<If you’re looking at this at 4am, you may want to listen to it. Click here to do that>
Are you ready?
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
If you made bread out of stones
The world would be fed, Lord.
But then, of course, we’d never learn to share.
If you sent your angels to carry us,
We’d all feel safe
But then, of course, we’d never take care of each other.
If you ruled with power over everything there would be order
But then, of course, we’d never learn to order ourselves well.
Keep doing what you do, Lord,
And we’ll do our best to follow.
The Wall Street Journal had an article this week noting that 4am is the most productive hour of the day. Tim Cook, Michelle Obama, world travelers, not to mention my wife’s grandfather, all took to getting up at this hour.
Alvin, Rhonda’s grandfather, was a farmer. I remember coming to the breakfast table one morning the year we were married when he looked at me and said, “I thought you were going to sleep all day!” It was 8am.
4am is the most productive time, the article contends, because it is the time of fewest distractions.
Lent is the 4am of the church year. Lent is the time when we strip away most everything and focus on simple things: prayer, fasting, contemplation, and the cross. It is not a chance to renew your New Year’s Resolution as some are in the habit of doing. I do not think that God really cares if you give up bread or take on more exercise. As I noted to someone this week, you do not need Lent to be a better human or learn self-discipline.
We need Lent so that we learn to strip it all away and rely on grace in wilderness times.
In fact, we need to learn it so much, that like those First Nation peoples who walked this land long before us, we thrust ourselves into the wilderness intentionally, trusting that this process, if done mindfully, will make us better followers of the wandering Rabbi who walked the wilderness his whole ministry.
There are a lot of distractions for the Christian, many of them coming from within the flock. It’s no secret that I was disillusioned with the church for a good while, and in some ways I’ve never regained any illusions for it though I’m certain I cannot grow spiritually without it. I want to think that being a Christian meant following the crucified and risen one, relying on forgiveness and grace and love, and passing those things out in his name like it is going out of style.
But today it sometimes feels like it’s more about bumper stickers and voting and polemical billboards. If you want to catch a glimpse of those, just drive 40 anywhere between Asheville and Wilmington. Today it sometimes feels like it’s more about wearing a cross around your neck rather than having a cross-shaped life.
You know, that wickedly funny TV show Arrested Development has this great episode where the daughter, Maeby (that’s her name) decides she’s going to be a Christian. And she asks her uncle Michael, “Hey, where can I get one of those necklaces with the “T” on it?” And Michael says, “Uhm, that’s a cross…” She responds, “Across from where?”
The humorist in me loves that play on words, and I’m going to use it and twist it for a minute, because I really do think that Lent is that time where we all, in the darkness, like 4am darkness, stare at this tool for destruction now worn as a tool of redemption and ponder this question, “A cross from where?”
And so we follow Jesus, just like we did this morning, to these points along the journey that help flesh out why his flesh hung on this cross, and where it came from.
And today we are confronted with the fact that the cross came in part from Jesus’ refusal to play a part in the power games of the world, both religious and secular.
Jesus would not, famished as he was, turn stones into bread. His own needs would take second fiddle to the greater purpose of his life.
Jesus would not, vulnerable as he was, call down the angels to rescue him in times of trouble. Jesus would give up the need to be safe in order to be with the people God was calling him to save, literally hanging with the thief on his right and left, even as one of them echoed Satan in telling him to call down help from heaven to save them. Jesus would save us by going through death with us, not by floating above it. And Jesus would not be coerced into proving God’s power so that everyone could see, otherwise why bother with faith at all?
Finally, Jesus would not, weak as he was, rule by domination. C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters has this wonderful line where the demon Screwtape tells his underling Wormwood that God, “cannot ravish, but only woo.” That is, God falls in love, God doesn’t force us to love.
This is where the cross comes from: from Jesus refusing to play the games that the world has set up as systems to play.
And Lent provides us this sneak peek into this work of Jesus, but then, in the 4am darkness, calls us to undistracted contemplation of it. Where and how do we give in to these games today?
In big and small ways I’ve felt that this week I’ve given in to the games the world plays, from my own inability to be patient with my children who are acting just as children act, to watching that young 13 year old cry as her father was taken away by immigration agents while he was taking her to school. Of course I don’t know the whole story there, and none of us do. But it is certainly clear that we ravish more than woo in dealing with one another.
Forgive us, Lord. We don’t know what we’re doing. And I feel so helpless in these situations: a failed parent and a confused Christian. Truly I need the grace of God in the wilderness that is both childrearing and citizenship.
And that’s another thing…what keeps you up until 4am in the morning? A lot of times our undistracted moments seem to lead into our anxieties, our worries, our failures. Our 4am moments, at least in my experience, have been less productive and more problematic, as I think back on the ways I care too much, care too little, love too much, or not at all.
This is another gift that Lent gives us, Beloved. For in taking a look at where the cross comes from, we can also begin to learn to see it in place of those things.
In place of our failures: the grace of God. In place of our anxieties: the peace of God. In place of the ways we hurt others and ourselves: the cross of God who reminds us that everything can be redeemed.
Everything. All of our ravenous ways.
It is for these moments that we learn the true power of the cross. For while we seem to only ravish, God took the most ravenous tool of the time, the cross of death, and made it into a tool of redemption and forgiveness.
And if we follow along throughout Lent, if we walk the road 4am road long enough in these next 40 days, and if we take this time to watch and pray, not giving into the temptation to turn Lent into a renewal of our New Year’s resolutions, if we don’t give into the temptation to take the secure path and just read happy-go-lucky inspirational quotes in this time when we’re thrust into the wilderness of a spiritual desert, if we resist the temptation to scoff at the invitation to be critical of our preconceived assumptions about what it means to be Christian in a world that seems intent on marketing Christianity instead of being marked by Christ…well…
Then perhaps we’ll see just where this cross is truly from, catching a glimpse God wooing us through this love story again this year, and eventually learn our ravenous ways no more.