Readings: Genesis 2:15-17; Matthew 4:1-11
A bartender notices that every evening, without fail, one of his patrons orders three beers. After several weeks of noticing this pattern, the bartender asks the man why he always orders three beers. The man says, “I have two brothers who have moved away to different countries. We promised each other that we would always order an extra two beers whenever we drank as a way of keeping up the family bond.” Several weeks later, noticing that the man only ordered two beers, the bartender said, “Please accept my condolences on the death of one of your brothers. You know, the two beers and all…” The man replied, “You’ll be happy to hear that my two brothers are alive and well… It’s just that I, myself, have decided to give up drinking for Lent.”
That’s my kind of Lent!
Lent has begun this week for the People of God. If you haven’t found the time to think about what you might want to do this Lent to enrich your spiritual life, it’s not too late. Perhaps today’s readings will inspire to consider the purposes behind special Lenten disciplines so that you can find something of benefit this Season.
How do we ‘let go’?
A question I’ve been asked more than once, by a person on their deathbed, or someone coming to terms with their divorce, is this: “How do I let go?” What comes to my mind upon hearing this question is the expression, perhaps you’ve heard of it, ‘Let go, and let God’? Honestly, I cringe a little even just saying those words. Mostly it’s because I’ve heard this saying a lot over the years as a supposed cure-all for whatever may worry us. It is one of the Christian clichés I hesitate to use for the simple fact that its familiarity can be conflated with triteness, and thus irrelevance.
But, like a lot of clichés, there is some truth behind this advice. I think it’s particular pertinent for us as we journey through Lent this year. So, I’d like to explore the question this morning, ‘How do we let go?’
Practice, Practice, Practice
My first response would be to think of the answer to this question: “How do you improve at anything? For example: piano playing, power skating, or jump shot?” Practice. Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but I do think it can go a long way in every aspect of our lives, especially our spiritual lives. Henri Nouwen once said, “Life is a school in which we are trained to depart.” Essentially, he meant that all the smaller losses we experience in life: a job, a relationship, etc. can prepare us for the great ‘letting go’ of life itself when our time comes.
The classical Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, in whatever their modern form, are spiritual exercises. We practice them not to earn God’s favour or to inflate our pious egos, we do them to practice ‘letting go’ of smaller things so that we can get better at letting go of the big things. When we fast, we let go of our culture’s preoccupation with immediate gratification and we resist the illusion that our material needs truly satisfy; in prayer we let go of desperate attempts at self-sufficiency; in the giving of alms we let go of our self-preoccupation and the impulses that lead to anti-neighbourliness.
Jesus in the Wilderness
Let’s look at our great example, Jesus, to see what this might look like. When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, Matthew makes sure we notice that he has first fasted for forty days and is thus ‘famished’. We are meant to see Jesus as weak and particularly vulnerable to the temptations of the devil. While this is indisputably true in one sense, I also wonder if Jesus’ fast, rather than making the temptations more appealing, actually better prepared him to face them?
Jesus has already learned how to do without bread, he’d been doing so for forty days, trusting in providential provision. Should it surprise us then that Jesus rebuffs the devil’s temptations? Satan takes Jesus’ trials to a whole new level, laying the fundamental temptations right in front of him. Satan tempts him to take what he desires, to validate his identity as the powerful Son of God, and to take the security that comes from claiming power. Would he use his power to satisfy his own needs, or does he rely on divine grace for strength and support? I believe fasting taught him about his vulnerability and his place in God’s plans, and how to say ‘no’ when one’s natural drives want to take over.
Fasting as Practice
Does Jesus need to prove to himself (and perhaps to others) that God really does care for him in a special way? He has been driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, immediately upon receiving the divine Word that he is God’s Son. The challenge of fasting doesn’t cause him to doubt his place or purpose, rather it solidifies a disposition of trust in God’s care and provision. His will is steeled to obey God over those 40 days. Is it no wonder then that he ably resists the devil’s suggestions he make a display of his power and take a place of authority and privilege in the world? His trust in God did not demand a constant show of power, what he principally was about was to do God’s will, set over against the values and practices of the kingdoms of this world.
Spiritual disciplines like fasting, associated with Lent, teach us to say ‘no’ to self and ‘yes’ to God’s surprising and faith-testing ways. Through them, we practice trusting in God, time and time again, resisting impulses that can so easily take over our lives and determining over and again, that we will trust and obey God, no matter what.
The Power of Letting Go
I don’t know about you, but when I’m going through a trying time, I want the pain to go away immediately. When it’s a long season of dryness and struggle, it’s so easy for my prayers to turn to angst as I begin to feel like God has forgotten me. I want results, solutions, and an end to confusion and uncertainty. But in Jesus I can see a power that contrasts with our sense of power as being in control. In Jesus we see the One who perfectly demonstrates the power of letting go – God didn’t whisk Jesus away from Satan in his time of trial, nor would God take the ‘cup of suffering’ from him as he prayed in the Garden before his arrest and execution. Jesus’ prayer is to be our own: Not my will, but yours, God, be done.
In resisting the urge to take matters into his own hands, Jesus shows where power truly lies. In the end it is not Satan who has power over Jesus, but Jesus who issues commands that Satan obeys (Jesus told him to scram). To be sure, Satan will return, but the secret in keeping the tempter at bay is out: it is in being faithful to one’s vocation to be God’s child, clinging not to our power and capabilities, but holding tenaciously to the divine calling. We too are God’s children, we too are called to obey God as revealed to us in Jesus, God’s Son.
What might I need to let go of this Lent?
This Lent, perhaps there are things of which we need to let go? Do we need to let go of the past and embrace the unknown of wilderness? Maybe we need to let go our anxieties, and with them, our desire to be in control? Maybe we need to let go of whatever is driving us to incessant busyness, a busyness that causes us to neglect our spiritual selves and the meeting together as the People of God? Maybe there are hurts we’ve been nursing for as long as we can remember, can we use Lent, and the spiritual disciplines we participate in, to prepare ourselves to leave these pains at the feet of Jesus? When we ‘let go’ of eating a particular food, or resist the temptation to indulge, can we see ourselves as practicing the art of ‘letting go’ so that we may more ably let go of those things we truly need to be free from?
Throughout this holy season, let us embrace fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, that train us to ‘let go’ of those things that may easily ensnare us, and to ‘let God’ be the source of our strength, security, and peace, that we may, with patience, run the race that is set before us. (Heb 12:1)