Today we mark the beginning of a 40 day journey into the wilderness. While Jesus embarks on just such a time into the literal wilderness following his baptism by John, we as his disciples use these days leading up to Easter as a time for taking stock, seeking repentance for those places where we’ve missed the mark, and finding renewal. Jesus himself went out into the desert as the precursor to his ministry.
A sermon based on Isaiah 58.
Often at the beginning of Lent, I read the description of the season offered by Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner. Buechner is one of my favorite authors. A graduate of both Princeton and Union Theological Seminary, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his novels, though I know his memoirs and essays better. Buechner died this past summer at the age of 96. In his book, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary, he gives this definition for “Lent.”
“In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year’s income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year’s days. 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
If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
Is there any person in the world or any cause that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are, but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”
Buechner is right, of course. Which of us truly wants to be reminded of our own impending deaths? We are hearty folk to be sure as we come to this service in order to have an ashen cross imposed on our foreheads while hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But the essential question before us remains: who has God created us to be and in what ways are we living into that calling or not? It’d be much easier to avoid it all, unbury our “Alleluias,” and pretend that everything is all right just as it is.
But then we hear the word of the Lord given to the prophet Isaiah so many years ago: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” Wake the people up from the stupor of their lives! Not so they can wallow in misery and despair, but so that they can make things right. To begin again. To find renewal. Isaiah declares, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
The Lord shows us grace, mercy, and love. That’s the real message of this day. Most of us do a good enough job on the judgment part ourselves when we honestly take that hard look in the mirror. But let’s not stay in that place of feeling bad or being overcome by sorrow when faced with the reality of who we’ve become, rather return to the Lord. Make a fresh start. Remember that life is short, yes, but also remember that God loves you and desires the very best for you and wants you to live every day that remains in this precious life of yours in concert with the gifts and talents that God has bestowed on you that make you uniquely you. Allow God to lead you into becoming your best self once more.
That change takes time. It takes intentionality. It doesn’t happen magically when a priest smudges a bit of ash on your forehead. But I know that if we allow the love and grace and mercy of God to guide us these next six weeks, we can both face the person we’ve become and also see more clearly the person God is calling us to be. While we begin this season with ashes, new life may indeed be on the horizon.