I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 6, 2022, the First Sunday in Lent. The lectionary text cited is Luke 4:1-13, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
We inhabit an unsettled moment. That statement is true on many different levels, but in this instance I am referring to something deeper and more elemental than the news headlines. I am thinking instead about the changing of the seasons that accompanies our entry into Lent in the northern hemisphere. Amid the turbulent moods of early spring, when we are caught up in the vacillating space between ice and dewdrops, between dirt and blossom, between the cradle and the Cross, there is a keener sense perhaps, of the fertile mix of decay and growth that characterizes our lives on this earth. On Ash Wednesday, the cold mud of winter was imprinted on our brows, and eventually on Easter Day we will convulse with joy among the fields of lilies, but for now we are held in the tension of the time-being, suspended in the middle of frost and flower, mortality and miracle.
Lent is the pungent season when life and death speak to one another. Too often we keep these two realities isolated in separate corners of our minds, so it is good for us to listen to their conversation over the next several weeks, to notice how life and death layer upon and fertilize the other, both in the Liturgy and in the world around us. Lent is when this life—the delicate, earthy existence we have been given—is brought into clarity and focus by accepting its brevity and, indeed, sometimes its cruelty and brokenness. But it is also a season for celebrating that life, for rediscovering the urgency of living deeply and well while we have the chance, before it is too late, and we go down to the dust once more.
There was an article that became popular online several years ago, written by a hospice nurse. In it, she reflected on the conversations she’d had with the countless people she’d cared for in the final weeks and days of their lives, and she shared the top five regrets that people expressed as they prepared to die. They were as follows:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
And while these five regrets might not be true for every person in every time and place, I think they are striking, because they point to the heart of the things that matter when everything else falls away, when there are no illusions left to hide behind, when the wind blows cold across the bare fields and we remember the trace of that muddy cross on our brow. We might say they are the insights of a Lenten spirit, from the passage between life and death, the unadorned space between the seasons of the soul.
And they reveal that when we die, the thing we might grieve the most is simply that we never allowed ourselves to truly live. That we didn’t connect with others. That we didn’t connect with our deepest selves. And that, having been tempted by other distractions, we might face the great mystery of eternity without having deeply savored the great mystery of now.
God knows this is our struggle. God has always known this. And that is why, I suspect, we see the same struggle woven through God’s own life among us in Jesus. Consider today’s gospel passage from Luke, when Jesus is compelled by the Holy Spirit to enter the wilderness and submit to the temptations that humanity has always faced—the temptation to control our own destiny rather than trust in God’s providence, to adorn ourselves with the false security of power and prestige and material comfort; to laud safety and strength rather than vulnerability and humility.
These were the same temptations that Israel faced in the wilderness and again when they reached the Promised Land. They are the same temptations that each of us must contend with in our own particular way. And if and when we succumb to them, the result is the same—disconnection, distrust, inauthenticity, the cultivation of a brittle and strident spirit, and then, at the end, a litany of sorrows that might sound something like:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d expressed my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
But Lent is an opportunity to pull back from this trajectory in our own lives. And Jesus, in a Lenten moment of his own in this Gospel, shows us how to do so. He faces the temptations of the devil—those temptations to pattern his life in self-serving ways, to become something that he is not, and he chooses, instead, to be exactly who he is, exactly who his Father wills him to be. Which is to say, he chooses relationship, he chooses simplicity, he chooses depth, he chooses trust, he chooses love. And the words he speaks are a ray of light burning away the frost, a budding promise to us, even now, as we wait for the spring:
One does not live by bread alone.
Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Simple, ancient words, drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. True words. Words that are almost like a death, in that they remind us of the fleeting nature of most of the things we fixate upon and obsess over, and instead call us back to what is eternal. These are the words that allowed Jesus to stay focused on who he was, and they can do the same for us whatever our journey looks like. They are the words that invite us to a life—and a death—that is the opposite of regret.
How do we get there? How do we live as Jesus chose to live? How do we die as Jesus chose to die?
1. Have the courage to be yourself. Abide deeply in the love that is inside of you, the love that God gave you to share with others.
2. Don’t work so hard, at least not for the things we usually give away our lives for. Work for God’s kingdom, and rest in knowing that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You were created for wonder and praise more than you were for achievement.
3. Express your feelings. Jesus certainly did. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to be wrong, to show your weaknesses, because they are part of what will save you. We worship a God who was crucified before he was glorified.
4. Stay in touch with your friends, and with all of the important people in your life. They are the most likely place where you will experience the love of God firsthand, and are thus the true treasures of this world.
5. Let yourself be happy. Let yourself love this imperfect world, whether it’s deep winter or glorious spring or the messy middle with all of its unanswered questions. Let yourself be dazzled by the mystery of existence, by the mystery of God’s love, embrace it while you live, and then you will regret nothing, because you will experience everything.
This is the life Jesus chose in the wilderness. This is the life he invites to choose. And this is the strange, holy, in-between season where we must make our choice. This is Lent.
And so here we stand, with a trace of mud on our brow, leaning into the light; children of the broken earth, children of God. Tempted, yes. Stumbling, sometimes. Seeking, always.
But loved, always loved, in death and in life, in winter, and in spring, and in the glorious mystery that is beneath and beyond all seasons.
And with a love that powerful, that eternal, that true, there is nothing to regret.