The Season of Lent is Ultimately About Real Hope

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward. From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.  When you tell them all this, they will not listen to you; when you call to them, they will not answer.

–Jeremiah 7.21-27 (NIV)

But Abraham never doubted or questioned God’s promise. His faith made him strong, and he gave all the credit to God. Abraham was certain that God could do what he had promised. So God accepted him, just as we read in the Scriptures. But these words were not written only for Abraham. They were written for us, since we will also be accepted because of our faith in God, who raised our Lord Jesus to life. God gave Jesus to die for our sins, and he raised him to life, so that we would be made acceptable to God.

–Romans 4.20-25 (CEV)

May the life-giving cross be the source of all our joy and peace. Amen.

Common Worship: Morning & Evening Prayer, 318

Given the human condition with its propensity to twist things around, there is always a danger for us to lose sight of the hope that is ours in Christ during this season of Lent. As we engage in our Lenten disciplines of self-denial, prayer, fasting, reading Scripture, and confession/repentance, it is easy for us to lose sight of the prize. It is easy to forget that God has provided us a real and efficacious solution to the intractable problem of the human condition, and we do so at our own peril.

Take today’s Scripture readings, for example. In the passage from Jeremiah we have a succinct summary of the human condition. God, through his prophet, takes his people to task. He reminds them (and us) that he is their God and they are his people, and they need to act accordingly. But they (and we) don’t. At best, we want to treat God as our equal. At worst, we want to replace God with ourselves and this is the essence of sin because it constitutes an active rebellion against God on our part. This, in turn, separates us from God’s love for us. It cuts off our true life support system and ultimately our life will not go well, either here on this earth or hereafter. Sure, we can look around and see examples that appear to contradict this truth, but the circumstances of life are just that–appearances (see, e.g., Psalm 73). They do not always reveal the truth that without God, we have no life in us. As Jeremiah points out to his people, God is not interested in burnt offerings for sin. He is interested in our love and obedience, and we are typically reluctant to give him either, let alone both.

And this is where the rub comes in. Our sin separates us from God and takes us off our life support. It casts us into exile, just as Adam and Eve’s sin got them exiled from paradise. It makes us hostile toward God and separates us from him, and given our human condition, we really are not in a position to do anything about this terrible condition. We are powerless to effect real reconciliation with a Holy God because we are fallen people who are weighed down by our body of sin and incapable of completely ridding ourselves of every trace of evil that exists in us. To make matters worse, we often don’t usually stop to consider that the alienation and hostility is not just one sided. Not only are we alienated from and hostile toward God, but God is also alienated from and hostile toward us because God is a Holy God who cannot tolerate evil in any form. As Dr. John Stott put it, “It is not that God finds it difficult to forgive, but how he finds it possible to do so at all” (The Cross of Christ, 88). It really is not a pretty picture and if we stop there, we can quickly fall into despair and hopelessness.

But this is an incomplete picture because it does not take into account God’s rescue operation in Jesus. Yes, left to our own devices we are without hope because none of us can rid ourselves completely of the evil that is in us and so none of us has any legitimate hope of being able to live directly in God’s presence forever.

But we are not left to our own devices because God has given us a once and for all solution to our problem of exile and alienation.

As Paul reminds us in the passage from Romans today, God created us to live and to have a real relationship with him and so he intervened decisively in our history to make good on his promise to Abraham to be a blessing to him so that Abraham and his offspring could be agents of God’s rescue plan for sinful humanity. God’s promise to rescue his broken and rebellious people reached its culmination when God himself condescended to become human, to live among us, and to die for us so that we could be reconciled to him.

This is why the line quoted above from Common Worship implores us to remember that the cross is life-giving, that it should be the source of all our joy and peace. This is worthy of our time and our best reflections because in the cross of Jesus, we have our only real source of hope. We remember that the cross is God’s symbol of justice. Payment for sin and rebellion must be made, but it is God in Jesus who makes the payment for us. This reminds us that God is not just a God of justice but also a God of love, mercy, and grace. When we reflect on the cross, we see a God who loves us and wants us to live. Like any good parent, God wants the best for us and it starts with our relationship with him. Since we cannot and will not do what is necessary to mend the gap that exists between us, God has done that himself. We have peace, God’s peace, because our alienation from his has ended for those who accept God’s gracious gift of Jesus through faith.

But we miss the boat if our reflections on the cross stop there because as the four Gospel writers remind us, the cross is the culmination of God’s Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus which will one day see its ultimate consummation when our Risen Lord returns to finally put to right all the wrong of God’s fallen creation and creatures. This, of course, reminds us that if we want to be a disciple of Jesus, we must do our part. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus. We must emulate him in bringing healing and reconciliation to God’s broken creatures and world. We do that through our selfless service to others and by proclaiming the message that Jesus is Lord and the powers and principalities of this world are not. This is costly and dangerous work but we do not mind because we know Whose we are. We remember we have been bought at a terrible price and this gives us glad and thankful hearts to do the work Jesus calls us to do. This, in turn, gives us new meaning and purpose for living right here and now. We attempt to live out the Lord’s Prayer in which we are reminded that God’s Kingdom is not just in heaven but also right here on earth. And all of this brings us back to the season of Lent because all of the above is contingent on a contrite and humble heart.

During this season of Lent as you seek to put to death all the stuff within you that keeps you rebellious, separated from, and hostile toward God, don’t forget that there is real hope and light at the end of the tunnel. We do this not to prove what pious folks we are. We do it out of a profound love for God, which must always lead to a life a compassion, love, mercy, and service. We engage in our Lenten disciplines because we want to find our right place so that we can always acknowledge God as God. We do it because we have grateful and thankful hearts, and we praise God through the way we conduct our lives in response to the incalculable gift of life we have received in Jesus.

And if you do not yet know the wondrous love of God, take a chance and ask him to show you what it’s all about and then join with others in the great adventure of responding to God’s love for you in Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus is hard and demanding work because Jesus demands everything you have, including your very self. But if you give it an honest shot, you will find that following Jesus is the hardest and most demanding work you will ever come to love.