Dare We Party During Lent?

Sermon delivered on Lent 4C, Laetare Sunday, March 27, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5.16-21; St. Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32.

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

Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent (thus our fashionable pink/rose colored vestments). Laetare is the Latin word meaning to rejoice and our readings today all point us to reasons why as Christians we should. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

So why do we dare party during Lent? Well, because there is good reason to do so as all our readings attest. It is also consistent with the season of Lent. Does that surprise you? It likely will if you see Lent as a grim time where we are supposed to follow a bunch of rules we don’t really like or understand, but are told to follow them anyhow, things like much fasting and prayer, doing acts of mercy and being extra generous with our resources for the sake of others. But to think like this misses the entire point of Lent. We don’t observe Lent for its own sake. We observe Lent because it is precisely the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, repentance, and doing acts of mercy and charity that prepare us to live as the Easter people God calls us to be as followers of Christ, holy people! And as we shall see, the fifty days of Eastertide call for a continual party like no other party.

We start with our OT lesson. The geniuses who choose the texts for the RCL inexplicably leave off God’s command to Joshua to have all the males of Israel circumcised, the children of those whom the Lord had brought out of Egypt and who had died during Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering. This is important because in so commanding Joshua to have the Israelite males circumcised, the Lord effectively commanded Joshua to renew Israel’s covenant with him so that they could enjoy the fruits of the covenant, the Promised Land. And in commanding Israel to renew its covenant with the Lord, God was also effectively commanding Israel to remember all the Lord had done for them and what the Lord was about to do for them. The old had passed away—freedom from their slavery in Egypt and God’s care for them in the wilderness so that his promise to them would be fulfilled—and the new was about to begin—life in the Promised Land, even before Israel had entered it! Israel’s shame, whatever the Lord meant by that, was now gone. They had escaped Egypt, a world power, and had survived forty years in the wilderness despite their rebellion against God. They had renewed their ancient covenants with God and were now in the position to claim God’s promise in full. No wonder the manna stopped. That was of the old order. From now on the Israelites would live off the fat of the land!

And we can relate to ancient Israel’s story because it is our own. While we have not had to endure a literal wilderness for forty years we know what it is like to live in the wilderness of our mortal life with its joys and sorrows, alienation and fear, and loneliness even within community. Like ancient Israel we have been both faithful and faithless in our lives and we know what it feels like to sense God’s absence even as God remains near to us. We too have seen our loved ones die. We too have experienced frustration of all kinds as well as broken relationships in our quest to find fidelity and relationships that are real and enduring. Yet even in the midst of our wilderness, we know God is merciful and faithful, quick and even eager to forgive us, especially when we confess our sins and faithlessness and rebellion to him as our psalm this morning attests. God is always faithful and just and right. God cares for us as his image-bearing creatures and wants to bless us with a future and a hope. When we remember God’s faithfulness and his love for us, even in the midst of our faithlessness and wilderness wanderings, and when we consider our resurrection hope (more about that anon), is this not a compelling reason for us to party, even during this season of Lent?

But our hope as Christians is even more remarkable and breathtaking than God’s promise of land to the Israelites and we see this hope powerfully expressed in our gospel lesson this morning. The pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Christ was hanging around sinners and the low-lifes of his day. How can anyone who claims to be righteous do a thing like that?? Why do you party so much?? Our Lord responded with three parables, only one of which we read today. Again the RCL geniuses chose to omit key passages because the first two parables were about things lost: a sheep and a coin, and more importantly, heaven’s response to those things being found. What was that response? A party of course! Then Christ tells the most powerful of the three parables: the story of the lost son. Before we look at this we need to disabuse ourselves of the lie that some in our day have attempted to foist on us. Christ is emphatically not saying that sinners and low-lifes are simply to be accepted as they are. The lost sheep and coin are found after all. The prodigal comes to his senses and returns home. In other words, sinners must repent. But that is not the point of the parables. The point is that God in Christ loves a party that celebrates the restoration of life to the dead and a relationship with the lost. And because God celebrates this, so do all who dwell in his heavenly domain. As Christians we should take our cue from God our Father and the heavenly host.

The parable of the prodigal son is powerful enough and memorable enough that it needs little exposition. I would only add the following points to help us appreciate the depth of God’s love and mercy for us sinners expressed in the parable. When the prodigal son asked his father for his inheritance while the father was still alive, it was tantamount to the son telling his father that he wished his father were dead. If you are looking to see how cruel words can blow up a relationship, try telling that to someone near and dear to you and see what happens. The wounds had to have cut deep. Despite this the father honored his wayward son’s request and the boy promptly went out and wasted it on ruinous living. Finding himself in literally a life-threatening situation, the boy came to his senses and realized what an utter fool he had become. He had despised his father and his birthright as son. He had fed his pearls to the pigs and so decided to return home. Even here the boy’s motives for repentance were not exactly pure. He was trying not to starve to death in utter loneliness. But the son’s motives for repentance really didn’t matter to his father, who apparently never gave up hope that his wayward son would return home one day because he saw the boy returning and ran out to meet him. In first-century Israel’s culture, for a father to run in public to meet his son would bring utter humiliation on the father. They just didn’t do such a thing. But so deep was the father’s love for his son that none of that mattered. He ran to his boy and took him back unconditionally. All that mattered now was that the son was back home. The father’s dead son had been restored to life through repentance and a love that refused to let the rebellion and wickedness of the son stand in the way of the son being restored to his father. My beloved, in a nutshell is that not our story, yours and mine? And when we understand that the father’s actions would have brought on humiliation to him, this scene must also surely evoke for us an image of Christ’s utter humiliation of being crucified naked on the cross so that we might be reconciled to God. Great is the Father’s love for us! Yet how many of us like the older brother refuse to see and/or accept the Father’s great love for us made known in Christ? I don’t have time to deal with the older brother this morning but we dare not ignore the self-righteousness (and perhaps self-loathing) that prevented the older brother from celebrating the love and mercy and goodness of their father that restored a good-as-dead family member. Let us resolve not to do likewise in living out our faith in Christ!

But how do we make this parable our own? We aren’t part of ancient Israel looking for God to return to end our exile that this parable addresses in part. Or are we? Is there anyone here today, if you are old enough, who does not long for God to rescue us and those we love from our exile to Sin and Death? St. Paul in our epistle lesson has answers for us. We can make Christ’s parable about the prodigal son our own precisely because of what Christ has done for us in his Death and Resurrection. We have the hope of being rescued from Sin and Death because of Christ’s death on the cross, a Death that atoned for our sins, freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin, and restored us to a right relationship with God starting right now and lasting for all eternity. As we have seen before there is a great mystery in all this because all of us still sin in this mortal life, despite the NT’s claim that Sin’s power has been broken in us. Neither are we told how this all works, presumably because such knowledge is well above our pay grade and our salvation isn’t contingent on us having that knowledge. The NT simply insists that it is true and calls us to have faith to believe it despite its mystery and ambiguity and our unanswered questions. Like the ancient Israelites on the verge of entering the promised land, St. Paul calls us to look back to Christ’s Death so that we are able to look forward to the promise of Resurrection and new creation that Christ’s Resurrection signals. 

Note carefully that St. Paul is telling us exactly what Christ tells us in today’s parable. We are to come to our senses, i.e., we are to have faith that on the cross God has really dealt with our sins and the power of Sin decisively forever so that we have a future and a hope. That is why repentance is always in order. We look around at the emptiness of our lives and our vacuous thinking and rebellious living, all in the name of unbridled freedom and independence, just like the prodigal son. And God being God and our Creator knows we are helpless to right our own ship when it comes to our sin and the alienation it creates. Like the prodigal’s father, our Father longs for us to be restored to him, a restoration that is only possible through Christ’s Death on the cross. And so God desires our repentance, our turning away from ourselves and our own disordered agendas, so that we return to him to receive and accept his unconditional forgiveness. Our motives do not need to be pure (are they ever in this mortal life?). We need only to believe the promise is true and accept God’s forgiveness won through the Death of his Son for our sake. 

And because we are baptized Christians, we know by faith that we are joined with Christ in his Death and Resurrection. Like the ancient Israelites in our OT lesson, we stand on this side of the river that separates God’s fallen creation from his new creation by virtue of Christ’s Death. But we look forward to a future of new embodied life living in God’s promised new world without a trace of evil or sin or loneliness or sorrow or death or sickness or sighing, all because God is faithful to us and his creation. St. Paul had already experienced a foretaste of this reality. That is why he could no longer look at Christ from a human point of view with the possibility of mistaking Christ to be something lesser and other than he actually is—the crucified and risen Son of God who has rescued us from our exile to Sin and Death, freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin, and reconciled us once and for all to God our Father, the one and only Source of all life. God longs to enjoy the sweet intimacy he enjoyed with us in the garden before the Fall and promises to bring that reality about one day; that’s why he became human. Like ancient Israel before they crossed the River Jorden, we too wait with eager anticipation for our entrance into God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, to live there in God’s direct presence forever. This is why we can rejoice and party during Lent. We are on the right side of history (a favorite phrase of those today who definitely are not but who sadly think they are because they are enjoying momentary success; anyone without Christ is on the wrong side of history). We are counted among the redeemed, not because of who we are but because of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. We have a real and eternal hope and future, the only hope and future there is, my beloved. Is that not the best reason of all to throw a party??

As we head toward Pascha, the Great Easter Feast, let us therefore resolve to live as our Savior Christ commands us and to have the humility of our Lord, a humility that is the only antidote to self-righteousness, a humility based on the knowledge that without Christ and his saving Death, we are a people without a future and with no hope. Let us also use the remainder of Lent to do the things that will help us increase our faith, hope, and love in Christ’s power. Let us resolve to allow Christ rule to grow in our lives each day through prayer, fasting, self-examination, acts of mercy and charity, and repentance so that we may be ambassadors for Christ, engaging in the ministry of reconciliation with both humans and God, taking our cue from our crucified and risen Lord, so that those who do not know or believe in Christ may share in his brilliant hope and future. 

But let us also resolve to throw a fifty-day party starting on Easter Sunday. Now is the time to start planning for such a party. We should celebrate the power of the Gospel and plan activities that might cause the folks around us to ask why we are partying like we do, much like the naysayers asked Christ why he partied the way he did. There will be those who scoff at us and mock us. May God have mercy on them and forgive them their hard-heartedness. But there will be those who want to join the party with us, a party that celebrates both our lives here now and forever in God’s new world. Let us therefore resolve and plan how to honor Christ’s name during Eastertide and beyond and to celebrate with the host of heaven all that he has done for us to reconcile us to God the Father, to bring us from death to life for his love and mercy’s sake. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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