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A Way In The Wilderness - Reflections

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A Way In The Wilderness

Reflections on the Gospel Passages for Lent and Easter (Cycle C)

by Milo L. Thornberry and Karl D. Lehman


Celebrating the Resurrection and Eostre

Easter, the celebration of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, is the most important festival of the Christian church. An unbiased observer, perhaps a visitor from another planet, might conclude that our Easter celebration is as much a festival of bunnies, eggs and new clothes as a celebration of Jesus' resurrection. Despite our best intentions, such an observation is not far wrong. Confusion as to the focus of our Easter celebration is a very old problem. By learning some background of the festival, we may better understand the problem and can discover what we can do.

Since Sunday was the day of the week when Jesus rose, Easter is always observed on a Sunday. Actually, in the early history of the church, Jesus' resurrection was celebrated every Sunday. By the second century, the "Feast of Easter" had been established as an annual celebration. In A.D. 325 the Council of Nicaea determined that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, making it fall on variable dates each year between March 21 and April 25.

The "vernal equinox" occurs when the center of the sun appears directly above the equator, causing 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness along the equator. Ancient people knew that the vernal equinox was nature's indicator that winter was giving way to spring. Not surprisingly, many rites of fertility and rebirth were observed at this time.

The Council of Nicaea's decision to have the Festival of Easter coincide with the vernal equinox was probably an attempt to displace pagan festivals observed at that time of year. The origin of the word "Easter" is not clear. The Venerable Bede, an early English historian (A.D. 625-735), connected Easter to Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon spring goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox and whose symbols were the hare and the egg. It seems likely that the hare and egg traditions of the goddess Eostre became the Easter bunny and Easter egg traditions.

Reclaiming Lent

Traditions are the vehicles by which faith, values and the fundamental sense of what is really important is passed from one generation to another. The effort to keep Christian and pagan traditions separate is a continuing struggle for Christians. Traditionally, Lent has played an important part in this struggle.

Originally a season of fasting and penance for new converts preparing for baptism on Easter Eve, Lent is a period of 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Sundays, days when fasts could be broken, are not included in the 40 days. The 40 days of Lent correspond to Jesus' 40-day fast in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.

When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century, the foundation of the church was endangered by throngs of new untutored members. Identification with Jesus through the lenten fasts and practices of self-renunciation was meant to counter the paganism of these new converts. Lent became a time of recommitment; a time to ward off the threat of assimilation into the popular culture.

As in earlier days, Christians today are threatened with becoming a part of the popular culture. In fact, assimilation has already occurred to such a degree that it is hard to tell what differentiates Christian faith from popular culture. The popular celebrations of Christmas and Easter are poignant reminders of this dilemma. In addition to the annual Easter clothes, card, flower and candy blitz, attempts by business to make Easter a "Second Christmas" has spawned an Easter-oriented toy industry and a massive live-animal business, with millions of rabbits, baby chicks and ducks sold each year. "What happened on the third day?" asked one church school teacher to a group of preschoolers one Easter morning. "The Easter bunny brought eggs," was the immediate and unequivocal reply.

We need Lent! Lent encourages us to look within ourselves to see how we have confused popular cultural values with Christian faith. Through a sustained focus on the life and ministry of Jesus, Lent can help us resist the pressures of this culture. Lent can remind us that we are called to continue his ministry: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21). Consequently, Lent prepares us for an Easter that is more than bunnies and eggs, an Easter when we celebrate God's great act in raising Jesus from the dead.

These reflections on the gospel texts for Lent, and the related activities, are designed to assist us in reclaiming the season of Lent as a time to renew our identification with Jesus. The texts take us through his ministry, from its beginnings in the desert to his death in Jerusalem, and then to the road to Emmaus after the resurrection. Understanding Jesus' ministry is the key to understanding what it is that we celebrate on the third day.

The reflections are designed for use in individual meditation and study groups. While the reflections can be used in a variety of ways, they were intended as a resource to be used each week of Lent. The reflections for Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday are designed to be used on those days, while the other five reflections were meant to be used sometime during the week, preferably the same day of each week.

Following the themes explored in the reflections, the activities are planned learning experiences designed for use at home or in other intergenerational settings. With some adaptation, they can be used by church school classes and study groups as well. Before beginning on Ash Wednesday, read through the suggested activities for each week. Be sure to see what materials will be required for each session so that they can be gathered ahead of time.

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To Fast or Not to Fast

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

There is a time to fast and a time not to fast. Some religious leaders took offense that the disciples of Jesus were not fasting, like the disciples of John and those of the Pharisees did (Luke 5:29). The real problem had little to do with fasting, though. Problems arose because some people objected to Jesus' eating with the despised tax collectors and other outcasts. By eating with the outcasts, Jesus acknowledged them as people worthy of fellowship, and by implication, worthy of more than the shabby treatment they received at the hands of society's "respectable" people. In this case, Jesus' eating and drinking with the socially undesirable was a public criticism leveled against the moral numbness of his society. Fasting, in that case, would have denied Jesus' expression of solidarity with the outcasts. The time for fasting, said Jesus, is after the bridegroom is taken away, and then as Jesus reminded his listeners in the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, it is best done in secret (Matthew 6:6).

Fasting and other forms of self-deprivation have long been a part of nurturing spiritual growth during Lent. In the Old Testament, fasting was called for in times of bereavement and national sorrow. Even though carried out individually, the purpose of fasting was for the sake of others. The prophet Zechariah criticized those who fasted and mourned "for their own satisfaction" (Zechariah 7:6). The pursuit of spiritual growth for one's own satisfaction is a form of self-gratification, not growth. Spiritual growth results in concrete actions for the benefit of others. Seeing that "justice is done," showing "kindness and mercy to one another," and not oppressing "widows, orphans, foreigners...or anyone else in need," said Zechariah, are the kinds of actions that are to spring from the soil of fasting (7:9).

You miss the point entirely if you dismiss fasting because of Zechariah's and Jesus' criticisms, since both passages assume the importance of fasting. Done in the right spirit and at the right time, fasting is to spiritual growth what pruning is to the nurture of a fruit tree. We prune to make way for intended growth. In a society like ours that encourages us to consume without restraint, fasting and other acts of self-denial can be a means of learning the importance of sacrifice for spiritual growth. As Urban T. Holmes III, author of Spirituality of Ministry, reminds us -- "a life incapable of significant sacrifice is also incapable of courageous action."

PRAYER: O God of all creation, give us wisdom to know when to feast and when to fast, and let both be for the sake of others, so that our spirits may truly grow and bear fruit.

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Temptations in the Wilderness

Luke 4:1-13

The Holy Spirit, not the Devil, led Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus needed time in the wilderness to prepare for baptism as well as his ministry. Why the wilderness, the desert? Although geography is not so important, the desert was a place where Jesus could be alone, apart from amenities that ease the rough edges of daily life, thus making him vulnerable. Solitude and intentional deprivation are elements that can be used to train the spirit.

During his time in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted three times. The three temptations -- to work miracles for the satisfaction of immediate need, to exercise political power and to give a convincing sign -- were actions that many expected of the promised Messiah. Jesus did not, as some have suggested, reject the expectations themselves: he fed the crowd with a few loaves and fishes; he healed, exorcised demons, and even brought a dead man to life; and he challenged the authorities in Jerusalem. What was it that he resisted in these temptations? In each temptation, he refused to exercise power for himself (his own needs and ego) in order to avoid personal sacrifice. He also affirmed that his work would be done in the service of God, and rejected all lesser purposes for his ministry.

Patterned after Jesus' forty days in the wilderness, Lent is a time for the training of the spirit, a time to reject our preoccupation with comfort, convenience and immediate gratification, whether with food, sex, career advancement, or even spiritual enlightenment. Above all else, the idea of time "in the wilderness" for training the spirit is an alien notion in our society. Even brief periods of daily withdrawal from the mass media, friends and family offer opportunities for us to see how we are tempted to use our resources and powers for our own comfort and a whole host of lesser gods.

PRAYER: O God, who led Jesus to the Jordan to be baptized and then to the wilderness to be tempted, give us courage to follow him to the wilderness and confront our temptations so that we may be strengthened for your service.

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The Wings of the Savior

Luke 13:31-35

On his way from Galilee to Jerusalem, Luke tells us, Jesus went through "one town and village after another." In one of them, a group of Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was going to have him killed. They must have been shocked by his reply. After all, behind this king stood the strength of Rome, with all its wealth and military might which oppressed the people of Palestine. Surely this Herod represented a clear and present danger. "Go and tell that fox for me," Jesus replied, "Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work." Jesus was not about to let Herod interfere with his mission. He knew genuine strength did not reside with that mighty man of arms.

If the crowds were expecting Jesus to counter Herod's threat with one of his own they were sure to be disappointed. Instead, Jesus went on to share with them what has come to be one of the most popular mother images of God in the Bible: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," he cried, "how often I have longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" Over against Herod the fox Jesus appears like a mother hen trying to collect her young. Jesus faced the violence of his day by gathering, healing, feeding and teaching.

Like the folks of first century Palestine, we, too, live in troubled times. Violence and crime seems to permeate our communities and our world. Many people feel as if a vicious fox is at their door. Many are afraid to go outside at night and thus retreat into their homes behind locked doors and barred windows. How do we, today, face the violence? Is the solution to be found in larger police forces and bigger armies? Do we build more prisons and hire more executioners? Here Jesus shows us a different path to follow.

"Chicago, Chicago," or "Toronto, Toronto," Jesus cries today. He longs to gather us so that we continue in the paths he has revealed. Are we willing and can we follow Jesus' example and be the healers, providers and teachers our society so desperately needs? As St. Paul writes in Philippians, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."

PRAYER: O God of wonder and mystery, gather us and show the pathways you would have us follow. Surprise us with the grace to be faithful.

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Getting One's Own House in Order

Luke 13:1-9

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus was speaking to a group of people in Galilee. Some messengers slipped through the crowd, reporting that Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans suspected of insurrection against Rome while they offered their sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. Why did the messengers report this incident to Jesus? Was it an attempt to goad Jesus -- the Messiah, the successor to David -- into action against the Roman overlords? Or, was it a trick by the authorities to trap Jesus into saying something that could be used as evidence of his own insurrection against the Romans?

Jesus refused to criticize those slain. He turned the question back on his questioners and recalled another incident fraught with political overtones. He reminded them of the time when eighteen people were killed by a falling tower at Siloam. Since Pilate had enraged Jewish patriots when he seized funds from the temple treasury to build the aqueduct at Siloam, people viewed the disaster as just deserts for those workers accepting "stolen" money from the Romans.

From both incidents, Jesus issued the same warning: "Unless you turn from your sins, you will die just as surely as they did." Neither the political activists in the temple nor the political pawns at Siloam were condemned: the question was whether or not those listening had repented of their sins. "Get your own house in order," was the clear and discomforting message.

How ironic that the story of the unfruitful fig tree follows! For centuries Christians have gleefully read this story as Jesus' repudiation of Israel as the chosen people with little apparent thought to its implications for the Church. The God who would cut down one fig tree because it did not bear fruit could well decide to cut down another if that one didn't bear fruit. Yesterday and today the message is the same, "Get your own house in order: turn away from your sin!"

PRAYER: O God, whose oceans pound rocks into sandy beaches, break down our preoccupation with the sins of others so that we may see and confess our own, that our lives might be amended and made fruitful.

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Who God Is and Who We Are

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Jerusalem was not far away. Again, tax collectors and other outcasts crowded around to listen to Jesus. And again, some Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus' practice of welcoming and eating with the outcasts (15:2). To those assembled, Jesus responded with three parables: one about lost sheep, another about a lost coin and, finally, one about two lost sons.

The three parables help us discover who God is and who we are. Who are we? We are impatient at home and do not want to wait to receive our inheritance. We want it all now. Much like the younger brother, some of us go away from God, our Parent, to the far country where we squander our inheritance. Others of us, like the older brother who stayed home, are alienated from the Parent and resent the Parent's welcome of the ones who return from the far country. Most to be pitied are those, like the older brother, who do not know they are lost.

Who is God? God is a Parent who gives the inheritance when it is requested. God is a Parent who grieves for the children in the far country and who keeps watch on the horizon for their return home. God welcomes the children home and celebrates their return. God is as grieved by the jealousy of the children who stayed home as by the waywardness of those who left.

This parable is at the very heart of the gospel. No wonder that "the poor heard him gladly." For those like the elder son, who are convinced they never left the Parent, the parable carries a warning: reconciliation with God cannot be accomplished unless alienation, whether in the far country or at home, is recognized. The "good news" is that the Parent grieves and waits for both children.

PRAYER: O God, Mother and Father to us all, we are ashamed of our alienation from you and our brothers and sisters. Let us hear and believe the good news that we can come home.

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The Time for Perfume

John 12:1-8

Just beyond Bethany lay Jerusalem. Jesus had come to Bethany when he learned that his good friend, Lazarus, was dying (John 11). Jesus' act of raising Lazarus from the dead caused a great commotion. The religious authorities had not greeted the raising of Lazarus with awe or joy: "Just look at all the miracles this man is performing! If we let him go on this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Roman authorities will take action and destroy our temple and our nation" (11:48). With Passover just days away, Jesus dropped out of public view. People speculated about whether or not he would show up for the festival.

Six days before Passover, Jesus returned to Bethany for a dinner with his close friends, Lazarus, Mary, Martha and other disciples. This was a night to celebrate. In the commotion created by the event, there had been no opportunity to celebrate Lazarus' return to life. More than a celebration of the returned Lazarus, though, this was the night before Jesus would enter the tiger's lair, Jerusalem. Since the authorities were searching for Jesus, some believed this might well be their last supper with Jesus. Understanding the significance of the evening, Mary used expensive perfume to anoint Jesus' feet. Jesus perceived that Mary's action was more than an act of gratitude for restoring her brother to life. It was also a symbol of mourning in anticipation of his death.

Worse than Judas' attack on Mary for this expensive expression of affection is the callousness of those in later years who would use Jesus' response as justification to not care for the poor. Compassionate response to the poor was the norm: it is what Jesus and the disciples did every day. However, this night was a time to focus the celebration on Jesus, not on the poor, not on the disciples, nor even on Lazarus. Celebration and service both have their places.

How can we honor Jesus today, as Mary did so long ago with precious perfume? In his parable of the last judgment, Jesus suggested that by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, receiving strangers into our homes, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison, we honor him: "Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these..., you did it to me" (Matthew 25:31-46).

PRAYER: O God, who loved Jesus, let our love be such that we honor him with the costly fragrances of serving "the least of these."

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Confronting the Powers

Luke 19:28-40

Jerusalem at last! Why Jesus chose to come at this time is not clear. Staying in Galilee or the countryside would have been easier and safer than coming to the very stronghold of his enemies. He did not hide, though, but came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. In so doing, Jesus fulfilled the prophet Zechariah's vision of the arrival of Israel's Messiah (Zech. 9:9ff).

The "large crowd" of disciples who welcomed him that day knew of Zechariah's prophecy and greeted Jesus as the Messiah, the son of David, who would not only enter Jerusalem humbly riding on a donkey, but who would also be "triumphant" and "victorious" (Zech. 9:9). The prophet said that this King would "remove the war chariots from Israel," set the people free, and empower them to "destroy their enemies" (vss. 11-15). Given the prophecy, and Jesus' identification with it, his followers assumed that Jesus was deliberately challenging both the religious and political powers in Jerusalem.

Those authorities, religious and political, would also have known Zechariah's prophecy. In contrast to the many Palm Sunday sermons on Jesus being "meek and mild," Jesus' actions seem to have been deliberately provocative. The Pharisees who were observing the scene were affronted. Some of them warned Jesus to stop his followers' "seditious" proclamations of a new king. Jesus' response was not to quiet them: "I tell you that if they keep quiet, the stones themselves will cry out" (Luke 19:39-40).

Many questions remain unanswered about this incident. We are reminded that there is much we do not know about Jesus and that our attempts to make him fit our preconceived notions do not do him justice. What seems clear from his whole life and ministry is that the concerns of the Messiah Jesus transcend, but are not unrelated to, the social and political issues of the day. Wherever people are hurt and dehumanized by those in power, the Messiah is concerned. Throughout his ministry, Jesus did not seek confrontation with the authorities, but neither did he shrink from it. In Jerusalem, it cost him his life. Like Jesus, those who follow him should not shrink from confrontation with powers that hurt and dehumanize.

PRAYER: O God, who sent the Messiah to Jerusalem, help us see beyond the waving of palms to the cost of discipleship.

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The Third Day

Luke 24:13-35

Conflict, betrayal, arrest, denial, torture, trial and crucifixion were what Jesus found in Jerusalem. Left with a future that had crumbled, his disciples went into hiding. On the third day, only the women dared venture outside locked doors to visit the tomb. Instead of finding a dead body to anoint, they discovered an empty tomb.

As two of Jesus' followers were traveling to Emmaus late in the day of his resurrection, they were joined by a stranger. The followers began to give the stranger an account of what had happened in Jerusalem during the past few days, including the testimony of the women about an empty tomb. Even when the stranger chastised them for not believing what the prophets had said about the suffering and dying of the Messiah, they did not realize who he was. They offered the stranger hospitality, and as the stranger began to break bread, they recognized him to be Jesus. He who was dead was alive!

On the third day the travellers' eyes were opened to the significance of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. They did not celebrate some Greek notion of immortality or Eosterian nature cycle of rebirth. They praised a God who said "No!" to the Romans, religious authorities and to death itself. When the powers-that-be had done all that they could to defeat the ministry of Jesus, God said "Yes!" to Jesus.

Identification with Jesus does not end with Lent. When Jesus appeared to the frightened disciples on Easter Sunday evening, he commissioned them: "As the Father sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21). When the bread is broken and our eyes are opened, we can see that we are sent on our own road through Galilee to Jerusalem, continuing the ministry of Jesus. And on the third day...we celebrate God's "Yes!" and our commission.

PRAYER: O God, whose spirit opens locked doors, empower us to leave our hiding places and get on with the ministry of Jesus, our risen Lord.

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About the Authors

Milo Thornberry, former director of Alternatives, serves as pastor of a United Methodist Church in Oregon.

Get to know Milo at Post #181.

Karl D. Lehman has served on the staff of Alternatives.

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Page updated 13 Jan. 2014

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