Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for February 22nd, Ash Wednesday: Psalm 51:1-17; Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; and 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Third-Isaiah (the unnamed prophet behind Isaiah 56-65) addresses sincerity of faith. The prophet is not afraid to unveil religious hypocrisy, acts of worship that look compelling but are without substance. In today’s selection, we read: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgements, they delight to draw near to God.” The people believe themselves righteous because they have defined it conveniently.
God is left unimpressed, however, by their acts of worship. Through the prophet, God challenges them to reconsider what is important: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” This is the purpose of Lent. We are called to look at our faith lives with honesty and sincerity. Lent can lead us to that place where we can hear God say, “Here I am.”
Today we begin the 40 days of Lent. Forty is a number rich in biblical tradition. It rained for 40 days in the story of Noah as God cleansed the earth. The people of Israel wandered through the desert during the Exodus for 40 years until God cleansed an unfaithful generation. Moses spent 40 days atop Mount Sinai to receive the Law from Yahweh so that if Israel followed its commandments God would not punish them. King David reigned over Israel for 40 years. David as a man of war was not allowed to build God’s Temple in Jerusalem, but his reign was idealized and from it emerged the hope of a future Messiah, God’s anointed saviour of his people.
Some or all of these may well have influenced the tradition of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, a time shrouded in mystery between Jesus’ baptism by John and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. These particular 40 days in the wilderness are the inspiration for Lent’s 40 days. During his time in the wilderness, Jesus confronted the traditional religious expectations of the Messiah with those expectations of his own. Almost everywhere Jesus turned there was an image of a vengeful God. The Old Testament precedents noted above for the 40 days all hearken to a message of sinfulness and divine judgment. Even David’s idealized reign that gave birth to Messianic hopes was filled with God’s destructive power as a warrior.
Eventually Jesus ventured from Nazareth to the community around John the Baptist seeking answers. John the Baptist had set up camp in the wilderness, intentionally separated from the rest of society, because he expected God’s fierce judgment to come down upon the earth to consume but a remnant of true, baptized believers.
The biblical tradition familiar to Jesus and then the unfamiliar experience around the Baptist all reinforced the message of a terrifying God. This is when Jesus enters his 40 days in the wilderness seeking direction and a meaningful, fulfilling relationship with God. He looks inside himself, struggles against the traditions thrust upon him, and discovers a once obscure voice of God that will inspire his life and ministry as the good news. We turn to his example as we enter Lent ourselves. We seek to build or fortify a life of faith that nourishes us by seeking out that special closeness of God where we can hear God say to us, “Here I am.” Lent is a blessed time to delve deeper into our faith. These 40 days will come and go. May we make the most of them.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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