Last week, on Ash Wednesday, we heard the prophet Joel call out to us to join him in a fast: “Return to the LORD, your God… with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
This Lent, I am responding to Joel’s call and joining with others around the country in a great fast for families: where we are committing to pray and fast every Wednesday in Lent for citizenship and immigration reform. This fast impels us to “repent from an immigration system that tears apart families” and to be a collective “prophetic witness to the moral urgency of commonsense immigration reform so that all might have the opportunity to be citizens with equal respect and dignity.”
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:17-19
Rabbi Brant Rosen, a congregational rabbi in Evanston, IL, puts a face to this “tragically broken immigration system.” His story is one of too many that leads us to this important fast for families.
And as Jim Wallis explains in his article Ash Wednesday: How Fasting and Prayer Could Change Us – and Our Country: “This is why we fast, pray and act because we are called by our faith, because we hear the cries of community members, and we will continue to mobilize to demonstrate that we will accept neither excuses nor delays. We will continue to pray, fast and act until the bonds of families are no longer broken and citizenship is no longer a dream, but a reality for 11 million aspiring Americans.”
So will you join this fast? (It’s never too late to start.)
* To donate to this movement and keep it strong, click here.
* Click here to sign a petition that urges President Obama to cease deportations while Congress is working toward immigration reform.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for 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 splendour; 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.
A few weeks ago, two of my youth group adult leaders and I took 10 ECT youth (our joint youth ministry among Immanuel, Ebenezer, and Unity Evangelical Lutheran churches in Edgewater) to Lutherdale Bible camp in Wisconsin for a winter retreat with the Chicago synod. There, we met up with 150 other youth and youth pastors for games, fellowship, worship, and discussions about the sacraments.
At this retreat, we encountered Jesus in a new light: we encountered Jesus when we gathered with 150 other Chicago area youth for worship and felt we were beloved for who we truly are… We encountered Jesus when we met new friends and strengthened our relationships with old ones… We encountered Jesus when we gathered with our ECT group during free-time and sang and danced to popular hip hop songs… and when we crowded onto a long bobsled, held onto each other as tight as we could, and flew down the steep hill toward the ice-covered lake, screaming and praying the whole way down. (At least, that’s what I was doing.) And we encountered Jesus when we ended the weekend in tears, as we communed together around the Lord’s Table, we hugged, and we said to one another “I love you like a chicken” and we really meant it.
And though exhausted, our group left Lutherdale Bible Camp last month on fire…
On fire for God. On fire for church. On fire for fellowship with one another.
Like the disciples who encountered the transfiguration of Jesus on their retreat to the top of the mountain in our Gospel text last week – where they saw Jesus shine as bright as the sun – we, too, had a special mountain top experience on our retreat.
… But then, as we all know how the saying goes: What goes up must also come down.
And so we, too, eventually had to come back down from the mountain top… to the realities of every-day life…
To school work. Basketball practice. ACT prep. To the struggles of balancing a job and homework and the anxieties we had about having to face bullies when we went back to school. To what seems to be the never-ending busyness of our every day routines.
And many of us may be already longing to escape and get away from all of this… to get away from work and practice, to get out of town, to go meet up again with our Chicago synod friends at Lutherdale.
To go back up to the comforts we experienced at the top of the mountain.
I’m sure many others of us here can relate to this. I’m sure many of us can relate to having a mountaintop experience in our lives and then having to come back down the mountain to the reality of our daily stress and routines that often keep us running so fast that we can’t catch our breath.
And yet here we are at the beginning of Lent… at the bottom of the mountain, being extended another great invitation to retreat. Now, this is not the same type of retreat our ECT youth experienced at Lutherdale or the same type of retreat many of us have gone on with Immanuel as a congregation or when we have attended a powerful faith conference or event.
It’s not a retreat back up to the mountaintop.
This Lenten invitation is to enter the wilderness… not just for a day or a weekend… but to dwell and wander in it. It is a retreat from the busyness of life, to empty ourselves so that we can be filled by the grace of God, and to think about what it means to be marked by the sign of the cross in ashes on our forehead – to think about what it means to be human and to belong to God (and not anyone or anything else.) And this invitation is to thoroughly examine our own lives – which will not, in fact, last forever on this earth (sorry to disappoint) – and to reevaluate how our lives have and can have meaning in this world…
Because our world needs each and every one of us.
Now this might seem more like a burden and an interruption rather than a great invitation to many of us when we think about others who have gone through the wilderness before us… When think about the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 long years and Jesus, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 long days and 40 long nights. And we may even be a little troubled to think that we are being invited into this wilderness, this same place where Jesus experienced a great testing by the accuser after he had already fasted for those 40 days, was famished, and was likely at his weakest.
Now, I am not going to downplay this wilderness period. There will be times when we feel tested. There will be times when we feel like we’ve already wandered through the wilderness for long enough and we are too parched, exhausted, and famished to have to take on one more thing. And in these times, at our weakest state, we may – like Jesus – still run into the most difficult temptations and times of testing.
And so in our weakness, we may wish to take the easy way out – to give into the dangerous temptations and quickly snatch up control, domination, and worldly power that our accuser taunts us with.
But this is why we are invited to go into the wilderness in the first place:to examine our lives, and to empty and prepare ourselves so that we might know how to respond to the testing of our accuser. So that in our weakest moments, we might know how to look deep within ourselves and be reminded of who and who’s we are.
You see, though we may – and most likely will – experience testing in the wilderness – in this Lenten season – the wilderness is ultimately aplace and time of preparation.
We tend to forget this because when we begin Lent by looking at Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we often focus on the temptations and his withstanding of them. And yet, meanwhile, we also forget that there were 40 long days and 40 long nights that Jesus spent fasting, praying, and preparing before this encounter with the accuser even occurred.
And because we loose sight of this, we also tend to focus so much on how we, ourselves, lack the ability to resist our own temptations, that we turn Lent into a time of legalism and of beating ourselves up: through self-shaming, self-doubting, and self-hating.
And yet, I don’t think this is what the wilderness is really about. It is not about loathing over our inadequacies and our shortcomings and attempting to meet perfection.
Rather, it is about transformation. It is about recognizing that we are indeed human beings. And like all other human beings, we have our faults and we make mistakes… And yet, as humans, we are ultimately made in the image of God… and are constantly a work of God in progress.
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we heard the prophet Joel call out to us to join him in a fast: “Return to the LORD, your God… with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
This is why we need to wander in the wilderness. This is why we need Lent…
Just as Jesus wandered in the wilderness 2000 years ago between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry to prepare for what was to come, Lent is also our time to return to God over and over and over again as we wander in the wilderness in preparation for the journey to the cross and to the life-giving resurrection that comes after it.
As Jim Wallis in his article, “How Fasting and Prayer can Change Us – and Our Country,” puts it:
“Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to. As Christ suffers with us in our sin and spiritual poverty, we are slowly taught how to suffer with others and mourn with those who mourn. Lent is a time for that. That’s why Lenten disciplines often contain fasting and decisions of self-denial.”
Though our Gospel text does not give us any details about Jesus’ experiences in the wilderness for those 40 days and nights before his encounter with the accuser, there is a video on youtube that provides an artist’s beautiful portrayal of what he may have encountered. The video is a slideshow of 40 drawings of Jesus, one for each day he was in the wilderness. (If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you check it out.)
Rev. Jennifer Mills Knutson describes the video on her blog. Her explanation goes like this:
“’For my thirtieth birthday,’ it begins, ‘I gave myself some time away from it all.’ Saying “no” to companionship, to food, to work, to the comforts of home, Jesus in the wilderness discovers the joy of playing with pigeons, frolicking with foxes, gazing at the moon, and watching a flower grow. Jesus embraces weakness, as his skin grows ragged and his body thinner, so that he comes to know the strength of God. He experiences fear and anguish over his own life and death as the vultures circle. He confronts his pride in the presence of the Tempter, which in this depiction appears as simply a stronger version of Jesus himself, urging him to say yes to strength and power again. The Tempter urges him to rely on his own powers, judgment, control, certainty–instead of placing his life in the hands of God. When he refuses his own strength, he knows the presence of angels, who minister to him, who lift him up and carry him back home again. ‘And now,’ he says at the end, ‘I’m back.'”
Last week during ECT youth group, we talked about the meaning of Lent and all of us decided that we would respond to our invitation to follow Jesus and enter this wilderness. That night, each of our youth and leaders made a commitment to take on the ancient practice of fasting or “giving something up.” Whether chocolate or coffee, Facebook or tv, we chose to take on this practice of fasting – not as a means to prove our willpower or to cut a few calories in our diets – but rather as a means to cut out something in our lives that we depend on or that consumes us and takes us away from experiencing the grace of God in our spiritual lives, in others, and in ourselves.
And each of us also decided to take on the practice of “taking something on” in our lives (in that newly created space) to help us return to God and to focus on the important things in life that we too often miss in our busy schedules: whether it be a prayer or other spiritual practice, a new family activity or ritual, a form of community outreach or service, or a physical activity that will improve one’s health.
And the invitation to enter the wilderness is extended to each one of us, as well.
Whether we choose to take on one of these practices, or join Jim Wallis and many others around the country in fasting on Wednesdays for families and Immigration reform and citizenship, or whether we choose to take on another practice, let us respond to the prophet Joel’s call to join the fast and be intentional this Lenten season about opening our ears to hear and our eyes to see the ways God is present in our lives and around us.
And let us return again and again and again to our God with all our hearts.
I’d like to leave you with a benediction – a charge – from d365.org, a daily online devotional:
There before you lies all the world, Given as a gift. Go into the world as a work in progress, Someone who is not yet who you will be, But someone who is on the way. The world will be better and blessed, Because you are in it, Growing, becoming, gleaming with the light reflected from above.
Materials Needed: Bibles, notecards and markers, youtube video and equipment to play video, copies of closing prayer and benediction
– Ask youth what season in the church calendar we are about to enter. (Lent)
– Tell the youth we are going to do a Lent Trivia Game. Tell them that it is okay if they don’t know the answers to the trivia. This is a learning game. (The trivia comes from rethinkingyouthministry.com.)
“One Step Forward, One Step Back” Lent Trivia Game:
Line group across the middle of the gym and ask the questions below. Those who think the answer is true should take one step forward. Those who get the question wrong take one step back. The “winner” (and aren’t we ALL winners?) is the first one to cross the finish line where you are standing. What do they win? Hmmm? How about something purple?
• The official (liturgical) color of Lent is red. True of False? (False. It’s purple – representing royalty and repentance.)
• Lent lasts for 40 days, not counting Sundays. True or False? (True.)
• The word Lent comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “midwinter.” (False. It translates “springtime” since that is the time of year the season generally falls.)
• The 40 days of Lent are a reminder of the Bible story in which Jesus spends 40 days alone in the wilderness and is tempted by the Devil. True or False? (True. It also recalls the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness.)
• Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when people often have the sign of the cross made of ashes placed on their foreheads. Most often, these ashes are made by burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. True or False? (True.)
• The ash is supposed to represent the story in which Jesus places dirt or ash on a blind man’s eyes to make him see again. True or False? (False. The ashes represent humility and our own mortality – from dust we came and to dust we shall return.)
• Many people give up something during Lent. The point of this practice is to show your willpower. True or False? (False. It is a practice of self-denial that allows room in your life for God to do something new.)
• Fasting is a common practice in Lent but the one day people don’t fast during Lent is Sundays. True or False? (True. People traditionally do not fast on Sundays as Sundays are to be reminders or a foretaste of the coming resurrection.)
• The phrase “Glory to God” is traditionally never spoken during Lent and does not make its return until Easter morning. True or False. (False. “Alleluia” is the what many churches abstain from saying in worship during Lent.)
• The last week of Lent is known as “Holy Week.” True or False? (True.)
On Maundy Thursday, the last Thursday in Lent, we recall the last night and meal that Jesus shares with his disciples. True or False? (True.)
Read: Matthew 4:1-11
– How many days and nights was Jesus in the desert? (40) – Does that remind you of any other story you might have heard about (Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years in our Hebrew Scriptures.)
– What happens in our passage? (tempted or tested by the devil.)
* Note: Greek word for devil is also translated: “accuser,” “tempter,” “adversary,” “one who opposes us,” “any one who is an enemy”
– How many times does the devil or accuser tempt or test Jesus?
– What are the three temptations and how does Jesus respond?
– What do you think all three temptations have to do with? (The three temptations have to do with earthly power, control, domination, and glory. In each case Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy.)
• Temptation One (4:3-4): To turn stones into bread. Response: Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'” Context in Deuteronomy: Moses reminds the people of Israel that God tested them in the wilderness by hunger, but he fed them with manna in order to make them understand that one does not live by bread alone.
• Temptation Two (4:5-8): To rule all the kingdoms of the world. Response: Deuteronomy 6:13: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Context in Deuteronomy: Moses addresses the people of Israel prior to entering the land of promise. He calls upon the people to fear and love the Lord always. He provides a creed for them, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel….” (6:4), tells them not to forget who gave the land, and admonishes them to worship and serve the Lord.
• Temptation Three (4:9-12): To throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12. Response: Deuteronomy 6:16: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Context in Deuteronomy: The setting is the same as the previous episode (Deut 6:13). Moses exhorts the people not to test the Lord as they did at Massah, a place of quarreling, where the people of Israel demanded water from Moses, which he finally obtained by striking a rock (Exodus 17:1-7).
SON OF GOD:
– What word or phrase is repeated by the devil? (Son of God)
– Why do you think Son of God was repeated by the devil three times? (When we read a text from Scripture, often times the language used in the Scripture is important: it’s poetic or emphasizes what an author was trying to point to. So it’s important.)
– Why do you think this is important? What do you think it means?
– A few things to note about Son of God in biblical times:
A. In the Jewish tradition (as we see in the some of our Old Testament texts, kings were often called sons of God: like in Psalms or 2 Sam.)
B. In the ancient world a son represents his father, and in the Old Testament the king is sometimes called God’s son, meaning that he represents God on earth, and at best he is obedient to God.
Explain: Jesus was tested concerning his vocation given in baptism of being the Son of God. But, though he would likely have been able to do all things the devil was tempting to do, he said “no” to these things. He didn’t want to abuse his power. While these worldly powers may have been what the worldly kings (who were called sons of God) sought, this is not what the true Son of God, Jesus Christ, was all about.
EXPLORING DEEPER AND APPLYING THIS TO OUR CONTEXT
– How might this story apply to our lives? (Jesus was tested, just like we all go through times of testing and tempting. He can understand what we go through. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15)
– What are some ways we have felt tested or tempted?
– People sometimes say that they go through wilderness periods in their lives. What might it mean to go through a wilderness period? (times of loss or struggle, feeling lost, etc.) What are some examples of wilderness periods: that you have been through, others you know have been through, or people in our city, country, or around the world are going through.
– How might we find hope in our wilderness periods? (Ex: God meets us in the wilderness and helps us along the way. In Lent, the resurrection comes after the wilderness, and throughout Lent, we see glimpses of Easter each week. This reminds us of that hope in the resurrection and that new life will come after the wilderness.)
40 DAYS and 40 NIGHTS
– Most of this text focuses on the temptation. But was the temptation at the beginning of Jesus’ journey in the wilderness? When did it occur? (After 40 days and 40 nights of Jesus in the wilderness.)
– What do you think Jesus did and experienced in the wilderness for those 40 days and 40 long nights? (Jesus went directly from his baptism to the wilderness before he began his ministry. He was actually driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. He was there for a purpose: to prepare for what was to come: to prepare for his ministry and his journey to the cross and the resurrection. So he fasted, prayed, and prepared as he got away from everything.)
Explain: Our Bible doesn’t tell us much about what specifically happened during that time of preparation for those 40 days and 40 nights. But I am going to show you an artist’s depiction of what happened. In this video, there are 40 drawings of Jesus in the wilderness, one for each day. Watch and think about what it was like for Jesus in the wilderness as he prepared for His ministry.
Watch Video: “A Video of Jesus in the Wilderness”
– What are your thoughts on the video?
– Who was the tempter or accuser in the drawings? (a stronger version of Jesus, himself.) What do you think the artist meant by that? How might we take that to mean in our own lives?
– Do you think that the wilderness was a good thing for Jesus?
– Would a wilderness be a good thing for us? Why? (Have any of you ever been in a wilderness – in a place that is secluded, quiet, etc? What was it like? How did you feel? Was it rejuvenating or renewing?)
REFLECTION AND RESPONSE:
Explain: during Lent, we are invited to follow Jesus and enter the wilderness to prepare ourselves for times of testing and to become more aware of how God is present in our lives and around us. It is a time to get away from the busyness of life, to simplify our lives, and to look at ourselves and our lives and reflect on how our lives have and can have meaning in the world. We are all constantly a work in progress, and Lent (entering the wilderness) is a time for us to return to God.
There are 3 traditional practices that have been taken up during Lent:
(Write on a white board)
– Prayer (justice towards God)
– Fasting: (justice towards self)
– Almsgiving: (justice towards neighbor)
Ask the youth to make Commitments: (Hand out notecards)
Have the youth write on one side of the card one thing that they will fast from or “give up” during Lent (an indulgence or something that consumes them and/or distracts them from seeing or connecting with God.)Examples: facebook, tv, chocolate, soda, video games, etc.
Have the youth write on the other side of the card one practice that they will “take on” during Lent (prayer or spiritual practice, community service/volunteer work, random acts of kindness, family activity or ritual.)
*Make sure to explain that these practices are not about willpower or about losing weight, etc. They are about making space for God (fasting) and filling that newly created space with time for God and others.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Close with a benediction together: (from d365.org)
There before you lies all the world, Given as a gift. Go into the world as a work in progress, Someone who is not yet who you will be, But someone who is on the way. The world will be better and blessed , Because you are in it. Growing, becoming, gleaming with the light reflected from above.