An Appropriate Lenten Response to God’s Love and Grace

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the sermon podcast, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51.1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial. But why do we do these things? What’s the point? Is it to make us feel as badly about ourselves as we possibly can because that’s the way God feels about us? Sadly, I’m afraid, some Christians really believe this. To be sure, our sin and rebellion against God should make us remorseful, but to focus on that alone misses the broader context for Lent with its somber reflection on our sin and brokenness. God wants us to repent, but for the right reasons, and that is what I want us to look at briefly tonight.

To see Lent and its disciplines in their proper perspective we must step back and look at the whole narrative of Scripture. When we do, the first thing we realize is that it is the story of how God is fixing all that is wrong with his good and beautiful creation. Genesis 1-2 tell how God created this world out of nothing and that it was good. And of course, the climax of God’s creative activity was making his image-bearing creatures to run his good world. But as Genesis 3.1-19 makes clear, we humans didn’t get that memo and so we rebelled against God. The sin of Adam and Eve (and everybody ever since) is that we want to elevate ourselves to be God’s equal or worse yet, to replace God altogether. This resulted in God’s curse on us and his creation, and our sin opened the door for evil to operate freely in God’s good world to corrupt it. We all know what this looks like. In the midst of the incredible beauty of God’s world we see thorns sprouting up. Whatever those literal or metaphorical thorns are—whether it is the beheading of innocents or any other form of human cruelty, natural disasters, birth defects, wicked diseases, destructive relationships, or death itself, the ultimate evil—we are living with the consequences of our sin and the evil it has unleashed as well as God’s curse upon it. In our bones we know that life is not as it should be and something needs to be done to fix it.

At first blush this can make us think that God is some kind of ogre who doesn’t care at all about our happiness or welfare and who is out to punish us for every wrong turn we take. We read passages like our OT lesson with its fearsome announcement that God is indeed coming to judge his people on the great and terrible Day of the Lord and say to ourselves and others, “See? I told you. God is against us and wants to rain on our parade every chance he gets!” So we tend to enter the season of Lent reluctantly or with a chip on our shoulder. We tend to look at ourselves as pretty good people and wonder what all the fuss is about regarding sin and repentance, all the while ignoring everything that is wrong in our relationships and lives and discounting or denying our role in any of it. If you want to know what human pride and arrogance look like, look no further than the dynamic of this mindset for your answer.

But of course this gets the character of God and the destructiveness of human sin terribly wrong because sin of any kind makes us spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically sick and ultimately dehumanizes us by slowly but surely destroying God’s image in us. This, of course, displeases God, but not because God is some kind of angry and bloodthirsty God. The sin that dehumanizes us displeases God because he didn’t create us to be sick. He created us to be his healthy, image-bearing creatures who reflect his goodness and glory out into his world so that the world will also be a healthy and good place, just the way God intended it to be. Anybody who has raised children will understand this. At our best (and granted we aren’t always at our best), when our children rebel against us we get angry with them, not because we are angry parents who don’t want our children to ever have any fun, but because we want them to be healthy and happy and have the kind of fun that will contribute to that health and happiness.

And this is what the story of the Bible is about. In answer to our cry that something needs to be done to fix the world, Scripture tells us what God has done, is doing, and will do to fix his sin-corrupted world and its creatures, not to punish us for misbehaving (although that will inevitably happen if we refuse to come off our mark) but to restore us to the health and life he created us to have and enjoy in the first place, a health and happiness that is contingent on us having and enjoying a proper relationship with God, where we realize that God is God and we are not, and where we have the God-given wisdom and humility to be satisfied with that relational dynamic because we realize that only then can we be truly healed and fully human.

Consistent with the role God created us to play in his world, Scripture tells us that God is fixing his good and broken world by using his image-bearing creatures. God called a people for himself, Abraham and his descendants, to bring his healing love to the world. When Israel failed to live up to her call, God became human to do and be for Israel what Israel had failed to do and be. And if we ever hope to observe a holy and productive Lent (and beyond) that is not akin to sitting in a dentist’s chair enduring a root canal, we must understand what the Good News of Jesus Christ is all about because as Bishop Tom Wright has helpfully argued, all too often we don’t treat the gospel or Good News as news, but rather as advice to be followed—do this, don’t do that to avoid being zapped by God.

Think for a minute what news of any kind is. News is a report that something has happened or about to happen and as a result everything changes. Parents receive the news that they are going to have a baby and their lives will forever be changed once the baby is born. The news that we have cancer will change not only our present reality but also change how we look at the future. Again, news focuses on something that has happened and as a result, our lives will change. When we look at the gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ as news rather than advice, it must either change us or expose us as incorrigibly hard-hearted people because the Good News shows us the very heart and love of God for his creation and creatures.

So what is the Good News of the gospel? What has happened that makes us realize the world is a different place and we are living in a different reality? The gospel is the culmination of God’s good but unexpected rescue plan for us and his world, the way in which God has fixed all that is wrong with us and his world. It is the story of how the God of this vast universe became one of his human creatures in Jesus of Nazareth to announce to his people, and through them the rest of the world, that he had not abandoned them and was not indifferent to their suffering and plight. But he wasn’t going to fix all the world’s evil and wrong in a way that many expected and wanted. He wasn’t going to wave his hand and rid the world of its evil because if God did that, he would have to sweep us away too since all of us are sin-infected. But since God is faithful to his creation and wants to save it, this is not acceptable to him.

No, God’s plan to fix this world and defeat the power of evil consisted of becoming human and going to the cross to bear the the full brunt of evil and to condemn sin so that God would not have to condemn us. When Jesus died on the cross, sin was judged and condemned. Punishment was meted out and we who believe this news are now reconciled to God and find peace with him. This is at the heart of what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson tonight and elsewhere (Romans 8.1-3; Colossians 1.19-21, 2.15). For Christians, the cross is the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Why wait to respond to this Good News? Lent is no better time to start!

Of course, without the resurrection, we would have no basis for believing that Jesus’ death was Good News. Without the resurrection, his death would have simply been the death of another failed Messiah wannabe. But when God raised Jesus from the dead, God confirmed that indeed sin and evil had been condemned and defeated and that his promised new world had begun, a world in which one day we will get to live directly in God’s presence and all vestiges of evil and sin are banished forever. And we get to live in this world and enjoy the hope of its promise solely because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, unexpected as that may be.

This is the Good News, then. Something has happened (Jesus’ death and resurrection) that has forever changed the world in which we live. It has changed our world because we know that God has acted decisively on our behalf to rid the world of evil without destroying it and us in the process. And despite the fact that evil is not yet totally defeated, we have hope that one day God’s new world will come as promised and in the meantime we can enjoy life in the way God always intended for us. If you really believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, his death will make sense to you and you will have the necessary hope to help you prevail through the present darkness with all of its fears and uncertainty. This is why it is so important to regain our understanding of the Good News—our faith will be strengthened and sustained.

And this is where our Lenten disciplines come back into play. If we understand the Good News, we will understand that God has acted decisively for us because he loves us and wants the best for us. We will understand that God has visited us once in Jesus of Nazareth and will come again to complete the work that he started in his life, death, and resurrection. This allows us to hear the call to repent, not as some backward-looking thing we must do (and then only reluctantly) to address past sin, but rather as a forward-looking thing to engage in as we anticipate King Jesus’ return to usher in God’s new creation. Think about it. Suppose you got a call telling you that the POTUS was coming to visit. You wouldn’t sit still. You’d get ready for him to come to your house! This is what the call to repent is essentially all about. King Jesus, God himself, has visited and has promised to come again. Get ready. Develop the character and mindset that will allow you to enjoy his presence as fully as you can and to work on his behalf to get others ready for his coming. That’s what Jesus was talking about in our gospel lesson tonight. Doing in secret the things we ought to be doing will not only bring us godly contentment and joy, it will help us to learn to love God for the sake of loving God, not for some lesser reward.

What do you need to do to get ready in anticipation of God’s return? What embarrasses you? What are you ashamed of? What haunts you because you are unable to find forgiveness? What areas of your life are crying out to be tidied up that you have steadfastly ignored? These are the things you should focus on this Lent rather than giving up something meaningless just for the sake of “denying yourself” or because you think you have to give up something for Lent. Confess those things to God and trust that he will forgive you because you trust that the cross stands as the ultimate testimony to God’s love and mercy for you. Whatever it is you work on this Lent, do it as a grateful response for what God has done for you to change your life and world and in anticipation of the wonderful new world that awaits us when God’s new world comes in full because you really do believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.