Ashes, Wilderness . . . & Transformation

AshWednesdayPA sermon offered February 17, 2013
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church, North Port, FL
Lent I C:  Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Heavenly Father – Come quickly to help us when we are tested by temptations.  You know each one of our weaknesses.  Help us find you in the wilderness places of our lives — and help us to know your power to save . . . . AMEN

This is the first Sunday in Lent.  The forty days of Lent started last Wednesday with Ash Wednesday – the ashes we literally wore that day were meant to be a reminder of our mortality.  The service on Ash Wednesday was an invitation to observe a Holy Lent – a period of time to focus on our fundamental values and priorities – and to think about how we live out those values – and also to think about where we may miss the mark.

You’ve probably noticed the changes in the look of the church itself.  The color of the season is purple – crosses are covered with purple veils.  The worship services are taking on a simpler tone as well:  (recorded music in place of the usual organ prelude.)  The word Alleluia is not used at all in the liturgy or hymns during Lent.  All this is intended to remind us that we’re observing the Lenten season Lent and preparing for Easter.  The Good News is that the season that starts in ashes and leads us into the wilderness for forty days, ends in the glory of Resurrection.

Lent begins each year with the gospel reading we heard this morning.  Immediately after his baptism, Jesus heads out into the wilderness – a place away from civilization  . . .a dangerous place . . .a place to be truly alone . . . a place to come face to face with our humanity, our weaknesses . . . our limitations.

We all find ourselves in the wilderness at some point in our lives.  At one time or another we all have found – or will find ourselves alone, confused, searching for direction . . . or insecure, totally unsure of ourselves.

For you, the wilderness may be a hospital waiting room or a doctor’s office or a sick bed . . . or it may be when you face some tragic change – losing a job, struggling with depression – or grieving the loss of someone very near and dear to your heart.  While you’re in the wilderness, it may feel like your insides are a smoltering fire – – or like a hollowness inside of you, when your soul cries out to God — but it seems He doesn’t answer.

Sometimes God’s silence is deafening.  And this silence can be very difficult because it throws us back on ourselves.

Even though we may be surrounded by good, loving, caring friends, we enter the wilderness experience alone.  And we wonder:  How long will we be here?  Will we die here? . . . of sadness and heart-ache?  It may feel devastating to look into the mirror and see who we are . . . who we’re becoming.

You know you’re in the wilderness when you look around for the things that you usually count on to get you through – and you come up empty.  There’s no food, no strength to hang on to, no protection, no satisfying companionship – just the droning voice of gloom and a floor of quick sand.

The wilderness seems to be a very, very lonely place – – – yet we are not alone – God waits for us in the wilderness. The prophet Hosea says that God lures us into the wilderness . . . God calls us . . . He draws us in and says  “Come to the desert, and I will speak tenderly to your soul.”

God met Moses and Elijah . . . and Jesus in the wilderness; this is where God led them to discover their calling.  And the good news for us also is that the wilderness is one of the most real, spirit-filled, places we can be.  Forty days in the wilderness is a life changing experience . . .

In our daily lives we don’t always take time to listen for God’s voice . . . and the unexpected, unwelcome desert times of trauma and grief are generally unwelcome intrusions.

The invitation to observe a Holy Lent asks us to voluntarily enter into the wilderness – to intentionally take the time to listen . . . and just to be with ourselves and with God.  When we do this, we are following the example Jesus’ sets in the gospel reading today.

The American writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner wrote:

“After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus.  During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask – one way or another – what it means to be themselves.”

This calls for looking deep inside – into who we are . . . and who we are becoming . . . and also what we are failing to become.”

Buechner continues:  “It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”

We can either accept or reject the invitation from God to come into the wilderness.  He calls us there to find ourselves because he loves us – but the choice to follow into the wilderness is ours to make. Jesus, by example, opened himself and allowed himself to be lead.  Luke tells us that He is full of the Holy Spirit and is led by the Spirit into the wilderness

The world entices us to follow profit motives, and to be led by other’s expectations and by our own self-interest.  Our human tendency is to look for and hang on to comfort and security.  But the Holy Spirit urges us to let go of what is familiar and known – to open ourselves up to the wilderness experience and the transformation that happens there.

In the wilderness the devil tempted Jesus to be someone other than who God was calling him to be.  The temptations were power, wealth and popularity . . . to do it all, have it all, control it all.  Jesus could have given in to these temptations . . . but he didn’t.

“And when the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.”  Jesus left the wilderness after 40 days — transformed and ready to begin his mission.

Transformation is the gift of the wilderness experience – transformative time set aside is the gift of Lent to us.

So again today, the invitation to a Holy Lent is open. . . to make the spiritual journey with Jesus and the Church . . . from ashes – through 40 days in the wilderness . . .to the glory and transformation of Resurrection which comes on Easter morning . . .


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