Last Wednesday we were invited to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer and fasting, and self-denial: and by reading and meditating on Gods holy Word. Ash Wednesday was a holy day, that began our journey into a holy season of examination and repentance. It’s a beautiful part of our spirituality as Episcopalians who follow the liturgical seasons of the church year.
But as we begin this season of Lent, I do find that the season is sometimes difficult because we can easily become focused on the wrong things during Lent. Giving up something for Lent can be helpful. But it isn’t the point of the season. Thinking about sin and our mortality is important, but it isn’t the point of the season. The main point of focus for the season of Lent is God and God’s mercy.
Our repentance and self-examination are to lead us to focus on God. Repentance means that we turn away from living for ourselves and that we return to God. We turn away from the things and behaviors that break our relationship with God and others. That’s what sin is. It’s what separates us from God and others.
Lent is a time for a deep focus on who God is and who God has called us to be. When we spend time to reflect on that, we can reflect on where we are and turn from the things that keep us from experiencing the fullness of God’s love and activity in our lives. The self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial of the season of Lent are there to help bring us back to who God is and who God calls us to be. And that’s what we see from Jesus in today’s Gospel from Matthew.
Jesus has just been baptized. The Spirit descends on him and the voice of God the Father says this about Jesus, “This is my Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” The next scene is what we hear in today’s Gospel. The devil tempts Jesus three times. Each temptation is an attack on Jesus’ identity as the Beloved Gon of God. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the top of this temple.” And then finally the devil tempts Jesus with the power and acclaim of all the kingdoms of this world, if only Jesus will worship him. And then the Beloved Son of God responds by saying he’s only interested in worshiping and serving the Father who is delighted in him.
Then after all of these temptations, the devil leaves him, and then angels come and wait on him.
It’s a beautiful text for us to read as we enter this season of Lent. Because we also are the beloved children of God in whom God is well pleased. The same voice that speaks at Jesus’ baptism is the voice that speaks over us in our own. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever, and the voice of the Father says to us: You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”
But unlike Jesus, we often forget our belovedness. We forget that God’s voice in our lives is more sustaining than the actual food we eat. We question God’s love for us and make it conditional, based on whether or not we experience pain. And we sometimes leave behind God’s love and delight in us, and seek the acclaim and splendor of other people. We forget that we are the beloved children of God and we give into temptations to sin.
I’ve heard this saying about sin and I want to share it with you this morning: “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.”
I’ll read that one more time. “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.”
We all know what it’s like to be taken farther than we wanted to go, to be kept longer than we wanted to stay, and to pay more than we wanted to pay because of sin.
We find ourselves in the wilderness of temptation like Jesus, but unlike him, we have given into temptation and gone down the path of sin. And the question is, will the angels come and wait on us like they did for Jesus, or do they stay away from sinners like you and me?
How do you answer that this morning? After you have succumbed to temptation and found yourself taken to places you did not want to go, do you believe that God’s messengers and agents of healing come to you like they do for Jesus, or do you cut yourself off from the good news and the healing of God?
The following is written in the first letter to Timothy: “This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Jesus comes into our world to save sinners like you and me, and when we fall into sin, God still sends us messengers of hope and healing to help us become whole. I believe God sends us angels all the time, we just don’t recognize them.
One thing I’ve noticed about the nave here at St John’s is that it’s filled with angels. There are the two brass angels at the steps of the chancel. There are the two stone angels flanking each side of the altar. But there are so many more. There are six angels in this side window of the sanctuary. There are the two angels in the Ascension window behind the altar, but there are thirteen angels on the reredos, the screen covering the wall at the back of the altar. There are three angels carved into the stalls here behind the altar rail. There are two wooden angels at the back of the nave on top of the exposed pipes of the organ. There are angels in the stained glass and side walls of the nave. I have counted more than thirty-five angels here in this sacred space, and that doesn’t include the ones on the kneelers.
We are surrounded by angels, messengers of hope and agents of healing. Do you see them? If you’ve been here for a long time, have they just faded away for you? If you are new, have you failed to notice them?
If we find it hard recognize the angels that surround us in this holy and sacred space, I wonder how we’re doing when it comes to recognizing them, when they come to us in the wilderness of temptation and sin? If Jesus needed the angels after withstanding temptation, we surely need them more after giving into temptation and falling into sin.
Messengers of hope and agents of healing are all around us, we just don’t recognize them. They come in all sorts of forms. In text messages that let us know someone is thinking about us. In a hand that reaches to comfort us. In a piece of art that changes our lives. In someone you can trust enough to finally share that secret that has been burdening you and keeping you from feeling like you could be loved. In the faces of friends. In the support of a group seeking recovery. In a community that comes together to eat and drink the heavenly food that sustains us in our journey through the wilderness.
The focus of Lent, is not about what we give up for forty days. The focus isn’t even about sin and our mortality. The focus of the season of Lent is that God came into the world to save sinners.
In the wilderness of temptation we have been taken farther than we wanted to go, kept longer than we wanted to stay, and we have paid more than we wanted to pay, but God in God’s mercy has surrounded us with messengers of hope and agents of healing–they are all around us.