Good morning. It’s the first Sunday in Lent. Lent actually began this past Wednesday and will continue for forty days until Easter. This is the season for prayer and preparation, a time during which we, as Christians, attempt to become spiritually-attuned and receptive to the wonders and promise awaiting us during the Easter season. Part of this spiritual preparation has traditionally included the spiritual disciple of fasting.
I remember some of my Roman Catholic classmates as a child, “What are you giving up for Lent?” This was not a tradition practiced in our home, so I never had a good answer. I’ve been running around for the past week or so asking all the spiritually-oriented people I know just what fasting might mean to them. What was the purpose of giving up anything during this time? I’ve gotten a variety of answers and a ton of e-mails as a result.
I asked the question in the first place for two reasons. First, the Scripture lesson this morning tells us that Jesus went into the desert for forty days during which time he ate nothing. He went to fast and pray. Instead of meeting God during this period, we are told that he converses with the devil. But more about that in a few minutes.
The second reason I’ve been so curious about the purposes and effects of fasting is that we as a congregation have been asked to participate in a coordinated fast and prayer exercise on behalf of the church at Barrow, our own church, and those persons who are sick or otherwise afflicted in both Barrow and Immanuel. The request comes from Ian Green who is leaving Barrow to be with us for a few months. He is concerned about leaving Barrow without a pastor; he is concerned about the future of Immanuel, as are we; and he is most concerned about his wife Kim, who is experiencing a number of life-threatening health problems.
Ian is not asking that we each fast for forty days. What he is suggesting is that forty of us each consider fasting for one day – setting aside one day for prayer between now and Easter – prayer for those among us who are ill, prayer for the Immanuel Pastor Nominating Committee, prayer for the people in the Barrow church. He’d even like us to set up a calendar and sign up for a day so that we can tell that all days are covered. The members of the Immanuel Session have already done this – covering the days from last Wednesday to this coming Wednesday.
The temptation might be to say, “That’s not something I do.” And in some cases, fasting itself may be something you should not even consider doing. But we all can consider setting aside a day for prayer and discernment. Perhaps, eat a little less while praying for those who do not choose to go hungry, but are hungry nonetheless.
Jesus went into the desert for prayer and fasting right after his baptism in the River Jordan. He knew that God had given him a major assignment in this world, but he was still trying to discern not only what it was, but the proper strategy for carrying it out. We at Immanuel pretty much know what we think our calling as a church community might be – but we, too, are still struggling with the strategy. How to really make it happen and make it happen right.
number forty is a significant one in the Bible.
It was forty days and forty nights that the rain came during the time of
Noah and the Great Flood. Moses spent forty days on the mountain receiving the
Ten Commandments from God. Forty days
was a common length of time for rulers of
perhaps the most memorable number forty is the forty years that the Israelites
spent wandering in the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land. Just as the Israelites had passed through the
thought occurred to me in this context
I believe this was what Jesus was doing when he went into the desert – trying to figure out just what he should do and how he should do it. Let’s take a look at the three temptations we are told he faced. One was to turn stones into bread; another was to become King of the World; and the third was to perform some glitzy magic tricks to impress the people, but accomplish little else.
take a look at the bread issue first.
Jesus is hungry. He may even be a
bit delirious. He’s beginning to see and hear things. Bread is uppermost in his
mind, and the desert rocks are even beginning to
Go for It!, says a voice – or perhaps, it really is the devil who offers
this advice. Go for it. You’ve got connections, Jesus; you’ve still
got friends in high places, you’ve got allies in the mountains. Go back to
But, think of the good you could do if you were in charge, Jesus. You could reduce taxes, set up child care centers, medical facilities, homes for the aged. You could negotiate with the Romans for more freedom, starting with freedom of religion. Your religion.
Now, you would have to keep the Romans happy. And you’d have to keep the scribes and Pharisees happy. And don’t forget the Zealots, they’re part of your base, but so are the Essenes. The warriors and the mystics, both support you. Amazing. But if you are going to stay in power, you’ve got a real balancing act to perfect.
“Worship the Lord your God and serve him only,” comes another Voice, it might even be his own voice. Jesus passes up the option of political power and continues to meditate.
It would be so much easier if people would just believe in me, take my advice when I first offer it, and choose to live as God would have them live.
“Oh, they’ll believe in you all right,” comes the first voice. “Like I told the Romans, all you have to do is give the people Bread and Circuses.”
“We’ve finished with the bread thing,” Jesus interrupts.
“Okay, circuses then. A little entertainment. A little magic. Come floating into town in a big hot air balloon. I’ll have to show you what one of those are….
“And, the purpose of all that?” Jesus asks.
“They’ll call you the Son of God! Isn’t that what you want?”
“No. That’s not it at all. Do not vex me further. I want them to become who they
The devil shrugs and takes his leave, waiting for another opportune time.
we sit in our pews wondering but how does this apply to me, to us? A week ago Saturday, I was asked to
participate in a retreat for the leadership of the
In my short remarks, I focused on the life cycle of an organization, including organizations like churches. People who hold degrees in these matters have determined that the life cycle of an organization is not that much different than the life cycle of a human being.
We are born, we grow up, we live and we die – with some of us being born and re-born along the way. Frankly, as a church, we really need to reclaim the words Born Again, because that is the business we are in – helping people through Christ Jesus to live, be reborn time and again , live some more, be born again, die – and yes, experience rebirth then, as well. The rebirthing process is an on-going thing.
So birth is the first phase of the human and the organizational life cycle. This is the most exciting phase. A new baby in town. Usually there is one person or a small group of people with a new vision, and the commitment to make that vision happen. There may be a few financial investors, but people are so fired up that they mostly do what they do with little or no compensation.
Next comes the Growth Phase. New members come pouring in. Revenues climb. New services and classes are offered, pastors are hired. These are glorious days -- and this phase can last a long, long time.
But then comes phase three. I called it the Dry Rot phase at the
Phase Four and/or Five, and we get a choice.
Phase Four is Death.
Phase Five is Renewal.
Death is not always a bad thing. Some organizations fulfill their purpose and need to be allowed to die with dignity. I do not place either Immanuel or MCCA in this category, however.
So, Renewal is the second option. And, of course, this is the more difficult of the two. Each of us has different spiritual needs at different times of our lives. Renewal means different things to each of us. We “do church” for different reasons.
Some come for the shared worship service, to listen to the music, to hear the prayers, to give thanks to our God.
come to be involved in the church-at-work- in-the-community, helping to bring
Some of us want discussion groups and educational opportunities. Some want prayer groups and opportunities for serious personal spiritual development.
Others find themselves in the need of pastoral care in a time of personal crisis, serious illness, even death.
And some folks just want to eat and have fun – with people they like and admire.
Can a church, even a small church, meet all these needs? Can one pastor be competent in each of these areas? Well, no one person can fulfill all needs, but to coin a phrase, Together We Can, and We Will.
Today, we celebrate new life and the baptism of Oakley Johnston; new members and new growth as we welcome Howard and Darlene Bess into our church family; we celebrate the call to hospitality as we make ready for Ian and Kim Green and their son Sam; and the life-giving joy found in new beginnings as we await the pastor nominating committee’s recommendations with regard to future pastoral leadership for our little band of Christians.
With Christ’s help, we’ll turn from the temptation to narrow our dreams, the temptation to either rely on somebody else to do what needs to be done, or to criticize or blame those who try. And we must turn from the temptation to give up and pray for some Outside magical solution.
Jesus did promise to be with us and guide us, but he never said he’d do it for us. Amen.