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David A. Davis

David A. Davis

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The Uncomfortable Individualism of Lent

Posted: 03/19/11 08:20 PM ET

For the Christian, Lent can be like hitting the refresh button on your computer screen. While the life of faith demands daily examination and commitment, the penitential season provides for a fresh start in terms of confession, forgiveness, prayer, spiritual reflection and daily discipleship. Some practice the discipline of "giving up" for Lent. Others look to add an experience of prayer or devotion each day in these weeks leading up to Easter. But I have come to the conclusion that Lent can be uncomfortably individualistic: my life, my sin, my relationship with God, my confession, my prayer, my devotion, my discipline, my Lord. Jesus and me.

Biblical support for the practice of Lent comes from the gospel descriptions of Jesus being led up to the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the devil. For Jesus, the trial comes as the tempter suggests he turn stones into bread, that he leap from a rooftop into the arms of angels, and that he would receive all the world's splendor if he would but worship Satan rather than God. The Lord's response to each of the temptations is a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy; "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Deuteronomy 8:3), "Do not put the Lord your God to the test" (Deuteronomy 6:16), "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him" (Deuteronomy 6:13).

The Deuteronomy quotes don't come by coincidence. Attentive hearers of the Gospel will recognize how the wilderness experience of Jesus echoes the people of Israel in the wilderness after Moses led them out of Egypt: 40 days-40 years, the trial of hunger in the wilderness, putting God to the test in the wilderness, falling down to worship something, someone other than God in the wilderness. The Gospel account of the temptation of Jesus reverberates with the story of people of God and their season of complaint in the wilderness; with manna from heaven, and water from a rock, pillar of cloud by day, fire by night, tablets, golden calf, 40 years-40 days.

When Jesus was led by the Spirit up to the wilderness, it was not his morality that was being tested. The trials tossed his way have little to do with the fleshy side of life; the seedier side of being human, the steamier side of our existence. It is more about Jesus in the wilderness, pointing to the history of God and God's people; embodying what it means to be in relationship with God. The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness strikes at the very heart of the identity of God's people. The lure, the trial, the struggle, the battle, what's at stake is the wisdom it takes to be the people of God when you are in the wilderness.

The biggest threat in the wilderness comes not from you sinning, or me sinning, It comes when the people of God lose their way. Lent can be so uncomfortably individualistic in this world of wilderness where the greater threat is to our identity as the people of God, our corporate witness as God's people, our collective servanthood in the kingdom of God. Lent and the temptation of Jesus. It's not about our morality, or our piety, or our doing battle with the devil. It is about claiming our identity as God's people here in the wilderness and soaking in Christ's wisdom.

For us as God's people, it is a wisdom that teaches that any concern for my own self interest ought to be outmatched by the concern for my neighbor, for the stranger, for the widow, for the orphan, for the other. In the wilderness for us as God's people, it is a wisdom that affirms that ultimatums and pronouncements and doctrinal litmus tests are nothing compared to caring for the sick, serving the poor, comforting the grieving and speaking for the long-silenced. Here in the wilderness, here among God's people, this wisdom of Christ, it questions the worship of mammon and the lust for power and the faith statement of winning at all cost. The wisdom of Christ, it is a wisdom that challenges when ivory towers become sacred and corporate ladders divine and extreme wealth a divine right of the few.

In the wilderness, you as an individual are expected to look for a faith community where everyone agrees with you, sings the songs you like, and makes you feel good week in and week out, helping you turn your stones into bread. But in the wilderness, God's people look to bear the mission of God into the world. In the wilderness, you as an individual are expected to put God to the test, thinking you're always right, or you should always win, or you should pay less, or you should have more, or you should always be happy. But in the wilderness, God's people settle for living the Gospel in very ordinary, yet sacred ways: advocating for one immigrant at a time, helping one refugee family at a time, working to free a wrongly imprisoned person, one at a time. In the wilderness, you are expected to bow down, pay homage, kneel before, devote yourself to someone, to a job, family, hobby, education, success, political party, alma mater, non profit passion, nation, heritage, values, status, legacy, the past, religion, the church. But in the wilderness, God's people worship the Lord God and God alone.

Lent is here again. Let's hit the refresh button on our life together as the people of God.