In the name of Jesus.
Dear Brothers and Sisters redeemed by Christ:
Down the street, Christians continue to sing and shout and scream: "Praise, praise, praise, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia." And tonight, down the street, Hollywood will continue to sing and shout and scream it's "alleluias" before the flash bulbs and cameras.
But here, this morning, something has changed. The alleluias have been put on hold for a season. The great shouts of praise to God from his people on earth have, for a time, become silent.
For a season, we will refrain from singing "Glory to God in the highest." For a time, we will refrain from singing "This is the Feast" and the alleluias that accompany it. For a while, we will refrain from singing "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia."
But why? Why deny God's people the opportunity to loudly shout alleluias to God and the Lamb? Why - for a time - does the Church close the door on boisterously reveling in the happy, clappy Christian life?
Benny Hinn isn't observing Lent. Trinity Broadcasting Network isn't airing some annual "Ash Wednesday Praise-a-thon." Alleluias are not silenced in the mega-churches that are regularly featured in our newspapers and magazines. Why have they been reserved until a later time here?
Purple adorning the sanctuary. The absence of flowers on the altar. Hymns sung in minor keys. Children of God entering church still hiding a few ashes in the pores of the skin of their foreheads. "Oh, it's that time of the year again."
And something deep down inside us asks, "Didn't we do this Lent thing last year? Can't we just get on with it and fast-forward ourselves to the glories of Easter lilies trumpeting a Christ-less cross and empty tomb?"
Many in New Orleans and many more in Rio de Janeiro have plunged themselves into the excesses of Carnival or Mardi Gras, wishing they would finally wake from their stupor on the other side of Lent.
And so it is with Christians in our communities. A voice inside says, "I want a church that affirms me and allows me to do what I've already decided makes me feel good. If the liturgy is going to mention sin every Sunday then I'm just going to skip Sunday services until Easter. I know what I'll do. I'll simply go find a congregation that projects on their jumbo-tron a blood-less, cross-less -- handsome and hug-giving Christ."
But the absence of the alleluias, the Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent has been placed before us this morning for a reason, for a most-important reason: to highlight how Jesus' redeeming mission actually all began, that we would put our faith in his subsitutionary work in our wilderness and gain strength as he leads us through the barren wasteland of this world and into paradise.
This first Sunday in our Lenten journey with Christ sets the stage for not only his forty days in the wilderness but his entire public ministry: one of struggle, one of self-denial, one of wrestling with the possibility -- the tempting possibility -- that salvation could be won another way outside of the Savior's "innocent, bitter suffering and death."
"There's an easier way." the devil whispers into Jesus' ear. "If you are the Son of God, get yourself off this road that leads only to hurt and struggle and blood and sweat and tears. Reject this silly notion of offering yourself as the sacrifice for sinners and grab the glories you deserve as God's Son - now. Give in to the exciting side, the glorious side, the reasonable side of the spiritual life."
Saint Luke documents three final temptations that capped forty days and nights of struggle with his human nature, the devil and the world. These were the same temptations others before him failed to win against.
In these forty days of temptation, Jesus undoes what Adam failed to do in the Garden: firmly trust in the Word of God as it was revealed from heaven. In these forty days of temptation, Jesus restores what the children of Israel failed to carry out: as he believed firmly that, even despite appearances, God's leading was good and gracious and ultimately for his own good.
And how are you doing during your forty days of wandering in the wilderness -- the wilderness of your weakness and sin and consuming concern with self and self-obtained security?
Christ was tempted in the place of Adam and Israel and you - and came out of it faint, but not faint-hearted towards the will of his Father in heaven.
Scripture tells us that the devil left Jesus after those excruciatingly difficult forty days, until a more opportune time. And what was that more opportune time?
And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:33-37 ESV)
Everything hung in the balance. Would Jesus give in to the tantalizing lie that our salvation could be won without the Savior's death upon the cross?
Yesterday I was reminded that the daily Scripture readings suggested in the bulletin for the last few weeks have included the book of Job, a book that reveals Job's faith in his Redeemer-to-come, his Redeemer that would take upon himself Job's own human nature and helpless situation and overwhelming temptation in order to bring him -- and us -- through the wilderness of the unimaginable to rest in the eternal land of promise.
Do you find yourself in a wilderness of disappointment and hurt and anxiety and fear? Do you find yourself giving in to the temptations and trickery of Satan, your old nature and the world?
Then flee to the Christ that takes center-stage in the season of Lent. Watch as he is attacked by those who would rob him of his proper place as redeemer and, in so doing, rob you of any hope of heaven. See him as he gives up all in order to give you and all fallen children of Adam and Eve hope in this world and life in the world to come. Journey with Jesus these forty days, take hold of this man and his way of saving you: from your wilderness, from your hell, from your death.
Bind yourself to Christ and to his Word and his life and death and resurrection, for he has bound himself to you and your helpless condition. Salvation is all tied up in this Son of God and Mary's son, in his rejection of attempting to do things the easy way, the glorious way, the risk-free way.
Christ was found faithful at the end of his forty days because Christ was found by his Father in heaven holding on to the word of promise: "Through your innocent suffering and death, my people's many sins will be atoned for. By your perfect life, my people will stand forgiven and righteous before me."
One thing I'm convinced of after Ash Wednesday: there are a lot of different looking foreheads around Redeemer Lutheran Church and School. All kinds of foreheads - but the same spiritual condition. "We all like sheep have one astray, and the Lord has laid upon Christ the iniquity of us all."" Each of us received the same announcment this last Wednesday: "Because of our sin, we shall return to the ground from which God created you." Yet each of us received that announcment with a mark: a mark not of the Ten Commandments, a mark not of our great promises to God, a mark not of Moses, but the mark of Christ's sacrifice upon the cross.
This week you are beginning forty days of allwing God in Christ through the Holy Spirit to put everything in Christ's life -- and your life -- into sharp focus. Our great need. God's greater solution for it. God's unmeasureable gift of love in the giving up of his only-begotten Son.
Next time someone asks you, "What's your favorite season of the year?" will you reply, "Lent."? Next time someone asks you, "Where is the clearest, surest, most comforting revelation of our sin and God's forgiving love?" will you reply, "Christ upon the cross."?
God be with you these forty days, as he promises, to defend you and save you through his all-giving Son. In the name of Jesus.