40 Days, 40 Years, 40 Acres (and a mule)

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 16: 1–4 (Israelites complain to Moses)

Gospel Reading: Matthew 16: 21–27 (Jesus rebukes Peter)

Epistle Reading: James 1: 2–12 (Blessed is the one who perseveres)

In the Bible, bad things seem to come in 40's: 40 days and 40 nights of rain set Noah's ark afloat and drowned everything else; 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert waiting to enter the promised land; 40 days Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. And by tradition, the Lenten season on which we are embarked is 40 days long-from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. (Actually it's 46 days, but for some reason we don't count the Sundays!-making it 40.)

I don't have any explanation to offer for the significance of 40. Apparently it was God's unlucky number. But the modern world has done somewhat better by the number 40. Now, a much needed rest is called... "40 winks"; the best songs on the radio are called the... "top 40"; and life, they say, begins... "at 40".

40 is a pretty big number. When you are growing up, you can't really imagine being 40. And if I asked you, right now, to picture 40 pieces of fried chicken to yourself, I bet you couldn't do it. And at the beginning of Lent, we can't really picture how long it is until Easter. 40 is too much to take in at one glance. But if you break it down, it becomes more manageable. While you may not be able to picture 40 pieces of fried chicken, I bet you can picture, say, 10 tables that each have 4 plates with fried chicken on them. (Imagine the pot-luck lunch!) 40 years is hard to imagine all at once, but you can break it down: 18 years living at home, 4 years in college or the military, 4 years getting settled, 14 years raising children-and before you know it, you're 40. It goes by pretty fast, doesn't it?

But Lent never seems to go by fast. That's because we have trouble breaking it down into parts-one week just seems like the next. Lent is really supposed to be a time of preparation, so I want to talk about the five parts or stages of preparation. That might help us to appreciate the time of Lent.

Preparation usually starts out with devotion. Devotion is the first stage of preparation. You know what you've got to do, and you're committed to it. The Israelites left slavery in Egypt with exuberance. God's plagues had led Pharaoh to release them, and the parting of the sea had protected them. They were off and running. And they had a plan. God was providing a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night to guide them (Exodus 13: 17-22). They knew what they were doing. That's how preparation usually starts out-with a plan and a lot of enthusiasm. When Jesus headed for Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, the disciples were with him. They were prepared for his victory over the powers and principalities. Jesus had performed impressive miracles, the crowds were with them, and they could just picture that place at the right hand of God, where they'd be seated in no time (Mark 10: 35-37). Preparation begins with devotion.

But pretty soon reality sets in. The Israelites got thirsty and hungry. The journey was long, and they didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. Preparation often leads to disappointment. Disappointment is the second stage of preparation. The Israelites complained to Moses about their sad state in the desert. They wanted to go back to the 'flesh pots' in Egypt (Ex 16: 1-3). Life wasn't great there, but it was familiar, and they knew where their next meal was coming from. Inevitably preparation doesn't go the way we thought it would. We lose our devotion and look back. What's the point? This was the feeling of the disciples when Jesus' plans really started to sink in. Jesus told them of his own coming death, and they were filled with alarm (Mk 10: 32-34). How did we get into this? What a disappointment! Let's get out of here.

This stage of disappointment is a turning point in preparation-for our devotion hangs in the balance. At this point we may opt out altogether. While Moses was up on Mt. Sinai seeking guidance from God, the Israelites were in the valley creating a Golden Calf to worship (Ex 32: 1-9). They were looking for another god-one that would conform to the exuberant expectations they had at the start. A god that would fulfill their expectations on their own terms. When Jesus was prophesying his own death, Peter rebuked him: "God forbid it, Lord. That must never happen to you!" (Matthew 16: 22). The path is not what we expected, and it certainly is not what we wanted.

This stage of disappointment may call for drastic measures, for the dangers are great. Disappointment calls for discipline. Discipline is the third stage of preparation. When Moses returned from talking with God to find the Israelites had turned from God, he went on a rampage-purging the tribe of its offending leaders (Ex 32: 25-29). When Jesus reprimanded Peter, it was in terms just as harsh: "Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle in my way!" (Mt 16: 23). Disappointment calls for discipline.

After discipline we need to find our way again. This can be a troubling time when we feel we're on our own. This is our time in the desert. Being in the desert is the fourth stage of preparation. Preparation involves a time in the wilderness-searching without knowing. A period of uncertainty in which we feel lost, yet maintain our devotion nevertheless. We carry on, without fully knowing why. This tends to be the longest part of preparation. The Israelites were consigned to wander in the desert for 40 years (Numbers 14: 26-35). The disciples had their wilderness the night of Jesus' arrest and trial. They were with him, but they couldn't stay awake. They followed him to the trial, but couldn't stand up for him (Mt 26: 36-46 & 69-75). The desert time is long and hard-but inevitable. In the wilderness the Israelites learned to rely on God. The disciples found their own sense of commitment from within. This is the time during which people establish their supports in spite of their doubts and disappointments. This is the time during which they cleanse their motivations and learn to endure. This is our time in the desert.

Endurance in the desert, as important as it is, is no steady path. They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn. That was true for the disciples, as they saw their leader crucified. And it was true for the Israelites, as they saw their leader, Moses, die (Deuteronomy 34). Good Friday, as we call it in English, is the depth of the wilderness experience. The desert often leads us through a profound sense of loss and powerlessness in our journey of preparation.

So far preparation has brought us through devotion, disappointment, discipline, and the desert. If that were all there was, it would be a pretty lousy process. But preparation is always preparation for something. Preparation aims toward something. It may not always be successful, but it cannot be understood apart from its aim. Preparation aims at deliverance. Deliverance is the fifth stage and goal of preparation. For the Israelites the deliverance was the promised land. For the disciples the aim was something they could not have articulated in advance-but they knew it meant the defeat of the current order. Things were going to be different. Preparation aims at deliverance.

What are we aiming for in Lent? As Christians, we aim for new life. It is not something that comes easily. We have to go through the depths of the wilderness before we are ready to turn loose of the old familiar life-the flesh-pots in Egypt. With the women on Easter morning, we have to stop looking for the living among the dead (Luke 24: 5-6). Those old habits are hard to break. But Lent is the time and process we follow to break the hold-the ways-of the old life. It is a long and uncertain path-40 days in the Christian tradition. But it can be longer-or shorter-in our own lives. Lent is our Christian preparation for deliverance.

For the Israelites, their journey of preparation culminated with the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land of Canaan (Judges). Did they then live happily ever after? Hardly. Their life in the promised land was a continuing struggle to maintain the faith in God that had brought them there. The promised land turned out not to be the end of the journey, but yet another stage in their struggle to live as children of God.

But what about us Christians? Isn't Jesus' resurrection the end of our journey of preparation? Isn't our deliverance assured? In the long run it is. But in the meantime, we will continue to struggle just as the Israelites did in Canaan, and just as the disciples did after Jesus' resurrection. For their work was not done-nor is ours. Jesus' death and resurrection is not the end of the story for Christians. It is the beginning. Defeat and death, and the need for resurrection, are things that we will deal with in our lives over and over again. When we confront defeat, when we confront death, we will know that resurrection is there for us. It is there for us when we stop looking for the living among the dead-when we stop wanting to go back to Egypt. It is there for us when we have followed a path of preparation. And we practice that each year at Lent. 40 days seems like a long time. But it is a rehearsal for a journey-from devotion, through disappointments, with discipline in the desert, to our deliverance.

Slaves took the Exodus story about the Israelites as a metaphor for their own hoped for journey to deliverance and a promised land. Negro spirituals often set the Exodus story to music as an expression of their own aspirations: "Go Down, Moses", "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore", "Joshua Fit de Battle of Jerico". The promised land was an idea that involved freedom, and little more by way of detail. But near the end of the Civil War, General Sherman got the Union to promise freed slaves "40 acres and a government mule." This became a rallying cry and a concrete promised land for Blacks after the Civil War. But politics soon got in the way, and the 40 acres that were supposed to come from confiscated Confederate land eventually got given back to the ex-Confederate soldiers before the freed slaves ever got what they thought they had coming. I don't know what happened to the mules. I guess they became Southern politicians. Reconstruction offered some political opportunities for Blacks, but didn't last long. Rarely did freedom for the ex-slaves turn out to be what they hoped for. Some looked back at slavery as a source of security, if nothing more. We all know how the hell we are familiar with is always less scary than the hell we don't know.

After these initial disappointments came a long period of wandering in the desert-enduring through Jim Crow laws. To some it seemed that the legal and political changes of the 1950's, 60's, and 70's heralded the long-sought promised land after all. But that promised land was about as secure as Canaan. We battle to maintain it, just as the Israelites battled to maintain their promised land. Sometimes they lost faith, but they always knew where to return for strength. So do we.

Our history has been a preparation. It was a preparation that Lent has made familiar to us. As we experience Lent each year, we refamiliarize ourselves with the process of enduring with hope in the face of death for the sake of resurrection-in the face of disappointment for the sake of deliverance. We practice this for battles yet to come-in our own personal lives, and in our public lives as well. We will need our Lenten preparation to help us battle the personal demons of our own sins of addiction, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness. We will need our Lenten preparation to help us eventually face our own deaths in the hope of resurrection. But we will also need our Lenten journey to help us battle the social demons of privilege, arrogance, aggression, and unconcern.

You know the battles I'm talking about. As citizens of Black America, you are well-familiar with preparing for those battles. And as citizens of the Christian community, we are prepared anew each year at Lent for those battles. God knows we have disappointments, but the discipline of our forebears will suffice during our time in the desert. As James wrote to the early Christians: "My brothers and sisters, consider yourselves fortunate when all kinds of trials come your way, for you know that when your faith succeeds in facing such trials, the result is the ability to endure. Make sure that your endurance carries you all the way without failing" (James 1: 2-4). With the Israelites, we have no assurance when those trials will end-in 40 days or 40 years. But in Christ we know that we can endure, and that they will end favorably. Amen.

James C. Klagge
March 30, 2003
Asbury United Methodist Church