The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11)
Starting this past Wednesday – Ash Wednesday – and running up until Easter, we’re in the church season known as Lent. You know that – we all know that. But what’s this season all about? How did it get started? And for that matter, why do we even call it “Lent,” anyway?
Well, the answer to that last question is simple. Lent is an Old English word; it isn’t really a religious word at all. It’s still a part of modern-day English; it’s survived as our word “length,” and this season was first called Lent because it’s the time of year when we’re moving out of winter and the days are getting longer.
But the observance of this season in the church year goes a lot further back than that Old English word. In fact, other than Easter itself, Lent might be the oldest of Christian observances. In the early days of the church, new members were baptized and brought into membership once a year, on Easter, after a year’s worth of education and nurturing in the faith. Lent was the last stage of this process, and it was meant to be a time for both the incoming and existing members alike to take time to refocus themselves on the true meaning of their faith and their commitment to follow Christ. It was kind of like pulling out your old Confirmation workbook and reviewing all the things you learned during that process, and thinking and praying about its ongoing significance in your life now.
Over time, though, the church started to baptize new members throughout the year instead of just Easter, and the importance and symbolism of Lent was diminished, or at least changed a bit. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the observance of Lent began to focus much more on the aspect of penitence. It became a 47-day meditation of how sinful and unworthy we were in God’s eyes, and spending this time in prayer and fasting while seeking God’s forgiveness.
Well, penitence is certainly a good thing, and I’m sure it will always be a part of Lent. But I think that Lent would be more meaningful and beneficial to us if we tried to reclaim a bit more of its original intent. If we saw it as a time for a summary review of our faith – examining what we say we believe, and refocusing ourselves on those things. Refocusing on God’s faithfulness to us shown throughout history, and on our faith in God. Recommitting ourselves to these things, these beliefs, being the guiding force in the way we live. That would definitely include penitence, but as only one piece of a larger, and frankly more hopeful, spiritual practice.
The Old and New Testament Lectionary texts throughout Lent are designed to help us do that – to get from Point A in Lent – Ash Wednesday – to Point B, Jesus’ crucifixion. They’ll do this by recounting for us two related and important overarching stories. The Old Testament passages will summarize the entire arc of the history of the Hebrew people, beginning with God’s faithfulness to Adam and Eve, and their giving in to temptation and sin that we heard today; and going all the way to the time of the later prophets, and God’s promise that renewal, rebirth, resurrection was coming. And the New Testament readings will be a summary of the entire message of the gospel – starting with Jesus’ faithfulness to God and his successfully resisting temptation and sin that we heard today, and going up to the point of the first profession, in John’s gospel at least, that Jesus was Lord.
As we go through these readings in the coming weeks, try to remember what you’ve heard. Try to keep building those stories together in your mind. Think about how the two stories being told are related, and how they speak to each other. Also, in the midst of a lot of these passages, you’re going to hear references to water. When you hear them, think about what the significance of the water is, especially in a place and culture where water was often scarce.
We’re beginning a journey together, you and me, a forty-day journey similar to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness that we heard about this morning. As we go through our own forty days, as we hear these stories unfold, let’s consider what application they have for us in our own lives. Let’s take this time seriously as we travel from Point A to Point B, just as they did in the early days of the church. Together, let’s pray, and reflect, and repent, and reconnect.
Thanks be to God.