Preaching during Lent may be a little more challenging than usual because this year, Easter falls on the second earliest date out of the 35 calculated possibilities.
According to Wikipedia, the earliest date on which Easter can fall is March 22, which has not occurred since 1818 and will not happen again until the year 2285. In 1943, Easter fell on April 25 which is the latest possible date, but in 2011, Easter will fall on the second latest date, April 24.
Of course, for the cycle of the church year, this means an extraordinarily short season of Epiphany (only two Sundays) and a very early Ash Wednesday. For preachers, we have barely bounced back from Christmas before being thrown into the wilderness of Lent. And actually, that just may be how our parishioners feel as well. They have hardly had time to break New Year’s resolutions and feel bad about it, use or re-gift all of their Christmas presents, or, if residing in states where there are real winters, take down outside lights. Yet, we are asking them to be self-denying and penitent, resolute and reflective, prayerful and preparatory, before we throw them into the desert as well.
Indeed, this is where we find ourselves on the first Sunday in Lent–in the wilderness with Jesus being tempted by Satan. The account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert by the devil occurs only in the Synoptic Gospels (the Fourth Gospel does not include this story) but it receives more elaborate attention in Matthew and Luke than in Mark. In Mark, we are simply told that Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, but Matthew and Luke provide the details of the three specific temptations and the conversation with the devil. While Jesus is victorious in resisting each and every offer, we are quickly reminded that we are never so successful. We are definitely in the wilderness.
And then we are abruptly removed from Matthew’s Gospel to be plopped down in chapter 3 of John. For the four remaining Sundays in Lent, we are in an altogether different narrative world, with an altogether different Jesus, who would no sooner be tempted by the devil than pray to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We are introduced to four stories unique to John’s Gospel–Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing of the man blind from birth, and the raising of Lazarus–two conversations with Jesus, two signs performed by Jesus, that portray a Jesus who will not agonize in a place called Gethsemane, who will hand himself over in the garden, not to be kissed by Judas, who will carry his own cross, and who will not be mocked as he hangs on the cross.
The problem with Lent and readings from John is that little we typically associate with Lent is in the Fourth Gospel. Here is a Jesus who is in total control, the incarnate Word who was in the beginning with God, who reveals himself as “I AM,” and whose last words at his death are “It has been completed.” Here is a Gospel that seems to be more concerned about the life of Jesus than the death of Jesus. Here is a passion/resurrection story of the Christ that cannot be separated from his incarnation and ascension. The thing is, these lessons from John are more like Epiphany than Lent, and therefore, give Lent for this year an appropriate focus. These stories are epiphanal moments–for the characters who encounter Jesus and for us. These texts from John are about revelation–the revelation of who Jesus is, the one sent by God, the begotten God, whose offer of life is in his presence and not necessarily delayed until his death.
With such a short season of Epiphany and given these four texts from the Gospel of John, perhaps our preaching during this particular season of Lent, with this unique calendrical reality, and this particular Gospel story, can provide more specificity, clarity, and quality to our Lenten preparation, reflection, and self-evaluation. As Jesus manifests himself to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the blind man, and Lazarus, he makes God known (John 1:18), to them and to us. Will we recognize him? Will we witness for him? Will we see him and worship him? Will we come when we hear him call our names? Will we move from darkness to light, from insecurity to testimony, from blindness to sight, from death to life? Our preaching can lift up how these specific encounters with Jesus might shape our Lenten journeys to Easter, but even more importantly, how they give opportunity to reconsider our own encounters with Jesus. For indeed during these forty days, if we encounter Jesus, if we see Jesus, if we hear Jesus, and our lives are not changed, we will remain in the wilderness.