daily biblical sermons


LENT, A SPECIAL TIME OF PRAYER AND FASTING IN THE DESERT
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Sunday, First Sunday of Lent, February 14, 2016
Deuteronomy 26:4-10, Psalm 90, Romans 10:8-13, Luke 4:1-13


Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.

 

"And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry" (Luke 4:1-2).


We are now beginning Lent, a time of prayer and fasting in the desert and of resisting the temptations of the devil, as Jesus spent forty days praying and fasting in the desert and resisting the devil's temptations.


Today's readings put Lent in the perspective of God's work of salvation. In the first reading from Deuteronomy there is a summary of how God saved Israel from Egypt, and with great signs and wonders brought them out and led them into the promised land of milk and honey, and then gave them the command that they should worship the Lord their God for all the good things that he has done for them.


Today's second reading from Romans ten then reminds us of God's fulfillment of his saving work in Jesus Christ, who has justified and saved us through our faith in him, because of what he did for us on the cross, taking our sins upon himself (2 Corinthians 5:21) and suffering their just punishment for us, as our substitute, dying instead of us for them, as our sin offering, to atone for them, thereby making full reparation for our sins. This has reconciled us to God by paying our debt of suffering for our sins that we owed to God, but could not pay ourselves, for only the Son of God can make reparation for our sins.


Through our faith we are justified and saved, for our faith enables God to apply Christ's saving work on the cross to us, and our faith is, furthermore, reckoned to us as righteousness (Romans 4:3, 5, 23-24), thus giving us the righteousness of God himself, shining in our heart. Because of what Christ did for us on the cross, God declares us to be in the right, acquitted, exonerated of all our sins, and definitively sanctified before God. "So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood" (Hebrews 13:12). "We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10). "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (Hebrews 10:14).


Hence we are made righteous, holy, and resplendent before God, with the very righteousness of Christ himself shining in us, illuminating us from within. Faith is the way of access into these blessings of righteousness and salvation, as St. Paul tells us today: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved" (Romans 10:9-10).


So we confess Christ with our lips and believe in him in our heart, and so joyfully revel in the marvel of his gift of righteousness, whereby he declares us to be and indeed makes us truly righteous and holy before God.

 


II


But now, during Lent, we focus on progressive sanctification. Having already been justified and definitively sanctified by Christ's atonement on the cross, which we received as a free gift through our faith, whereby we accept him as our Savior, we now need to grow progressively in sanctification. And this means that we now need to integrate this gift of justification and salvation into our life, and really put off the "old man" and put on the "new man" (Ephesians 4:22-24). We do this by a life of prayer and fasting in the desert, resisting the ever-present and ever-new temptations and snares of the devil that are all around us, while doing good to others (almsgiving) and preaching the good news of God's salvation in Jesus Christ to all we can reach.


During Lent we also focus on Christ's suffering and death on the cross for our salvation and justification, for Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Holy Week; but our primary focus is on doing our part now to assimilate Christ's justification and definitive sanctification through a process of progressive sanctification.


Specifically, this means focusing on prayer and fasting in the desert, resisting the snares and temptations of the devil, and almsgiving, that is, helping those in need, and especially helping to spread the preaching of the gospel, the "good news" of God's salvation in Jesus Christ, among those who have not yet heard it.


So now during Lent we pray and fast. Contemplative prayer is a particularly important and meaningful part of the Christian life. We need to sit comfortably for half an hour, an hour, or an hour and a half, with our eyes closed, and the lights off, focusing directly on God, preferably in the early morning hours, long before dawn, repeating in our mind and coordinating with our breath a very short, simple prayer, like the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me sinner"), thanking God for all he has done for us in forgiving all our sins and making us righteous and resplendent before him through the work of his Son on the cross, the results of which are communicated to us through our faith in him. This is how we experience God's heavenly peace, divine love, and the splendor of his righteousness shining within us.


But to pray contemplatively in an effective and successful way and experience God's love during this time of prayer, we need to fast in the desert. This means living only for the Lord in all that we do, and eliminating worldly recreations from our life that only divide our heart and thereby weaken our ability to experience God's love and peace and the glory of his righteousness shining within us during our contemplation. That is why the great contemplatives of history were desert dwellers, living a very simple and austere life, far from the pleasures, distractions, noise, temptations, and attractions of the world.


So we eat only very basic, healthy, simple, and plain food, renouncing delicacies, fancy desserts, and sumptuous dishes, doctored up to enhance their flavor. We do this because we want to find all our delight in the Lord; not also in unnecessary worldly pleasures that only divide our heart from a pure, undivided love of God alone with all the love of our heart, with an undivided heart, for the more our heart is divided by worldly pleasures, the less we are able to experience the love of God in our heart. So we live simply, because we want all the love of our heart to go directly to the Lord, and because we want to be sensitized thereby to experience his love in us.


This is why we live in the desert, which also means avoiding worldly recreations and pleasures, such as secular movies and pleasure trips. Lent is a special time to focus on all this, that is, on living in a way that is conducive to progressive sanctification, which is a way of living in which contemplation can flourish. We therefore live in the desert, especially during Lent, because we want our total focus to be on the Lord.


Especially during Lent, we also increase our efforts to resist the temptations of the devil that are all around us, and of those who make themselves into the snares of the devil to lead us astray from a pure and undivided love of the Lord alone with all the love of our heart, with an undivided heart in our love for him. We do this because we do not want to be obsessed by people or activities or things that give us unnecessary worldly pleasure, for such obsessions defeat our purpose of progressive sanctification. We know, furthermore, what the temptations are that obsess us, and so we avoid these so that we can grow in progressive sanctification and not impede God's work in our life.


Finally, we must be active in almsgiving, for the Lord has given us what money we have in order to use it in his service; not selfishly to squander it for our own pleasures and recreations. We should particularly use it to spread the preaching of the gospel throughout the world and for people in need of the basics of life. Our money is not given to us by God to use for worldly pleasures; but to help those in need and to enable the preaching of the gospel to reach those who have not yet heard it.

 

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