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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 02/14/2016

Forty. It’s a number we hear pretty often. For instance, a customary workweek in the United States consists of forty hours. When a woman is having a baby, we start counting the weeks up to forty. If we catch a quick nap, that’s forty winks.  I know my generation listened to American Top 40. And how about that saying, “Life begins at Forty”? (What do they know, huh?)!

Forty seems to be a special number in both our secular world and the religious world – there are numerous examples from Judaism, Islam and Christianity. We know it’s significant in our Bible, with rainfall during the flood and wandering of Israel in the wilderness; then in the New Testament we have the time waiting for the Holy Spirit.

Today, we have Jesus finishing up forty days of wandering in the wilderness and then facing temptations by the devil. Each year, on this first Sunday in Lent, we get to hear one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptation. After his baptism, Jesus has been led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. There are some questions that are going to be answered … Will Jesus deny his Son-ship, the reason he has come in to the world? Is he going to renounce it in order to serve himself, including his physical needs, rather than serving God and serving the world?

Most of us are pretty familiar with the story: a fully human and fully divine Jesus resists the devil’s offers, one after the other. We’ve heard the three lessons, and we know them: first, like Jesus, we are to make life more than just our physical needs; second, we’re to worship and serve God alone; and third, it is not up to us to test God.

Resisting is simple for Jesus, right? After all, Jesus is Lord. Jesus is divine. And Jesus can withstand any form of temptation thrown in his direction. We get that. But it’s really not that easy for us to connect with what Jesus does here because he is divine, and we are human.

So let’s back up a minute. What about that “fully human” Jesus? The one who has been out in the wilderness – a space without other human beings, without green plants and water, a place that is the natural habitat of demons – he’s been out there for forty days. He’s hungry – famished. Jesus hasn’t eaten. He’s perhaps on the verge of starvation. He is one exhausted, vulnerable human being.

For the moment, let’s try to put ourselves in Jesus’ place – maybe we can get a glimpse at what he was going through by considering how we feel after missing a couple meals: unable to concentrate because of the ache in our stomach. Do we feel a bit on edge? ornery? a little low on patience?

If we can imagine how Jesus feels, we can then try to put ourselves into that moment of his first temptation: he knows that with one command, the emptiness goes away. The rock becomes a loaf of bread that he can break apart with his hands – then eat – enjoy – and the pain goes away, the incredible hollowness.

When we visualize ourselves in a place similar to Jesus’, in a desolate desert, without food for nourishment, starving and exhausted, the fact that he overcomes the temptation to satisfy his physical hunger is amazing. Jesus is Lord, though, and he can resist any form of temptation, even after many weeks of deprivation.

As we have begun moving into Lent, many of us have considered undertaking a Lenten discipline. I think it’s fairly common to choose one related to food though we know temptation is around every corner. We will try to fast from certain “bad foods” during the forty days. Maybe we give up sweets or specifically, chocolate. We might refrain from eating meat or try out a vegan diet. Even simpler, we could go with a commitment to attend soup suppers on Wednesday, substituting a minimal meal for our usual fare.

During these 40 days of Lent, we’re called to discipline ourselves. As we heard on Ash Wednesday, we are called to “self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love” … Have you been contemplating, or have you already begun the process of “adding to” or “giving up” something for Lent?

As I prepared for this sermon, I wondered: do people actually fast anymore?

It’s an ancient practice, but even now, there are those who choose to enter into serious fasting as an act of religious piety and devotion during Lent. Some Orthodox Christians follow challenging food rules, abstaining from meat, fish, eggs, wine, and oil. Those who participate don’t fast simply to prove they have great self-control, but, in denying themselves, along with praying, they find deeper meaning in their lives, turning away from indifference and neglect and toward opportunities to share their faith and help others.

I remembered my seminary friend who’s a Lutheran pastor down in Kansas, and she has done full fasts every Lenten season since she was in college. Pastor Dinah grew up in Southern India with her Hindu family. At the age of 14, Dinah’s parents converted, and she was given the opportunity to be baptized as a Christian. My friend was then sent off to a catholic convent to begin her new life. By the time she went to college, she was ready to begin the fasting practices of her parents, and Dinah has continued those practices for thirty-five years.

During Lent, from Mondays through Saturdays, Dinah drinks water during the day, sometimes with lemon and sugar. Occasionally she will have fruit juice. At night, she’ll have a cup of milk for energy. Dinah emphasizes that she does not fast as penitence or a way to atone for her sins, but as a means to focus on what God wants of her. She is daily contemplating how God wants her to serve.

Instead of eating lunch, she goes into her chapel and prays. Since there’s no need to shop or cook or clean up in the evening, she can read the Bible, listen to music, go to Bible study, and pray with others. She also saves money by not eating, and the savings go to others. All while growing closer to God …  Dinah has fasted during Lent for decades. And again – fasting isn’t a way for her to prove something. These forty days are days of emptiness, going to God in a physical and mental state allowing her to be more open to listening to God’s will.

While I have great respect for Pastor Dinah, I’m not interested in that kind of Lenten discipline. Fasting temptations are too great for me. I know this, and I’d never set out on that 40 day path. I opt for something much less rigorous.

Lent is here for each of us, and whatever sacrifice or discipline we choose to make is enough. The church offers us this Lenten waiting time, forty days to the great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Lent is an opportunity to learn something more about how we can wait; instead of turning in on ourselves and our needs, it is a time to learn how we can join with those in our world who are the have-nots; those who don’t have access to food, health, shelter, clean water. It is a time when we can move from self-interest, from apathy toward others and disinterest in the real issues of the world, when we can move toward considering how God wants us participating.

There are many ways to approach this time of waiting that are way simpler than rigorous fasts. My daughter posted on my Facebook timeline an idea called: 40 Days, 40 Items – every day, place something you no longer need, use, or wear, into a home donation box. On Easter, give the donation box away. Simple.

Another interesting idea I heard this year is from my Luther Seminary community, which is using a book called “7”. People are going to be looking at the excesses in their lives over these weeks: simplifying and focusing on less food, clothing, possessions, media, waste, spending, and stress.  Really seriously looking at these areas is going to take some work. The goal is to “create space” for God to break through and change our hearts.

Whatever we choose these forty days, it’s important to accept the fact that temptation will always be around the corner. Guaranteed. On some days, it will be hard to find time, given our busy lives. Other days we’ll be tired and not wanting to do the “work” involved. During these weeks, it’s likely we won’t “do” our disciplines perfectly, but it’s okay.

Lent is a journey that allows us time to grow closer to God. And God doesn’t expect perfection. God is always there waiting for us when we mess up and we’re ready to turn back ...      God is faithful.

We aren’t capable of resisting temptation as Christ did after his forty days in the wilderness. We are fully human, and it is through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, that we receive the divine gifts, grace and forgiveness, in exchange for our limitations. Amen.

Vicar Terry Frankenstein


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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