Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Welcome to the Desert

When Easter season comes, as it will before too long, and Easter season goes, as it will fifty days later, we remind ourselves as we wave goodbye to that blessed season that the truth of Easter transcends the limits of the season.  That is, the Risen Lord is still the Risen Lord, even after Easter takes it’s turn.  Another way of saying this is that we are an Easter people.  Can I get an ‘amen’?  We already know this.  We are always Easter people, and so Easter is true in a way that stays true, regardless of the calendar.

Christmas, likewise, represents a time, a season, whose spirit we long to spread beyond the boundaries of the twelve short days that hold it.  We try to replicate the essence of the season - sometimes accurately and sometimes not so accurately - with events like “Christmas in July.”  What we are trying to do there is to be as loving in one month as we are so easily in another.   And so as a child, for example, I remember Daddy’s Christmas albums with Elvis wistfully crooning, “If every day could be just like Christmas, what a wonderful world this would be.”  And everybody nodded.

Funny, I know of no such songs, or similar beyond-the-season sentiment, for the time we’re in now, called Lent.  No catchy mottoes bandied about the church about our always being a Lenten people; no pop-musical insistence that every day be just like Ash Wednesday.  No childlike desire to replicate the emotion of this moment in warmer, summer months.

I don’t know why this is, exactly, but I have my guesses.

For starters, Lent is dark.  Dark purple and the preacher rattles on about sin.  Good times.  Oh yeah.  Moreover, it’s solemn.  Gone is the festal shout, our alleluia is silent, buried for these forty days.  What’s more, Lent represents an emptiness.  The way of the cross; the death of our Lord.  Where Easter is the gift of the Risen Christ, and Christmas is the birth of the same, and each one is characterized by the giving and getting of gifts, Lent is about losing; about sacrificial love; it’s about our surrender; Lent’s about giving up.

Yes, giving up chocolate or soda; maybe cigarettes if you’re brave.  Giving up anything that gets in the way of your relationship with your Savior.  Anything that competes with your relationship with your Savior. 

And also giving up in the deeper sense: that surrender sense again.  The yielding to the call and place of the Lord in the heart of his people sense.

There’s one more reason - maybe the most important of all - that makes that Lenten spirit something less than contagious, I think.  And that is that Lent is too much like us.  Where Christmas and Easter bring the promise of birth and new life, the hope and promise of things to come, a better way, Lent looks an awful lot like the lives that you and I already have.  Wandering.  Wiggling.  Suffering.  Desert.

It is no wonder to me that people don’t clamor for more of the pilgrimage called Lent.  Forty days is plenty.

And yet,

If we are right to call ourselves an Easter people, and I think that we are; we are equally and always also a Lenten people; always committed to the way of the Cross; always following the Way of the One who, now Risen, still bears in his body the wounds of Calvary.

Another way to make the same point: to take the alleluia of Easter without the loneliness of the desert and the hardwood of the cross is to separate the promise of God from the person of Jesus.  Lent is about knowing Jesus.

And this, then, is the great mystery of Lent: sometimes the seasons of darkness best open us up to the light.

We’re talking the season of Jesus in the wilderness.  Baptized by the Spirit and the next thing you know he’s out there, alone, wandering, tempted, and more than just politely hungry.

We’re talking Moses and his brood parading through the desert.  Forty years.  Lost.  Wondering how the pain of today connects in any honest way to the promise of tomorrow; the promise he thought he heard.  Hungry.

We’re talking you and me living lives that, more often than not, we don’t understand, in stifling darkness, sometimes despair, bedeviled by doubts and shadows of death. 

But this is the hope and mystery of Lent: that sometimes the darkness opens us up to the light.

My parents live out in the country, halfway between Gonzales and Seguin.  My folks like a lot about living in the country; my dad’s favorite part is the stars.  Every night, he goes out - a flashlight in one hand, my mom’s arm on the other - they reach the end of the gravel and turn out the light, all darkness; and the darkness overwhelms them, but only at first.  Before too long the pinprick lights take over.  Dazzling, milky seas of starlight by the billions.  Blinding.

Nights at my folks’, under those stars get me thinking: if Abraham had been a city slicker, maybe he wouldn’t have been so impressed; maybe he would have blown the whole thing off.  I wonder, would he have just shrugged his shoulders, “Like the stars in the sky?  All six of ‘em?  Big deal”?

By the way, that’s why they ask the shops on the shoreline to turn off their outdoor lights during turtle hatching time.  At least on the east coast they do.  The sea turtles get drawn out of their shells by a sort of lunar signal; the tidal pull of the moon; and always positioned just so; such that the newly hatched turtle can simply follow the moon through the sand to locate the waters. 

Sometimes the darkness opens us up to the light.  Which is also to say that sometimes lesser lights are more dangerous than darkness.

So the devil in the darkness comes to Jesus as false light this morning: that is, in the gospel this morning, Jesus is tempted by things that don’t look all that bad.  Turn these stones to bread; jump off this temple; receive every kingdom.  
Sometimes the darkness opens us up to the light.  Sometimes lesser lights are more dangerous than darkness.

Which is all just to say that Lent, a season of darkness, is God’s gift. 

Maybe not as sexy as Christmas or Easter, but Lent is that season, that invitation, to turn out the lights and see what is left.  When all the shiny toys are put away; when the neon moons are all unplugged; when the touch-up lights are off your face, and it’s just you as you are with your fears and your dreams and your God, your priorities unmasked, what’s left? 

Where are you, really, in relation to the one light that matters most to you, or at least at one time mattered most to you?  Do you still see it?  Does it see you?  Do you still feel the pull of its gravity?  What’s in the way?

Lent is the season for questions like that. 

Reflective questions.  Reflective space.  Yes, you’re busy, yes, you’re hurting, you know that - but why?  Questions like that require seasons of quiet and grace.  And the way of the cross brings the mercy, the balm, that makes it possible to be truthful and hurt, forgiven, with God; even to learn the suffering of His Son.
Which is why, with apologies to Christmas, Easter, and Johnny Mathis, we need a little Lent, right this very minute; ashes in the window; repentance of the spirit.

We need the time of truthful speech; and if it’s dark, so be it. 

Do not be afraid.  He’s still with you.  But don’t squander the darkness.  Press on for the light that lasts.


(Sermon preached Lent 1, 2011)

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