Genesis 2: 15-17, Genesis 3:1-7
1 Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. 2 After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God. 5 After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
7 Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”c 9 He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 8 Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.
A priest was walking on the sidewalk to his church one day, when a man with a gun approached him and demanded money. The priest was scared, but managed to say to him, “I don’t have any money to give you, but I can give you my chocolate candy bar.” The man with the gun smirked and said, “I can’t take that…I gave up chocolate for Lent!”
Really?! This is just one example of what some people do this time of year when Lent rolls around. We think we become more holy by giving up certain things. The idea is that when we give up something we enjoy, we will be depriving ourselves, and therefore we cleanse ourselves from those wants or desires and focus more on holy living and more on our relationship with God. It’s a nice idea, but it’s rare when I see it work in that way. When I talk with people about giving up something for Lent, it’s usually things like sweets or other foods, social media, trashy magazines, TV shows, or some kind of activity. I think about giving up facebook every year, but that doesn’t work. I’ve given up desserts before, and also shopping for purses and shoes, which I actually succeeded at, but I think I spent more time being mad at myself for giving those things up rather than making myself a better person of faith!
When we give up something for Lent, it is mean to be a challenging spiritual discipline- not something that tends to distract us more from the real meaning. So if you have given up something for Lent, good for you- I hope you will find true meaning in the practice. And some people choose to add something to their lives, like daily devotions, Bible reading, or more prayer. Perhaps that works better for you.
But there are certain things that I believe that God wants us to give up so that we may live a better life and be more devoted to our relationship with him- not just for 40 days, but forever. If the gunman who gave up chocolate for Lent gave up his violent ways instead, just imagine what kind of transformation would take place. This first Sunday of Lent, we are challenged to give up control. This is a challenge for many of us, and one that especially rings true for me. Just the other day a quiz popped up on my facebook feed and it asked, “Are you a control freak?” When I clicked on it, I discovered these qualities that may self-diagnose you as, in fact, a “control freak.”
- You believe that if someone would change one or two things about themselves, you’d be happier. So you try to “help them” change this behavior by pointing it out, usually over and over.
- You micromanage others to make them fit your (often unrealistic) expectations. You don’t believe in imperfection and you don’t think anyone else should either.
- You judge others’ behavior as right or wrong and passive-aggressively withhold attention until they fall in line with your expectations. Sitting in silent judgment is a master form of control.
- You offer “constructive criticism” as a veiled attempt to advance your own agenda.
- You change who you are or what you believe so that someone will accept you. Instead of just being yourself, you attempt to appeal to others by managing their impression of you.
- You present worst-case scenarios in an attempt to influence someone away from certain behaviors and toward others.
- You have a hard time with ambiguity and being OK with not knowing something.
- You intervene on behalf of people by trying to explain or dismiss their behaviors to others.
Yikes! I definitely identify with some of these! I especially don’t like it when things happen outside of my control, and I really do have a hard time being okay with not knowing something. Just this past week, I had my fill of things I couldn’t control and where my best laid plans just didn’t work out. We had a church member who was dying and then passed away, the weather prevented anyone coming to the church for “Ashes to Go” and we had to cancel our Ash Wednesday service, my schedule got completely out of control in the midst of some unforeseen ministry needs, and on top of all of that, my computer was having problems. I finally realized that most of these things were simply out of my control, and all I could do was try to let it go and manage the things that I could control. Sometimes the challenge is knowing when it’s time to let it go. When I remember that there are things that I just can’t control, like the weather or unexpected ministry or pastoral needs, sometimes I just need to speak these words out loud, “It’s out of my control,” and I find that something releases inside of me. I remember that I can’t control everything. I’m only human. And when I remember this, I also know that when I let go of the things I can’t control, my faith and trust in God is strengthened and I place those unknown and out of my control things with God.
I am reminded that Adam and Eve, from the first moments of creation, disobeyed God and thought that they knew better. Instead of resisting the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they ate of it and sought control over their fate and their own lives. Their need for control is what sent them out of the garden and into a challenging and bitter world. Jesus, in his desert wanderings, denied his own impulses and followed the journey that God had set out for him.
I’m venturing to guess that we are all fortunate enough in this room to not have experienced extreme hunger and thirst to the point of death- yet Jesus was faced with this challenge and overcame the need to control his surroundings for the sake of the beginning his journey of ministry that was laden with suffering and death. He could have had complete control over the situation, but he let it go- he knew that, in time, God would fulfill those needs and promises.
In today’s world, we are used to having control over so many things and calling all of the shots ourselves. Many of us even have smart phones where all we need to do is press a button and we can command our phones to give us directions or answer a question or define a world. We can control our knowledge base with just the touch of a button. In this ever changing and need-for-control world, we often fail to turn to God for guidance and wisdom, and sometimes we then find ourselves lost, wandering in the desert.
Our need for control can sometimes be a dangerous thing because we forget that there are things out there that we just cannot control, and it drives us crazy, and sometimes people just don’t know how to handle it. When I was involved in youth ministry, there was a young woman who would get so upset with the things she couldn’t control in her life, that she began to cut herself a few times a week with a razor. This was a way that she began to deal with her life, her pain, and something she could, in fact, control. Her need for control was so great that she had to do something to prove to herself that she had control over her feelings and her body. Cutting was her outlet and her way of gaining some kind of control for her life. She would have years ahead of her to allow herself to let go of that need for control and begin to love herself enough to let it go and trust that even though life is difficult, that things would be okay. Giving up control over the unknowns, the burdens, the difficulties can be a long process.
Songwriter JJ Heller wrote a song about a similar young woman called, “Control.” In it, she writes these words:
There were scars before my scars Love written on the hands that hung the stars Hope living in the blood that was spilled for me Oh, control It’s time, time to let it go… Control It’s time, time to let it go.
So today on this first Sunday of Lent, we are challenged with beginning the process of letting it go…especially letting go of the things we know we cannot control. When life becomes overwhelming or difficult and our need for control takes over, we are challenged to let go of it and let faith and trust take over. That is part of what the Lenten journey is all about, and it starts with giving something up: Control.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday signify the beginning of our Lenten journey. They remind us that we are only human and to humble ourselves before the unending need for God’s amazing grace. This morning, as we begin to ponder the ways in which we need to give up control, we make the sign of ashes upon our foreheads as we are reminded that even in the midst of giving up control, we remember that we belong to God and God alone. We are reminded of the divine promises of peace and trust in the one who comes alongside of us at all times and places, and that God makes beautiful things out of the dust, including you and me. In what areas of your life are you struggling to give up control? I invite you to come and lay them down at the foot of the cross and to receive the ashes of Ash Wednesday as we begin our desert wanderings. Amen.