1st Sunday in Lent

Let us pray.

Lord, our adversary prowls like a lion.

But you are a God who steps into the arena.

Who does not leave us on our own.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

……………….

On Ash Wednesday, we gathered to mark our heads

With ashes and with dust.

We remembered that we are going to die.

It’s a weird thing to do

With one’s Wednesday night, isn’t it?

“What’d you do last night?”

“Oh, nothing special.

Just put dirt on my head

And remembered I’m going to die one day, you?”

There’s something powerful about it as a ritual, though.

It’s so compelling that strangers at bus stations and on thoroughfares

Find themselves drawn to participate,

Even when they don’t know exactly what it means

Or why they’re doing it.

It’s visceral.

You can feel the dirt spreading on your forehead

As surely as dirt will be dropped on your casket one day.

We don’t talk like that very often,

Perhaps because we’d rather not imagine that unthinkable future.

That, as Sarah Condon writes,

Devastating impossibility that always happens.

Death gets shoved aside, often.

We are asked to die neatly in special hospice centres

Set aside for the purpose

And within 6 months our family members will be told,

“Oh gosh, surely you’ve moved on by now, right?”

When I served in the Peace Corps in a small village in northwestern Ukraine

Just 30 kilometers from the Polish border,

Death was right in the middle of things.

A whacking great war memorial made up most of the town centre

And everybody knew somebody who’d died in the war

If not in the military

Than in the famine

In the Holocaust

In the aftermath.

When my Ukrainian tutor’s husband was tragically killed,

His funeral wasn’t just open casket

It was open bier.

We set him on a platform

And after the funeral

We loaded him up on a flatbed truck

And processed behind it to the cemetery

Where he was buried

Among rainbow coloured streamers.

The Orthodox have a hymn they sing on such occasions

“Receive, O earth,

The body formed of you

By the hand of God

And again returning to you as its mother.”

Ashes to ashes.

Dust to dust.

Earth to earth.

Everyone dies.

Even Jesus.

Death seems close to Jesus in this story of the temptation in the wilderness.

He’s out in the wilderness

Away from the crowds that surrounded John

Baptizing in the Jordan River.

His humanness feels especially apparent.

He’s hungry, Luke tells us.

Our God

Feels hunger.

He’s dirty, no doubt.

He’s got sand clinging to him everywhere

As he waits for whatever insight

The Holy Spirit is trying to show him

Out there in the wilderness.

And then the devil turns up.

Isn’t that just always the way?

Always kicking you when you’re down.

And he tests Jesus

With three temptations:

First, with material comfort.

An end to his very human pains.

Second, with glory and authority,

The ability to do whatever he wants.

Third, with proof of his status

As the Son of God.

That always strikes me, every year,

That the devil begins his taunts with this insidious word “IF.”

“IF you are the Son of God.”

Which implies that maybe even Jesus

Isn’t entirely sure yet

Of who he is

And who God is calling him to be.

Down here in this very human muck

Feeling these very human feelings

It would be easy to doubt

Even if he did remember

The glory he’d set aside.

That’s the really extraordinary thing about Jesus, I think.

That, though he was in the form of God,

He did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped

Clung to

Taken advantage of,

But emptied himself

To come and join us down here on the earth.

With dirt on his forehead.

And even when the devil

Made him question

If he even really was the Son of God anymore

He didn’t take the bait.

He didn’t abandon us in the dirt.

We worship a God

Who gets down in the muck where we live

Even when it’s awful

Even when it’s dirty and gross and visceral and physical and tragic and heartbreaking

And who stands in the brink

When the devil comes to call

And says “Yes, I am the Son of God.

Not in spite of this but because of this.

Because I am down in the dirt with my people.”

God does not run away from us in the difficult times.

God does not ask us to suffer neatly

Away

Far from Him

So that nobody has to think about how the changes and chances of this life

Are too often a devastating impossibility

That always happens.

God joins us in the dirt.

He hungers and he thirsts.

And ultimately the earth He created

Receives his body

As a mother.

This Lent, as Jan Richardson writes,

“Let us be marked

Not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

Not for shame.

Let us be marked

Not for false humility

Or for thinking

We are less

Than we are

But for claiming

What God can do

Within the dust

Within the dirt,

Within the stuff

Of which the world

Is made.”

Our God makes beautiful things out of dust.

Our God chose to become dust

With us

And held to it even when the devil tormented him for it.

Because he loves we who are his image

That much.

Amen.