02/26/2023 ~ First Sunday in Lent ~ Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/802739097
The Church Geek
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where the Tempter was. After fasting forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry, indeed, famished.” — Matthew 4:1-2.
My wife, Bonnie, sometimes says the real reason I went to seminary was to justify my collection of Bibles— various translations thereof. But there’s more to it than that.
As I have said before, I was raised in the Roman tradition, shifted, became an Episcopalian and finally landed in the Congregational tradition. A colleagure once said that’s probably where I belonged all along. Given that journey you might say I know something about a broad range of churches. But there’s more to it than that.
I am a church geek. Why would I make that claim? Well, as I’m sure you are aware, the date of Easter moves around— a moveable feast. I am so geeky— O.K. Now I know most of you remember The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Now if Johnny said, “I am so geeky…” what happened? They would say, “How geeky are…” I am so geeky…” (The congregants respond: “How Geeky are you?”) Thank you. I am so geeky I can explain how the date of Easter is calculated.
The date of Easter and the often concurrent date of Passover are based on a Lunar Calendar. Using a Lunar Calendar was a common practice in ancient times.
A Lunar Calendar has 28 days in a month. So what should be obvious is that this moon based calendar does not match up to the calendar we commonly use, a Solar Calendar. A solar calendar tries to match to the time it takes for the Earth to make one trip around the Sun.
A calendar which looks mostly like the one we use today was adopted by the Church Council of Nicaea in 325 of the Common Era. That calendar, known as the Julian Calendar because it was put in place by Julius Caesar, was the secular calendar already used by the Rome Empire for nearly 400 years. Since Christianity had at that point become the religion of the Empire, using that calendar made sense.
The Julian Calendar largely follows the Solar Year and thereby helped set, or perhaps reset, the date of Easter to the way it’s done today. But before that in each different local area where Christianity was practiced Easter had been celebrated on different dates. But there’s more to it than that.
Today we use a slightly different calendar, adopted by the church in 1582. Instituted during the pontificate of Pope Gregory XIII, it is, hence, the Gregorian Calendar. The change was made to fix the fact that the Julian Calendar had no leap year. The Gregorian Calendar does. But there’s more to it than that.
A Solar Year has approximately 365 and 1/4 days— approximately being the key word. So, in every year divisible by 4 we get a leap year— an extra day added to the calendar. But that calculation is still a little off.
So, to correct that every year ending in double zero— 1900 for instance— is not a leap year. But that’s still a little off. So every year divisible by 400— 2000 for instance— is a leap year. Don’t worry— there will be no quiz after the service on this.
Now let’s go back to how the date of Easter is calculated on this Gregorian calendar. Since Easter is based on a Lunar Calendar but conforms to the Solar Calendar, it is said to fall on the First Sunday after the first full moon— as you can see, the moon is still referenced— the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.
The Spring Equinox is always the 20th or the 21st of March. This year it’s on the 20th. The next full moon after that is April 6th. Hence, this year Easter is the first Sunday after that, April the 9th.
And, speaking of moveable dates, the date of Easter thereby determines when Lent, the season we just started, happens. Now, you have probably often heard it said there are 40 days in Lent. That’s what our opening hymn said: Forty Days and Forty Nights. But there’s more to it than that.
There are six weeks in Lent. And if there are seven days in a week, six times seven is 42, not forty. So, how does that math work?
You take those 42 days and subtract the six days which are Sundays. Historically Sundays are days of celebration in the church, not days on which people fasted. Hence, Sundays are not considered to be a part of Lent.
But… but… once six Sundays are subtract out, that leaves 36 days. How do we get back to 40? We then add in the four days starting with Ash Wednesday and the Thursday, Friday, Saturday after that and you have it: 36 plus 4 equals (the congregation rfesponds:) 40! And no— there will not be a quiz on this either. But like I said: I am a church geek. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Matthew: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where the Tempter was. After fasting forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry, indeed, famished.” (Slight pause.)
The passage we heard from Matthew is often called the Temptation of Christ. But is this about Christ being tempted… or is there more to it than that?
I think when the Gospel tells us Jesus was famished it both sounds like and is a very realistic, very human assessment. And I think the temptations presented are very realistic because they are very human in that we can relate to them.
Well, it’s often said Jesus is fully human and fully divine. My sense of this story is that it helps us explore and understand the reality of the humanness of Jesus.
And so, while we might not have responded in the way Jesus did, here’s my question: let’s not put ourselves in the place of Jesus, not consider how Jesus, this very human Jesus, responded since Jesus is also divine.
Rather, let’s take an approach which is, I am sure, quite bold of us. Given what Jesus faced, the circumstances, let’s ask if we might be able to discern something about the thought process of the human Jesus. (Slight pause.)
That sounds like a big task so before we go there let’s take a side trip. Given the current weather, a friend wrote this on Facebook: “I’ll tell you what I’m giving up for Lent. I’m giving up Winter!” I don’t know if that’s within our power.
Indeed, despite the chill of Winter, I can guarantee this: Spring is ahead; Spring will come. I think for me, perhaps for us, Spring and Lent should be synonymous.
Joan Chittister is a nun, an author, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania. One of the Thoughts for Meditation today was from Joan. What follows is one of my favorite aphorisms and Joan said it about the Season of Lent. ‘Lent is not a penitential season. The season of Lent is a growing season.’ (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to the boldness of our quest to consider the thinking of Jesus. I want to suggest what Jesus displays first and foremost throughout the Gospel accounts is an awareness of the presence of God, an awareness of the reality of God. After all, Jesus calls God Abba, Daddy.
And so what I see happening in this story is a deepening in the humanness of the relationship of Jesus and Abba, God. I see growth in the reality of the humanness of Jesus. That observation brings me to this question: what lesson can we draw from that humanness? (Slight pause.)
As Joan Chittister suggested, Lent is a growing season. And I think both Spring and Lent are or should be about growth. And so we need to look toward Lent and Easter as times to embrace both joys and challenges, as times filled with promise.
The promise of Spring, the promise of Lent, is a reminder which says no matter what we face in life, God is with us. I believe we are, therefore, called to face what life brings, what it throws at us— especially all the challenges life throws at us— with both courage and perseverance.
And so I think this story is an invitation to us to find in the experience of Jesus an image of what it means to be faithful in our own lives. Perhaps this can be seen as an invitation to seek a clear sense of our own vocation, our own calling in life.
I won’t suggest that’s easy. But we also do need to realize Lent is a season which ultimately points us toward the Resurrection. The Resurrection is a sign to us that the love of God, in Christ, is with us now and forever.
And so it matters not how we calculate time or even what observances we use in all the seasons. It does not matter which calendar we use to determine how we count the seasons, the days. It does not matter what time of day it is. What matters is God loves us now and forever.
Guess what? I think in the story we heard today Jesus came to a very human but a deep understanding of that particular miracle— that God loves us now and forever. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I hope I did not bore you with all that church trivia and I did spout a bunch of church trivia, did I not. But with all that trivia I think I proved one premise: I am a church geek, right? But perhaps what really makes me a church geek is I think church is a place to grow— a place to grow in love of God and love of neighbor.”
BENEDICTION: Let us learn as faithful disciples of Christ. Let us know that God is available to us at any time and in any place. Let us give thanks for the grace of God in Christ, Jesus. Let us trust in God for all time and for all eternity. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.