Lent 1  Text: Luke 4: 1-13
Message begins after the reading at the 2 minute mark

We might think temptation is the kind of thing we could spot a mile away for its blatant wickedness, but more often than not it’s the inclination to turn good things -- like food, or influence, aspirations, security, reputation -- more often than not it’s the inclination to “turn good things into ultimate things, giving them far greater worth and allegiance than they deserve.” [1]

In the story we have today from Luke’s Gospel, we’re seeing Jesus being tempted to greatness. Here he is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, so who might he be, what might he do with that? In the face of his hunger, make bread from stone? claim power over all the earth? defy death? This is Jesus wrestling with what it means to be called by God, filled with the Spirit’s power. What does that look like? What does that afford him? How does he distinguish between the voice of God and the tempter’s voice?

One of the beautiful things for us about this story is that what happened in the wilderness didn’t stay in the wilderness! for here we’re seeing Jesus being tempted … seduced … like we’ve known those voices of seduction. We see him wrestling with these questions, these ideas and possibilities that arise … in the same way as all manner of thoughts, ideas, and dreams arise in us. It’s important here to recognize that to be tempted isn’t some moral failure. To hear the tempter’s voice is to be alive … to be listening … to be in touch with our vast array of desires.

And then there is what we do in response to temptation. This is where we can be glad again that what happened in the wilderness didn’t stay in the wilderness … for we are given to see Jesus’ way in the face of temptation. And what do we see?  At the very least we see him not being blown about by every bright idea … not chasing after every whim that comes to him. Nor is he somehow pretending not to hear such things, but instead we see him facing head-on the temptations that arise before him.
I think what we’re seeing him do in every case is somehow bringing that temptation into the light of God’s desire. That’s it, isn’t it? … this is Jesus responding from THAT point of reference … of God’s desire. Not out of fear of God’s punishment but out of trusting he is made for Love, and so is being drawn into God’s loving purposes.
So we see him resisting that impulse to be drawn into some superhuman vision of himself --where there is no need for God--and turning toward another way altogether … this way of entrusting himself instead to God’s all sufficient grace, without really knowing what that might be or mean for him. In this case, as the story goes, it was the ancient words of scripture lodged in his being that helped Jesus find his way there.

So here we are in Lent … that season typically known as the grittiest of them all, in part because of this story of Jesus in the desert, for 40 days. And in part because of the strange anointing that comes to mark us as the season begins, to set us on way … this marking that is made of ash, of gritty dust … the stuff we walk on, sweep away, get rid of … except that we begin this season by placing it front and centre, with the imposition of ashes on our forehead.

The imposition of ashes … that’s what we call this ritual marking. It’s the perfect word for what happens because the whole thing is kind of imposing in the sense of daunting and intruding. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return are the words we hear as we feel the tracing of the ashen cross on our forehead. It’s not about being morbid. It’s about being real … reminding us that one day, sooner or later -- who knows, but it will happen-- we will die. And so the ashes come to remind us of this gift that is our life … that we might feel some sense of urgency to taste and see while we may, all that we are given to receive. And to do with what we are given whatever by God’s grace we are able to do, to bring blessing.

It’s that urgency you can hear in one of the stanzas of a poem Mary Oliver wrote a few years ago, in the aftermath of her brush with death. Here she writes …

I know you never intended to be in this world
but you’re in it all the same
So why not get started immediately --
I mean belonging to it

There is so much to admire, to weep over
to write music or poems about

Bless the feet that take you to and fro
Bless the eyes and listening ears
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste
Bless touching

You could live a hundred years
it’s happened
or not
I’m speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years
none of which I think I ever wasted

Do you need a prod, do you need
a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife then
and remind you of Keats, so single of purpose
and thinking for a while he had a lifetime [2]

Today the ashen cross imposed on our foreheads is that prod, that darkness … allowing that reality of our death to touch us
such that we might live these irreplaceable days with intention.

The ash also symbolizes our failure, our frailty.
However well intended our promises to ourselves, to each other;
however diligently we may strive to do or say the right things;
however mindful we seek to be of the needs of others and our own;
However this, however that, … the list goes on …
there are things we do or don’t do that are hurtful, cause grief.
Remember you are dust is not meant as a slap in the face, telling us we are nothing, but rather as a note of reality … reminding us that we are not God. It’s about allowing the reality of our limitations-- our own and each other’s -- to touch us such that we may live these days with compassion.

Remember you are dust … it also takes us to that story in the first chapter of Genesis, where God creates the human creature out of the dust of the earth … and so this tracing on our forehead is a reminder of our kinship that we are tempted to forget or deny … not only our kinship with every other person, but with the earth herself.

And today, along with ash there is OIL … oil of blessing, oil of healing oil of gladness … for through this imposition we also affirm that we belong to God who sees immense possibility in dust … who breathes life even there, and creates from it again and again, somehow out of total loss a new beginning; somehow out of sorrowful regret, new found freedom, even joy; somehow out of failure, redemption.

As we feel the tracing of this ash and oil together, may it ground us in the assurance of God’s abundant mercy, Love’s transforming grace.

[1] Matthew Laney, Tempted to Greatness, posted on Still Speaking Daily Devotional, January 29, 2016.

[2] Mary Oliver, “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” in Blue Horses, New York: Penguin Group, 2014