Today is the First Sunday of Lent, and we begin with Jesus in the desert. The story seems a good place to start. Jesus spends 40 days in the desert, in fasting and prayer, to prepare for the start of his ministry. We, like the early church, spend the 40 days in preparation. It turns out being in the desert with Jesus is surprisingly dangerous. We’ll get there. But when I think of preparation these days I think of Shaun White. Maybe it’s a symptom of all the Olympics I’ve been watching…I don’t know if you, like me, have found yourself wishing that these snowstorms would have come later, so that we’d have an excuse to spend all day on our couches watching the Olympics, but Shaun White seems to me a bit like Jesus. Shaun pulled off an incredible trick on Wednesday, he calls it the Double McTwist and it involved flipping head over feet twice while spinning around 3 times. Shaun is able to make snowboarding look easy because he practices so much. Other snowboarders describe Shaun as a perfectionist. He will work on a trick over and over again until he has it just right.
So Jesus spends 40 days before he goes out into his ministry. Jesus spends time preparing, getting ready. New Christians in the first centuries of Christianity spent the forty days before Easter in preparation for baptism. The tradition grew, and now Christians all over the world spend Lent in preparation. We give up or take something on for Lent. We practice. This seems to make sense. Our practice mirrors Jesus’, but the desert is a more dangerous place than that.
We’re told Jesus goes to the desert “and was tempted by satan.” The center of our story today is not Jesus’ asceticism, but a story of temptation. The central test involves Jesus and satan looking out over all the kingdoms of the world. Satan tempts Jesus to rule over the world. What’s interesting about this temptation involves the world in which Jesus lived. Jews at the time of Jesus lived under Roman occupation, in the midst of Roman rule they remembered the stories of the prophets that told of the coming meshiac, the messiah, the anointed king who would overthrow all oppressors, and establish a kingdom. The messiah, the anointed king, would rule over the whole world from Jerusalem. Satan offers Jesus the opportunity to rule over it all, to behave the way people would expect a messiah to behave. Jesus was tempted to be what was expected.
At the start of Lent Jesus challenges us. Our world has plenty of sources of expectation for us. Our parents, our jobs, the economy, our constituents, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, everywhere you turn someone expects something of you. Practicing to meet those expectations isn’t enough. No Lenten discipline can prepare us for what we are called to be. In the face of expectation, Jesus surprises. Christianity is nothing if not a faith centered in surprise. Jesus was not the messiah that was expected. Jesus would not come to overthrow the Roman empire, but instead inaugurate a kingdom that we still struggle to realize today.
This is good news. It means that Lent is not at all about our ability to change ourselves. It is about God’s ability to change us. Fasting and prayer have no meaning in and of themselves. Lent is a time for preparation, for preparing a space for God to enter our lives, for preparing a space to be surprised. The rest of Luke’s Gospel tells the story of an altogether surprising messiah, a Jesus who defies expectations.
May this Lent help prepare us all for surprises, help us to be open to the surprising way God works in our world and in our lives.