Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 22:1-18
Psalm 25:1-10
James 1:12-18
Mark 1:9-15

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe in the gospel.

Every child in a family matters, even if that family has a tribe of kids. It might not seem like it to some of the children, especially those who are stuck in the middle. The old television show "The Brady Bunch" used to play off this reality in the relationship between Jan, the middle child and both Marsha the oldest and Cindy the youngest. Jan always felt left out because Marsha was the best of everything and Cindy was so cute. She was as loved as the others, but she experienced life in a way that made her feel like she was ignored and rejected. Those children do not realize that the others also have to deal with stress and expectations of their own. Sibling rivalry usually has far more to do with the way siblings perceive one another rather than the actual relationship they have with the parents.

I can't imagine how hard it must have been to be Abraham's children. Ishmael, who was always lesser because he was not Sarah's son, must have hated Isaac with a passion. Hagar certainly hated Sarah, the wife and legal mother to her son. Abraham had faith that God had a plan and obeyed God's word, but he never wanted Ishmael to suffer. When it became necessary for Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, God promised that Ishmael would be blessed. Isaac was the promised child, and though Abraham regretted losing his son, he knew that it was necessary.

I suppose that's what makes today's story all the more shocking to us. God made incredible promises to Abraham, and they all rested on the boy Isaac. How odd it must have been to hear God's command to sacrifice that boy, especially since he'd already lost one son. What would we do if we heard the same request? We would question our sanity, or wonder if some other voice was trying to destroy what God had given to us. We would probably argue with God about the ridiculous nature of the request. We would cling on to the child to protect him from such danger. But Abraham believed and obeyed the word of God.

Abraham believed that God would be faithful to His promises. Abraham knew that God would do something; he told Isaac, "God will provide." This isn't to say that Abraham expected a ram to show up out of nowhere; he knew that Isaac was a gift of God, and as such belonged to Him. Abraham willingly gave the most important thing in his life to the LORD because that boy was God's.

We all have people or things that are very dear to us, so important that we run the risk of letting them get in the way of our relationship with God. We are asked, just like Abraham, to sacrifice those things on the altars of our hearts so that there is nothing more important to us than God. That's what Lent is all about. It is about discovering those things that mean more to us than our relationship to God. It is about repentance, about sacrifice, about trusting that God will keep His promises.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is a foreshadowing of that which would happen at the end of our Lenten journey. On Good Friday, God took His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, and put Him on the altar of sacrifice. But on that day He did not send a ram instead. Jesus died as the final sacrifice, the only one that is lasting. God is not asking us today to lay our children on the altar of sacrifice; but He is encouraging us to search our hearts for that which stands in the way of our relationship with Him.

Of course, many will pick things like chocolate and coffee. They'll fast their favorite foods for forty days, but will binge on them on Easter Sunday. It is a struggle and they will complain, and in the end they will be unchanged. None of us really think our love of chocolate or coffee stands in the way of our relationship with God, so the fasting is a test of our will power rather than our repentance. We don't lay on the altar the things that matter and trust God to bless us, we give him the things we can live without and hope He won't notice the idols we are hiding behind our backs.

See, here's the thing: God can see the hidden things of our hearts. He knows what we are withholding and that we are trying to fool Him into thinking we are being faithful. He knows that we will gorge ourselves with chocolate on Easter Sunday or go back to playing those video games we gave up for seven weeks.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden with God. They walked together and talked. They had a personal, intimate relationship with one another and with their Creator. They were naked and it did not matter. When the serpent deceived them and they ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, things changed dramatically. The Bible tells us that their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked so they covered themselves with fig leaves and hid in the garden. They were afraid to be seen by God.

They were indeed physically naked since God had not given them clothing to wear and their response showed that they were ashamed of their physical nakedness. Yet, that was just a symptom of the greater problem that they faced. When their eyes were opened, they could see that their disobedient actions were disrespectful to their Creator and that they were not worthy to be in His presence. Their shame was not only about their naked bodies, but also about their fear to be in the presence of God. What would He do in response to their disobedience? He had warned them that eating the tree would mean death and they did not believe His words. No wonder they were afraid and hid from His presence.

It is easy to say that we will give up something for forty days as long as we know that we can go back to the way things were before Lent, but how has that honored God? Where is the repentance? Where is the trust? Easter Sunday is forty-five days away, but are we truly ready to meet our risen and glorious Lord? Isn't Lent meant to prepare us for that day, to make us ready to meet our Lord? What good is it to give up something that we plan to take back? We must, like Abraham, to give it up for good and trust that God will be true to His promises. Isaac was the child of promise, but Abraham knew that God would be faithful no matter what happened to Isaac. He willingly laid everything, including the promise of God, on that altar. Are we willing to be so faithful? Lent is a time for us to face our sinful, selfish hearts, repent of our sin, ask forgiveness and trust that God will be faithful to His promises. Are we really willing to give up the things that truly matter? To repent of that which keeps us from being the people God has created, chosen and redeemed us to be? When we give up the things that are dearest to our hearts and make God first in our lives, we live in the promises that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel lesson gives us a picture of Jesus going through the process of self discovery, an example for us to follow during this Lenten season. First Jesus learned His identity. During His baptism, God said, "You are my son." He was immediately sent into the wilderness to reflect upon this identity. For forty days He was tempted. Though Mark does not give us the details, we know from the other gospel writers that Jesus was faced with the possibilities of where to take His ministry. Satan offered Him a different path, but Jesus knew who He was and what He had to do. Finally, Jesus left the wilderness and went into action. He recognized His identity, reflected on His purpose and put it to work.

Mark writes, "And straightway the Spirit driveth him forth into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him." It is interesting that the word used here describing how Jesus ended up in the wilderness is the same word that is used when Jesus drives out the demons. This is not something Jesus chooses to do. He is forced into the wilderness. This was a time of testing for Jesus, a time of isolation from all human contact.

Why would the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness the way Jesus drove demons from people? Why would God make Jesus spend forty days isolated and tempted? There are times God tests us. Jesus wasn't given a choice; this was a necessary part of His journey. Satan was given free rein to tempt Jesus, and according to the other versions of this story, Satan did try to get Jesus to turn from God. Jesus, like us, had free will and could have said yes to any of the temptations, but He stood firm. When Satan tempted Him, He remained true to God.

We are tempted daily, and Lent is a time for us to recognize this reality. Lent is a time for us to journey through our own wilderness. What does that look like for you? We think we have to choose today something to fast for the next forty days, but perhaps we should take this time to discover who we are and reflect upon our identity. We tend to jump into action without really knowing who we are or what we are meant to do. How much easier it would be if we followed this process, like Jesus, listening for God's voice and taking time to face the temptations that keep us from being all that we can be. Then we can go out and do the work we have been called to do.

We are tempted daily, and Lenten fasting can be of great value as we come to recognize the things that tempt us daily. By standing up to the temptations, as Jesus stood against the devil, we learn to rely on the strength that God gives us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The things we fast might be unimportant, we might fail and we might splurge on them in a few weeks, but the lessons learned from leaning on God can help us overcome the bigger temptations of this world. James writes, "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he hath been approved, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to them that love him." As we stand against the temptations that come our way, we are transformed into people ready to receive the Risen Lord.

We won't be perfect. It doesn't matter how many Lents we journey through; we'll never be perfect in this world. We will continue to fall for the temptations that are thrust our way by the world and the devil. It doesn't matter how many things we lay on the altar of sacrifice before our God, we will continue to fail. We will probably fail at keeping our Lent disciplines, no matter how simple and easy they might seem. The big ones will be even more difficult to accomplish. The goal, as in all our journeys of faith, is not to be perfect, but to draw ever closer to the God who us with through it all. He's waiting at the end, not to judge us for our failures but to embrace us for trying.

In one of the Lent devotions I'm going to read this year, Rev. David Wendel writes, "Here's something else to keep in mind about Lenten devotions, and all Lenten disciplines: use them in grace! People often become demoralized and disheartened when, by the end of the first week they have stumbled in their Lenten discipline. If you miss a day's devotion, or several days, catch up when you have time. There's no eternal harm in reading two day's devotions at once, or reading one week's devotions all together, if necessary." We can fail because our success will never earn us a place in heaven. Our eternal salvation rests only on the work of Jesus Christ, the only one able to stand against the temptations of this world.

This is the first week of Lent, a season modeled after Jesus' wilderness experience. Mark writes, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe in the gospel." The Lenten journey we begin today and continue for the next few weeks is a time for us to repent and to believe in God's promises. As much as we want to join with Jesus in every way of that journey, we need to remember that we do not have to do it alone. The One who went before us will join us on this journey. Whatever we choose to lay on the altar of sacrifice, we can trust that God will always be faithful to His promises. He will give us the strength to try to be the people God has created, chosen and redeemed us to be.

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