Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 58.1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for confession, self-denial, and repentance. But why do we do these things? What’s the point? Is it because Christians are inherently masochistic or are there better reasons? I suspect that many who call themselves Christians couldn’t answer these questions and so tonight I want to lay out for you why we observe a season of Lent. To do that, we are going to have to go back to the beginning to see God’s intention for us and his creation and then look quickly at what happened instead. Then we are going to have to look at God’s promised future for those who love him, for those he calls in Christ, so that we can be reminded what we are here for and where we are going.
In Genesis 1-2 we read the creation stories. While they are doubtless familiar to most of us, I suspect we miss a critical piece of information regarding how God works and his intentions for his human creatures that are contained in these narratives. In these stories, we read that God created humans to be wise stewards over his creation (cf. Genesis 1.26-31; 2.19-20). That is what it means to be created in God’s image. To be wise stewards and rule over God’s good creation requires that we be obedient to God’s will for us. If we don’t obey God, how can we possibly reflect his glory and be wise stewards of his creation?
This, then, is how God intended things to work. God still does. And as we read in the creation narratives, this is indeed how things worked until human sin entered the picture (cf. Genesis 3ff). The essence of human sin is an unhealthy focus on us and our needs and desires, rather than a single-minded focus on God and obeying his will for us. That is why one of the biblical terms for sin, hamartia, literally means to miss the mark so that when we repent, we turn around and change course. In other words, when we really repent, we stop being essentially self-centered creatures and become God-centered creatures so that we can once again be his true image-bearers and wise stewards.
And we can all think of examples of good and poor stewardship. Think of the advances in science, medicine, and education that have improved the quality of our lives and allowed us to treat each other and God’s good earth wisely. Then think of hate-mongers like Hitler or the unbridled greed that led to the stock market crash of 2008 that wiped out billions of dollars of hard working folks or the terrible abuse of humans and animals that we read about on a regular basis, and you can quickly understand how badly we have strayed from God’s good intentions for us and how grievous it is to God. This is also what our OT and gospel lessons are about. God is telling his people Israel what he expects of them as his called-out (holy) image-bearers. They are to pursue justice and righteousness so that the poor and oppressed are cared for because they too are God’s image-bearers. Moreover, both Jesus and Isaiah are reminding us that God does not so much care about our religious activities as he cares about why we do what we do in God’s name. In other words, God cares about our inner motivations. We must therefore always ask ourselves whose glory are we seeking, our own or God’s? If we do not seek God’s glory in all we do we are missing the mark, i.e., we are sinning, and being less than fully human.
To summarize, then, when human sin entered the world, we got ourselves kicked out of paradise, became alienated and estranged from God, and lost our full measure of humanity. When that happened, death entered the picture because when we are separated from our Source of life, we must die. This is the cost of our disobedience to God. It is a sad and terrible picture. We all know what it is like to live in a fallen world because we all have been afflicted by the evil and consequences of sin, both our own and others’. When we start to understand this dynamic, we are ready to understand why we need a season of Lent because Lent is a time when we are called to be quite intentional and work on the things that dehumanize us and make us miss the mark of being God’s image-bearer and a wise steward of his creation.
But thankfully human sin and death are not the end of the story. God loves us and intends for us to enjoy life with him in the manner he intended when he created us. That is why God called his people Israel to be agents of his healing love and redemption. But Israel turned out to be as badly flawed and broken as the people God called them to help redeem. Instead of being his image-bearers and wise stewards so that God’s mercy, justice, righteousness, and love could reign and bring healing and restoration, Israel turned inward on itself and became essentially self-focused. That is why God is so implacably opposed to idol worship, both for his people Israel and for all humans. The desire to worship is built into our genes. We will inevitably worship something and we will become what we worship. It’s an ironclad spiritual law.
This wouldn’t be a problem if we did not have free will and could only worship God. But we do have free will because God created us for relationship and real relationships can only happen if both parties choose to enter into them freely, our relationship with God included. But too often we end up choosing to worship ourselves and when that happens things get ugly (and scary) in a hurry. Israel’s idol worship helped turn them inward on themselves so that they failed to be the wise stewards and God’s image-bearers to God’s broken and hurting world. In other words, they disobeyed God’s calling to them. If you want to understand why God got so angry with his people in the OT and ultimately brought judgment on Israel, you have to understand this dynamic. Likewise with us. When we are more interested in focusing on ourselves instead of on God, how can we ever hope to have a real relationship with God, let alone enjoy life with him?
But God in his eternal mercy and wisdom understood and foresaw all this. None of this caught God by surprise and so as Paul reminds us in tonight’s epistle, God became human in Jesus and bore his own righteous judgment on our sins, the very things that make us estranged from God and prevent us from having our lifeline reconnected, so that we could live. Or to use Paul’s language, we have been reconciled to God. That’s why we call the day Jesus was crucified Good Friday. The whole history of the human race indicates we cannot be the people God created us to be without some radical help and in Christ’s death we got that help.
Moreover, Jesus’ resurrection announced that God had made good on his promise to usher in God’s new creation. We need to keep this hope in Christ firmly in our minds because this is our future and it serves to both remind us of what awaits us and to motivate us. Jesus’ death and resurrection remind us that God has overcome evil, sin, and death and promises to bring in a new age, the new heavens and earth, where all evil is banished forever and we will be given new resurrection bodies that are impervious to decay and death. We won’t be floating around on clouds playing harps forever—how dreadfully boring that sounds. No, we will be living in a recreated world in the manner God intended for us in the first place. Whatever that looks like, and none of us really knows, it will be glorious beyond our ability to think or imagine because God’s glory is beyond our ability to imagine. We didn’t do anything to deserve this mind-boggling gift from God, nor can we earn it. It is ours by faith and our faith will always produce a response that anticipates the promise. But one thing we do know. To live in God’s new creation means we will need to learn to act accordingly. Just like being a citizen in any country demands certain norms of behavior, so it will be in the new creation. To live in God’s sin- and evil-free world means that we will not be turned inward but God-ward. It means we will want more than anything to be obedient to God’s will for us so that we can truly be human and reflect God’s image outward in God’s new creation. And this, of course, is where Lent comes in.
Lent is a time where we announce our intention of becoming fully human and obedient to God in the manner God created us and intends for us. In the death of Christ, we have been reconciled to God and so this is in loving and grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ to end our alienation and exile from him, to reconnect us to our life support system, so to speak. We respond to God’s love in Christ for two reasons. First, as we’ve seen, we believe Jesus’ resurrection has ushered in God’s promised new creation and so we are called to the task to be his agents of new creation. In other words, we are called to be obedient humans who reflect God’s image out into the world so that we can be his true image-bearers. This means we have to root out everything in us that is hostile toward God and which dehumanizes us and makes us turn inward (or worship things that make us turn inward). But because we are so profoundly broken, we have no hope of accomplishing this on our own. Thankfully, however, as Paul reminds us in tonight’s epistle lesson, we don’t do this on our own. We do this in and through the power of God because we have been given the Holy Spirit to help us with deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. This is simply another way to describe the process of becoming fully human and obedient once again, just the way Jesus was.
The second reason we respond to God’s love in Christ is related to the first. As we have seen, living in God’s promised new creation demands that we have a heart and desire that are focused on obeying God, not ourselves. When we identify those things in us that are preventing that from happening, we are developing the needed character to live in the new creation. When we turn inward and worship ourselves by our greed, selfishness, pride, and abuse of our bodies (to name just a few) we are behaving in ways that are contrary to God’s good will for us so that we can live as fully human beings. We don’t have to find the temptations to do these things. They find us and every one of us knows how easy it is to develop bad habits and bad character.
But there will be no room for these character habits in the new creation. Instead, if we hope to be fully human and obedient to God (even though that is virtually impossible this side of the grave because we are weighed down by our body of sin), we have to work on developing the habits of heart and mind that are conducive to being fully human and obedient to God—love, faith, patience, kindness, compassion, and a passion for justice (to name just a few). That means, of course, that we must work at these things because they do not necessarily come naturally to us. In other words, we must develop the discipline to develop the necessary habits of heart and mind that will be demanded in the new creation. The good news again is that we don’t do this on our own, either. We do it only by the power of God through the Holy Spirit living in us. That is why it is a good idea to take up a discipline in Lent that is related to developing these godly character habits, things like prayer and fasting (here is where those prayer beads can help us) and regular reading and study of the Bible (here is where we can help the Spirit help each of us by helping each other keep on task).
What is it in you that you need to put to death (or continue to work on putting to death)? Think deeply on the things we have talked about tonight and ask God to show you what is dehumanizing you and causing you to miss the mark of being fully human and God’s image-bearer. Whatever it is, and whatever you give up for Lent, it should be directly related to that which is making you worship yourself or which prevents you from working for God’s righteousness and justice. And if you do give up something for Lent with the attitude that you can hardly wait for Easter so that you can resume what you’ve given up, you’ve missed the point completely because doing so is effectively telling God you want to continue to worship and obey yourself, not him.
This Lent, we all have to decide whom we will worship. Our natural human tendency is to turn inward and worship ourselves, which, as we have seen, will lead only to our further dehumanization and alienation from God. Sadly, this will result in God’s final judgment and our eternal death and permanent separation from God. That, by the way, is why there is such an urgency in Paul’s epistle lesson tonight. Not only do we not know the day of our death (when it will be too late for us to turn around), if we don’t act decisively to turn around and stop missing the mark, there may come a day when we pass the point of no return where we are unable to correct our course because we have become too hardened and dehumanized.
But when, by God’s grace, we choose to worship God and seek to be obedient to his will, we are laying the groundwork not only to cooperate with God here and now, but also to live with him in his new creation forever. We have this hope because we have seen his cross and believe in his promise to heal and be reconciled to us, which of course means we have Good News, now and for all eternity. May God grant you a holy Lent this season so that you come to know fully what it means to love God and be truly human.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.