First Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (TLC Worship Service 02/21/2021)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Lenten devotional we are using this year is called “A Story to Tell.” Perhaps you’ve already seen the brief video devotions the ministry staff have done to accompany each day’s reading from the devotional? I invite you to read and pray along with us as we journey through Lent.  Note: We will not be doing reflections on Sunday and Wednesdays, on those days we invite you to join us for worship. 

I have to admit, the prayer for the very first devotion on Ash Wednesday, was difficult to pray. As one who takes words, and their power, seriously I couldn’t mindlessly and quickly pray the prayer for that day. Perhaps you also had a reaction when you first saw it? Here’s the prayer that stopped me in my tracks: God, take what you must from me until I am unburdened and therefore ready to receive what you have for me.  Amen.

Did anyone else find that prayer difficult to pray? I found myself wanting to say, “Hold on!  Wait a second!  Can we talk about this first?” Granting permission for God to take what God must – was an uncomfortable stretch – a bridge too far.

The author wrote that prayer to conclude a reflection called “Start by shedding”  which I did find helpful.The author reflected that normally when we start a journey we gather things.If we are going on a trip, we gather the food and supplies we need, one might pack a cooler of food or a bag of snacks, one gathers money, perhaps a passport, or a printed itinerary.Our journey through Lent, however, is the opposite.We journey through Lent by shedding things – by letting go. Another way we name that shedding is “fasting.”

I have almost always fasted during Lent. I have been encouraged to fast thinking that Christians around the world, as part of their Lenten devotion were also fasting.  I wasn’t fasting alone, but was fasting with the church. I agree with the idea of letting go. But, to voluntarily choose to fast is far different than God taking something from us.

Perhaps my resistance to this prayer gives us an insight about temptation?

On the first Sunday in Lent each year, we read a story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke’s accounts are similar and longer – Mark’s account we read this year is just two verses: “And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” [Mark 1:12-13]

Mark doesn’t seem interested in the details of Jesus’ temptation – just that Jesus was tempted. Maybe the helpful thing about Mark leaving it open, is that it invites us not to find the ways we are tempted like Jesus, but to be honest about the unique temptations we face. And maybe that prayer, “God, take what you must” as it causes some anxiety and fear, is a way to lead us to think about what tempts us, about what things we believe are more important that God’s call in our lives?

If we identify things we hope God doesn’t take from us, or identify things we couldn’t possibly live without, then perhaps our temptation has been revealed? Certainly, there are good things we wouldn’t want removed from our lives – for example, the life and relationships we have with family and friends. And yet, even then, there are times we must say good-bye to certain relationships for the sake of life and health. Addicts, for example, for the sake of sobriety must say good-bye to relationships that are destructive and harmful, even if those relationships have been enjoyable and lengthy.

Now, it must be said, God doesn’t play games with us. God doesn’t play with us like someone might play with a cat with a string. I don’t believe this is about God toying with us. Rather, this is about God leading us to life. 

What must die in order for us to live?
What do we cling to, at the expense of faith? 
What do we hold on to that gets in the way of following Jesus?    

Our First and Second Readings give us a story about baptism.

Today’s Second Reading from 1 Peter 3:18-22 interprets the flood story from Genesis 9:8-17, as a baptism story – the author of 1 Peter sees in the story of Noah and his family saved through the waters of the flood, a foreshadowing of salvation in the waters of baptism. Some background information about 1 Peter is helpful.

1 Peter was written to new Christian community in Asia Minor. Melinda Quivick suggests the Christian community of 40,000 people represented just .06% of the total population of Asia Minor estimated to at about 70 million people. These Christians were likely NOT suffering outright persecution, but more likely, they were facing the taunts, jeers, cold shoulders, indifference, and prejudice felt by any minority population. The author of 1 Peter writes to encourage this minority Christian community. Quivick writes that the author does this by helping them to understand their life  “especially their suffering – in the context of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  In so doing the author hopes to bolster the tenacity of this new group by getting them to think of Noah.”

Of all the stories the author could have chosen for encouragement, the author chose  the story of Noah and his family – another minority group of believers that believed something impossible against all odds. Valerie Bridgeman Davis suggests that in African American preaching Noah’s ark of safety is also called “The old ship of Zion” in which “God’s grace is on wood, just as it was on the cross.” (I love that line).  In this way, the audience of 1 Peter was invited to see their baptisms into faith in Jesus Christ, as the ship carrying them to safety in the waters around them.

And here is where all these themes come together for us this morning, on this First Sunday in Lent, as Valerie Bridgeman Davis writes:

“The waters that surround the ark,” she writes, “represent the waters of baptism, just as dangerous and chaotic because they destroy the old life …

“During Lent, we are invited to contemplate what in our lives have been or need to be destroyed by the waters of baptism, as much as we remember the “ark of safety” that brought us safely to God. We are invited to live into this paradox: some things must be destroyed in order to be saved.”

In the waters of baptism, some things are taken away from us. In baptism, we yield the life we want to live, as we are joined to the death of Christ on the cross. And there, joined to Christ’s resurrection, we are joined to the life God wants us to live.

While there are specific things unique to each of us that are drowned in the waters of baptism, I believe that what is common to all of us is the temptation to believe that we are the Captains of our own destiny. In baptism, God wants to take the Captain’s stripes off of our shoulders, telling us, even as accomplished and professional and capable as we are, “You are not in command of your life, I am!” That, I believe, is what God wants to take away from us to unburden us and lead us to life.

Joined to Christ’s resurrection in baptism, we are proclaimed crewmembers on “Old Ship Zion” rowing with the Communion of Saints in the direction of life to which Christ calls us. We are named part of the crew, with our unique and special gifts and talents all playing an important part on the ship that is called the church. Unburdened from believing all things rest upon us, we are simply called to play the role we’ve been given to pray – and to be blessed by the role others are called to play.

What in your life are the waters of baptism washing up against?
What must die in order to live?
What is God taking to unburden you, what do you sense God giving you?

The Good News today, is that what God has for us to receive, is life.

In water and word, in bread and cup, God announces for all people life lived as the body of Christ, life lived in the communion of saints. The life God calls us to live is not an individual life cut off from everyone else – that is the life of sin – rather, the life God calls us to live is life lived in community and relationship with God’s people.

And so, with our old selves dying in the waters of baptism, and our new selves joined to Christ’s resurrection, may we joyfully pray that prayer so difficult to pray, but so necessary to pray for the sake of life, healing, and wholeness:

“God, take what you must from me until I am unburdened and therefore ready to receive what you have for me.  Amen.”   

Indeed may it be so!