaches the crowds on the hillside, he is not simply giving advice to those who would listen. He is revealing that there is a truth that can be used to confront evil and destroy it, a truth that will oppose prejudice, manipulation, and hate.
In every scene of Jesus’ ministry, the battle continues and every action of Jesus is another blow against the evil of the world that is first presented in this scene of Jesus and the devil in the desert.
But alas, evil does not submit easily. The evangelist Luke knows this because at the end of the scene he says, “After the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.” The battle is not over. The devil will return again at the climax of Jesus’ life—at the events in Jerusalem. It is those events, which we call the Paschal mystery, which make us Christian. Our faith stands on the conviction that the cross and resurrection of Jesus has broken the back of the devil and has inaugurated the ultimate defeat of evil. But that defeat is not complete. Even though the devil’s back is broken, he continues to crawl along and spread evil in our world. His final defeat will not occur until Jesus returns and destroys every evil forever. Until that day, our job is to take up Jesus’ mission, to fight with him against the evil that surrounds us, to undermine the power of evil in our world.
Sometimes we imagine that being a Christian is merely about knowing the Creed, coming to church, avoiding sin. These are all good things. But at the heart of discipleship is the commitment to join in Jesus’ mission, to take up arms against evil – wherever we find it.
On the last day, we will be called before the Lord to give an accounting of our life. If we come before him and say, “You know, I have said my prayers and I have tried to be as holy a person as I could be.” Jesus will say “Good. But what have you contributed to the destruction of evil? How have you fought at my side against those things that are against God’s will? Have you attacked prejudice or have you increased it? Have you attacked those things that are contrary to God’s will? Have you opposed injustice or have you tolerated it? Have you eschewed violence or have you fed it?” And it will be a bad day for us if that last day is the first time we ever realized that this is what Jesus has asked us to do.
Being a disciple of Jesus is taking up the battle against evil. It is more than avoiding sin. It is helping to create a new world. Following Christ is more than keeping ourselves pure. It is standing with Christ, facing the devil in the eye and saying, “Your power stops with me.”
The Long Struggle
February 14, 2016
Today’s gospel is a tough one, a tough gospel for Jesus. He is in the desert for forty days. He is hungry. He must face a long battle with Satan. Where is the good news in this story? Where can we find hope for our lives? Let me point to two places. The first is the last line: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Jesus for a time.” “That’s good news?” you say, “Doesn’t that mean that although the devil is finished for now, he is coming back? Doesn’t that mean that Jesus will have to struggle with Satan again?” That is exactly what it means. But this line can give us hope.
Sometimes we imagine that our struggle with evil will be quick and easy. But that is not the case. Once the devil is defeated, he intends to come back. If that is true for Jesus, it is certainly true for us. If the devil intends to try again with Jesus, we can be sure that he will try again and again with us. This truth makes it clear that our battle with evil is a lifelong process, and whoever would try to declare victory or defeat on the basis of a single battle is not prepared for the long haul.
Look at our own lives. We have a fault or a habit of sin we are trying to overcome, and we try our best. We seem to be making some progress, gaining some control, and then we fall again. We fail, and we feel weak and worthless. This gospel is telling us that that failure is only one battle. The devil will be back, and the next time with God’s grace we may be able to send him packing. Perhaps there is a dysfunctional relationship in our lives, a relationship that continually causes hurt and anger. So we try to understand, to be strong, to forgive. At times we make progress. We build trust. Then the hurt comes again, and all the anger pours out. We ask, “Why did I even try, what difference did it make?” This gospel reminds us that this failure is only one failure. There will be new opportunities in the future, and healing is not accomplished in a day. When we face the evil that is present in our society—poverty, injustice, violence, ignorance—we try to do our best. Perhaps we help someone to find a job or learn to read. Things seem to be going well. Then there is a disastrous decision or personal set back, and it seems that the little good that we had been able to accomplish is undone. This gospel tells us that those who would take on evil have to be in it for the long haul. Being defeated in one battle does not mean that we have lost for good.
This leads us to the second positive aspect of this gospel. It tells us that Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit. That means that when Jesus had to face Satan, God’s spirit was with him. The same, of course, is true for us.
So this gospel of the temptation of Jesus gives us hope in two ways. First, when we have to face evil in our own lives or in our society, neither victory nor defeat can be achieved in one battle. And secondly, when we have to face Satan, this gospel tells us that we will not stand before him alone.
The Devil’s Agenda
March 10, 2019
Luke 4: 1-13
I do not think that the devil spends much of his time tempting us to sin. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the devil is pleased when we lose patience with our children or when we throw out some cruel remark to a family member or co-worker. But the popular notion that the devil is always hovering around, waiting to entrap us is, I think, greatly overblown. This is because the devil has bigger fish to fry. The devil’s agenda is not to entice us into personal sin. The devil’s agenda is to rule the world. The devil’s focus is not to encourage our individual faults. But the devil is deeply committed to seeing that our world remains enslaved to injustice, violence, and every other kind of evil. We can see this clearly in today’s gospel. The devil presents all the kingdoms of the world before Jesus in a single instant and then he boasts, “I will give you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me and I may give it to whomever I wish.” The devil knows that his power extends to the four corners of the earth, and he wants to keep it that way.
Jesus does not. This is what the battle is about in today’s gospel. It is not so much tempting Jesus into personal sin as it is a battle over who is going to rule the world—Satan or Jesus. Jesus of course wins the battle in the desert and his victory is a foretaste of the victory that we will celebrate at the end of Lent during Holy Week. At the very heart of Christianity is the Paschal Mystery, the belief that God, through Christ, has broken the back of Satan’s rule. Even though the devil remains active in our world today, we believe a day will come when all evil will be destroyed. Then the rule of Satan will be replaced by the Kingdom of God.
So, the struggle between Satan and Jesus is cosmic. It is earth-shattering. The scope of this battle is a very good lens through which to view our Lenten journey. As we consider our Lenten practices, the size of the battle between Jesus and Satan encourages us to think big.
Is there a hurt in your family that has been festering for years and continually complicates family meetings and communications? Perhaps this Lent we should take that hurt on and try again to understand and perhaps heal it. Lent could be a time to speak to the people who are wounded in your family and encourage them to find a path to forgiveness. I assure you that if your family can take even one step towards forgiveness, it will be a greater blow against Satan’s power than if you had decided for Lent to give up chocolate.
Are there issues in our society that you feel are wrong and have troubled you for some time: the growing acceptance of abortion, the treatment of immigrants at our borders, the mishandling of sexual abuse on the part of our church leadership? Perhaps this Lent, you should address one of those issues. Perhaps you could more fully inform yourself about it and give of your time or money to support an initiative that is trying to correct it. I assure you that even a small move to reduce the power of such evils in our world would be a greater threat to Satan than if you had decided to lose a few pounds before Easter.
The devil thinks big and so should we. Let us consider Lenten practices that attack the very structures of Satan’s power. Because it is by such choices that we can bring Satan’s rule a day closer to its destruction.