A Trinity of Help In Our Lenten Journey

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH, on the fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29, 2009. If you would like to hear the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the written version, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33.


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

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our preaching theme for this month, which is discipleship in the context of Lent. Of course you remember that Lent is a time for self-reflection and denial, and for penitence. So how are your Lenten disciplines going? Why are you doing them? Because you think you have to or for some other reason? How are they helping you in your walk with Christ? Are you struggling in your Lenten disciplines? As we head toward Palm Sunday and Holy week, I think it is appropriate for us to stop and take stock of why we engage in the Lenten disciplines of penance and self-denial.

In today’s OT passage we are confronted with the classic dilemma of the human condition and God’s plan to reconcile us. In the face of rebellion by his stubborn and sinful people, God tells his prophet about his intention of creating a new covenant. Unlike the old covenant made at Sinai with Moses, one that was contingent on people obeying God’s Law and that also involved blessing and curse, this new covenant would be based on grace and forgiveness. Interestingly, this passage from Jeremiah is the only place in the OT that explicitly speaks of a “new covenant.” 

Now when we read this passage about God’s new covenant, we are tempted to think that God is making all this up on the fly, reacting with new plans or ideas when it turns out that his initial plans didn’t work. That, of course, is a terribly mistaken notion on our part because that would make God no longer omnipotent or omniscient. No, from all eternity, this was God’s plan to reconcile us, first to give us the law and then to give us the new covenant of grace and forgiveness of sins through the cross of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

God, of course, created us to have relationship with him but we rebelled against his will and decided to go our own way and worship other gods. In the broader context of today’s OT passage, God, through his prophet takes Judah to task and condemns them as a sinful, rebellious, and idolatrous people who are unwilling to follow his laws so that they can walk in a right relationship with God. It is a heartbreaking story because it is the story of all humanity, not just Judah’s. It is our story. Our sinful rebelliousness is bound to cause us to be separated from God forever because he calls us to live holy lives and he cannot allow sin or evil in his presence. This is the justice that God demands and left on our own, none of us can stand before God or be with him because we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). And of course, when we are separated from God, either here or after our physical death, the result is death. No, the biblical picture of the human condition when left on our own is bleak indeed.

Where is God’s Grace?

But thanks be to God that we are not left on our own. Our condition is not hopeless. Instead we can count on a Trinity of support in our journey to attach ourselves to the Source of life and that is what I want to address this morning. As we have just seen, God promises us a new covenant, a covenant he initiated by the coming of Jesus. Our Lord himself reminds us of this in today’s Gospel lesson when he speaks of his “hour” for which he has come. Jesus, of course, is speaking of his crucifixion that will initiate God’s new covenant of forgiveness of sins. For you see, God’s justice must be satisfied and sin must be accounted for—God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7); but it is to the glory of God that his symbol for justice is the cross. On the cross, Jesus bore the punishment for our sins once and for all; he bore the curse for disobedience contained in the old covenant (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 11:26-28). Because he bore our punishment, Jesus made it possible for God to declare us not guilty for our sins. The righteous demands of God’s holy justice were fully met in Jesus and we are the beneficiaries of Christ’s suffering and death. The cross of Christ is a sheer act of grace on God’s part because it was God himself who took on our flesh and suffered and died for us so that we could be declared “not guilty” in his eyes, a one time event we call justification. It is a wondrous gift to us because God has done the impossible for us; he created the necessary condition for us to live with him forever. So this morning if you are one who is worried about your salvation, don’t be. God has already taken care of that for you once and for all in the cross of Jesus and it is our gift through the grace of faith. When we look at his cross we should do so with both sorrow and joy—sorrow that our sins have made his cross necessary, joy in that God loved us so much that he did what needed to be done on our behalf to make it possible for us to live with him forever. The cross, an instrument of shame, is the means of God’s glory and it is ours too.

But the cross is not the end of the story, is it? As Fr. Ron reminded us last week, the cross is not some magic talisman that magically makes everything all right and allows us to keep on in our sinful, rebellious ways. Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel that whoever wants to have a relationship with him must follow him and become like him. The cross of Christ made it possible for us to live with God forever because it accounts for the penalty for our sins, but if we stop there, we miss the point—and the kingdom. Just because on the cross God made it possible for us to live with him does not guarantee that we will want to do so, and God will ultimately give us the desires of our hearts, whether good or bad (Psalm 37:4; Romans 1:24). If, however, we do choose to live with him, we are called to become like Christ and this is where God’s promise to Jeremiah comes back into play because God knows that left to our own devices, it is impossible for us to do so because sin has so badly infected us. 

And so in Jeremiah we encounter God’s promise to be with us, and to write his law on our hearts so that we no longer live to follow a set of rules but to have the very essence of our entire being fundamentally transformed by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. This transformation takes a lifetime and is not without terrible struggle because our sinful, fallen nature does not want to die, it wants to rule. But if we ever hope to inherit the Kingdom, we must become like the One who loved us and gave himself for us. The good news, of course, is that he will help us crucify our sinful, fallen nature by living in us. We have to make the effort, but he promises us that our effort will be aided by his Power so that while we will inevitably have our setbacks—John Wesley used to say that sin remains but does not reign—we are being transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can become like Christ and be set free to be the kind of beings God created us to be in the first place. Paul talks about this promise of the Holy Spirit working in us as a deposit that guarantees the promise God made to us on Calvary (see, e.g., Romans 8; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 2 Corinthians 5:5). 

This process of putting to death all that is in us that separates us from God so that we can become more like him is called sanctification and it is messy, arduous work. But it is also life-giving work. And not only do we have the Holy Spirit with us to help us put to death all that keeps us from being like Christ, as our Epistle lesson today reminds us, we also have Christ himself serving as our high priest, interceding for us to the Father. This is the Trinitarian promise that is ours for the taking if only we will accept it. We have God’s plan of salvation from eternity, the presence of the Holy Spirit to transform us to be like Christ, and Christ himself who has made this all possible by his death, resurrection, and ascension, and who continues to plead for us and on our behalf. It is a wondrous promise and best of all it is God’s free gift to us because we have a God who loves us and calls us to holiness so that we can live with him in this life and forever. Thanks be to God!

Where is the Application?

So what does this mean for us during this Lenten season as we pursue our various Lenten disciplines of self-reflection, penance, and denial? First, this Trinitarian promise helps us keep things in perspective. We are reminded that there is nothing we can do that will earn our salvation. God has already taken care of that once for all and we need not worry about that anymore. God has given himself for us in a terrible and costly act that has made it possible for us to enter into a life giving relationship with him. We pursue our acts of self-denial and discipline not because we have to, but because we have a heart overflowing with love and gratitude that God has done the impossible for us when he bore the terrible punishment for our sins so that his holy justice could be satisfied. Anyone who understands this can never, ever look at the cross in a detached way, but rather with a heart that overflows with love and thanksgiving.

Second, as we struggle to put to death our sinful selves, we are reminded that we are not doing this on our own. We are reminded that we have ongoing help in the power and Presence of the Holy Spirit and that our Lord himself continues to intercede for us. This reminds us we are not pursuing our Lenten disciplines because we are trying to follow some rules that will punch our ticket into heaven (God has already done that in the cross of Christ), but rather that by denying ourselves, we are allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us and transform us into the very likeness of Christ.

Likewise and finally, we recognize that denying ourselves will require suffering, but that as Paul reminds us, suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love for us in the Holy Spirit Whom he has given us (Romans 5:3-5). And as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, God has demonstrated that he can and will turn our suffering into glory (Hebrews 2:9-10). For you see, just like we are interested in developing good character in our children, God is interested in developing good character in us; it is called being made holy. In practical terms, this means we choose to stand up for God’s kingdom, especially when it is an unpopular thing to do. It means that we are profoundly aware of our sin and what God has done for us so that we are not so quick to condemn others or to have our own way, especially when we know that doing so will cause others harm, grief, or suffering. This is what it means to deny ourselves, to take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus. This is how we are made perfect in obedience. We learn to obey by obeying and allowing the Holy Spirit living in us to help us do so. It is what the writer of Hebrew’s in today’s epistle lesson meant when he spoke of Jesus being made perfect in his suffering. Being human like us, Jesus learned obedience by obeying, even when he was called to suffer and die. It is difficult work but it is the most worthwhile work we will ever engage in because it helps us to become like the One who loved us and gave himself for us so that we can live with him forever. Not only that, he has promised to be with us to help us do just that, and even now he is before the Father praying for us. 

The Christian faith is no self-help religion. In fact, it promises us a Trinity of Gifts to help us be the people God created us to be. The work is hard in this life and it is costly. But if we embrace the promise, we are guaranteed that nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of Christ. Not the devil’s lies, not sorrow nor sickness nor economic woes, nor infirmity nor anything else in all creation. What a wondrous promise! What good news, now and for all eternity!

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