I said on Ash Wednesday how I really didn’t like Ash Wednesday and how I really didn’t like Lent. And having said that, I have continued to think about it. I am a priest! These things are part and parcel of what I do! I should be looking forward to these events. Yes, I like Easter and all the cheer and smiles and fun that comes with it, but I really don’t like having to go through Lent to get there.
While writing this, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just board a plane on Transfiguration Sunday and fly over all the nasty stuff of Lent right to Easter?” It would be nice! No Ash Wednesday, no Good Friday, no fasting, no repentance. Just a quick jump from one happy event to another. It sounds like it would be nice, but would that really be helpful to us?
About seven years ago, I drove, alone, from Iowa to Spokane. As you can imagine, it was a very long and a very tedious journey. There were times while driving through Wyoming and Montana that I thought I was going to go totally crazy. Mile after mile of road, and the only thing to keep me company was the radio and my own thoughts. It was long and it was tiring, but it was not a totally bad thing. Actually, there were some very interesting things that happened. I met people who I probably would never have met. I helped a homeless man get a step closer to finding his estranged son, and I even got to sit in a small town in Wyoming and chat with the locals as my flat got fixed. (Having a Saturn with metric tires is NOT a good thing in rural Wyoming!) But mostly, I had time to think, to pray, to contemplate what was going on in my life and what I really wanted to do with my life. Granted, I could have flown out there and had gotten to Spokane much faster, but taking the time to drive was really a very good thing.
Anymore, in life we like to avoid the difficult things. I think this ability to avoid the difficult has made Lent even more tiresome. We have so many things to help us avoid the unpleasantries of life, why should we have this 40-day stretch to remind us of them all again? I think there is a temptation to just avoid all the nastiness of life and just focus on the good things. But I think in doing that, in giving in to the temptation, we deprive ourselves of the possibility for some radical, life changing, events.
In our gospel reading for today, we have Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. Now, we need to remember what has happened to Jesus; he was out in the desert for 40-days, which is “Bible Speak” for a “Very Long Time.” I am sure he was very hungry, very thirsty, and very tired. Oh, and he was alone during this time. My trip across Wyoming and Montana only took about a day and I was a bit crabby, imagine 40 days of this!
So, after being out in the wilderness for a Very Long Time, the Devil starts to tempt Jesus. And the Devil is very crafty about how he goes about doing this. The first thing that the Devil does is tempts Jesus with food. (Seems logical.) After food, the Devil tempts Jesus with power. And finally, the Devil tempts Jesus with being able to show off just how much power Jesus actually does has. These would be difficult temptations in and of themselves, but to be tempted with them after being in the wilderness for 40 days, well… But Jesus does not give in; Jesus stands firm and emerges victorious. Jesus goes through the wilderness and emerges, perhaps a bit worn, but successfully emerges at the end. Jesus does not avoid the temptations and difficulties of life, but proceeds through them and is stronger for it.
Now, one of the easiest ways to disregard this whole wilderness event is to say, “Well, Jesus was the Son of God. He knew he was the Son of God because he had just had it broadcast from the sky. He really didn’t suffer that much.” But that would be to disregard the fact that although Jesus was the Son of God, he was also fully human. And I am sure that the fully human Jesus was sorely tempted to make a couple of loaves of bread for himself. However, to have done that to have given into the temptations, would have been to use the power Jesus had been given for the wrong purpose. In traveling though the wilderness and fighting off temptation, Jesus, the Son, learned that he could, in fact, rely on God, the father, to care for his needs.
If Jesus would have just taken a direct flight to the end of the story, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus wouldn’t have always had questions as to his ability to resist temptations when they would be present. The human Jesus may have always wondered if he could do it. But having gone through this testing and having emerged victorious, the human Jesus could have confidence not only in his own abilities, but also total confidence in the promise of God.
I am pretty sure Jesus would have like to avoid the whole roaming in the wilderness and avoid the whole being tempted by Devil thing, but it was these experiences that helped to prepare him for the other events in his life. It was in passing through the difficult parts of the journey that gave Jesus the strength and courage to continue on the path the God had set out for him.
Our trip through Lent is very similar. Granted, we probably won’t be wandering in the wilderness for a very long time. And we probably will not have a face-to-face encounter with the Devil, but the disciplines we participate in during Lent give us the courage to trust in God and to trust in ourselves. Avoiding the quick and simple ways to Easter helps us to truly understand the gifts we have been given in this life. And sometimes when we take the way that is more difficult, we are gifted with something truly miraculous. And then when we get to the final destination, it is that much more enjoyable.
When we skip right from Transfiguration to Easter, we are missing the work that goes into the journey. We fail to appreciate the price that Jesus paid. When we make that jump, we experience what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “Cheap Grace:” The grace is given, but when we avoid the discipline, we really don’t know what to do with the grace. Just like the dulcimer, if I don’t take time to practice it, it is not really ever going to sound good. Lent is one of those times that we set aside to practice our faith.
Yes, we can fly right to Easter and pretend that Lent never happened. Yes, the promise of Easter will still be there, even if we don’t go through the depths of Good Friday. Yes, we can try to avoid the time in the wilderness, but we do it to our own detriment. Jesus shows us the way and begs us to follow. I may not like Lent, but I have come to appreciate the journey. There may be faster ways to get to the end, but when we follow the way of Jesus, the gift is so much more richer.