Lent 1: Walking Through Lent (3/23/03)
Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
According to the church calendar, we are in the season of Lent. Actually, Lent began back on March 5, which was Ash Wednesday, and continues until Easter, which this year falls on April 20. Since we are not an especially liturgical congregation, we don’t worry about recognizing each of the six Sundays in Lent. The more liturgical and ceremonial churches, such as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, place a lot of emphasis on the seasons of the church year, and the more fundamental churches, such as Southern Baptist and Assembly of God, ignore the church seasons.
We fall somewhere in the middle. We don’t worry about following the church calendar, but we recognize there is some value in at least acknowledging the church seasons, and what they represent.
Lent is considered a time of reflection, repentance and preparation. I like Lent, because I tend to be a somewhat introspective person. For many, this is their least favorite church season. The whole point of Lent is for each of us to look inside ourselves, and in so doing recognize that we fall somewhat short of perfection. Easter, which is the time when we acknowledge that God loves us in spite of our imperfections, doesn’t have a lot of meaning if we haven’t admitted we’re not quite perfect beforehand.
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Lent can be a difficult subject to preach on, because there is a tendency for people to think that the preacher is talking specifically to them. And that’s because we all share common shortcomings. But when a minister stands in the pulpit and points out some particular shortcoming, we have to be careful not to look anybody in the eye, because they can take it personally. For example, say I am scan my eyes across the sanctuary as I say something like, “We’ve all looked at a member of the opposite sex with lust in our eyes.” If my eyes fall on a man when I say that, he might think I am insinuating he has a problem controlling his libido. If my eyes fall on a woman when I say that, she might think I am making a play for her. Lent is a very dangerous time of year for preachers, because from greed to lust to envy to pride, we all share certain human characteristics that we would just as soon not acknowledge.
And no matter what the subject, people hear sermons differently. This truth really came home for me when I was working on my doctoral project, sending videotaped sermons to different professors. When those professors reviewed a sermon, they reported back to me, explaining what they believed to be both the strong points and the weak points of each sermon.
The amazing thing was that these seasoned professors seldom agreed on what was good and what was bad. They heard the same sermon in completely different ways. For example, you may remember several months ago when I talked about a game my first grade class played with arithmetic flash cards. The idea was to beat your opponent to the answer to some simple math question, and make your way around the room, defeating student after student. I questioned whether or not Jesus would have been as proud as I was when I won, or as embarrassed as I was when I lost.
One professor, after hearing that sermon, pointed out that particular moment as the most powerful part of the sermon. He went on and on about the memories it triggered, and how my point was driven home perfectly by using that example. Another professor said he liked the sermon, but it had one very weak moment—the example of the flash card game. He said it was completely superfluous, and detracted from the flow of the sermon.
And something occurred to me. If these two seasoned professionals, who have spent their lives studying the art of preaching, heard the same sermon in entirely different ways, how many different ways are the two or three hundred people in the congregation going to hear a sermon?
Well, in spite of these hazards, I’m going to spend the next few weeks tiptoeing through the minefield of Lent. And if at any time you think I am talking directly to you, just get that notion out of your head. I have never yet said a single word from the pulpit with a particular person from the congregation in mind as I spoke it.
We all fall short of the glory of God, and when we’re comparing ourselves to Jesus, the gap between us and God starts looking very wide. I saw a comedian once talking about how difficult it would have been to be the brother of Jesus. Those of us with siblings know that there are inevitably times when comparisons are made between us and a brother or sister. You know—“Your brother never brought home a “C” in algebra”—that sort of thing. This comedian imagined Jesus’ brother coming home from school with a poor grade, and his mother saying, “Why can’t you be more like your brother, Jesus? He’s the Messiah.”
Well, the Lenten journey need not be a time of mental self-abuse. Even as we acknowledge our weaknesses as we head down this road toward the cross, it is good that we know how this story ends. It ends not with a misguided teacher being history’s most famous victim of capital punishment, but rather with the Spirit of the Risen Christ at work in the world, even two thousand years after the religious and political authorities tried in vain to destroy everything he stood for.
Over the next few weeks, our journey through Lent will take us through some of the most important parts of the Christian story. Next week we’ll consider how the early Christian Church, and perhaps Jesus himself, reinterpreted parts of the Old Testament, giving them new meanings in light of the life of Jesus. The following week we’ll look at what is called the “Farewell Discourse.” This is found only in the Gospel of John, and is Jesus’ long farewell to his disciples, containing such sayings as, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It is undoubtedly one of the most powerful passages in the Bible, and unfortunately, it is also the passage most often used by fundamentalists to bash people over the head with their narrow view of the faith.
And then, on Palm Sunday—the Sunday before Easter—we’ll look at both Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death. These are the last two chances Jesus had to run away from the fate that awaited him, and they are powerful moments in the Christian story. And then, on the Thursday evening before Easter, we will have a Maundy Thursday service. We did this last year, and the reaction to this service was very positive. It involves the seven last words of Christ from the cross, with seven candles being extinguished as each of his word are spoken, and the congregation quietly leaving the sanctuary in darkness.
And then comes Easter, when we move beyond Lent, and leave behind every part of us that falls short of the glory of God, knowing that life is a gift to be cherished, and that God loves us through every hour of joy and through every moment of despair.
To begin our walk through Lent, there is something we must acknowledge. Christians are called to look at the world a little differently than others. Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about Martin Luther’s wonderful insight that Christianity isn’t a profession. There is no difference between a person who serves as clergy and a person who sells shoes for a living. They are both priests of God. Every profession is a holy profession if it is carried out in a Christian manner.
We are called to see the world through the eyes of faith. Remember the times Jesus said to his disciples, “You have eyes but do not see; ears but do not hear.” He was asking them to look at the world in a different way, and make no mistake, the world does look different through the eyes of faith. Let’s return to that passage we heard read from the lectern this morning, from Mark’s gospel. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
What is all this talk of denying ourselves? That just doesn’t make sense. We’re taught from the time we’re old enough to be propped in front of the television that we’re not supposed to deny ourselves anything! Greed is good. Grab your piece of the pie. And what is all that nonsense about losing our life if we try to save it, and saving it if we lose it for the sake of the gospel? Huh? And to make matters worse, not only is this confusing, it is one of the very few sayings of Jesus that is found in all four gospels! Even the greatest skeptics agree that Jesus really said this.
My first inclination is to find this whole message a bit foolish. At first glance, it just doesn’t ring true to me. And then I remember the apostle Paul using that word—foolishness—about some part of the Christian message, and I dig through the Bible and find it in 1st Corinthians. Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Paul goes on to say that God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world.”
If nothing else, these passages—both of which are suggested readings for the season of Lent—are made to stop us in our tracks. It’s as if we’re happily skipping down the path of life, knowing God loves us, and feeling pretty good about how lucky we are and what great fortune we’ve been granted…and then we get a sucker punch right in the belly. The gospel throws up a roadblock and says, “You think you’re smart? What you call wisdom is foolishness to God. You think you understand power? You think that Caesar was powerful, that Alexander the Great was powerful, that Attila the Hun was powerful? Wrong! See that guy hanging from a cross crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is power. Now, grab your cross and follow him.
The cross. Really, it has lost a lot of its power in modern culture, because it is used as jewelry. And I have no problem with the cross being used as jewelry. It is a symbol of our faith, and I like to see people wearing crosses. But we shouldn’t forget that it represents a form of capital punishment. Maybe we should replace it with a little, gold-plated electric chair. That would get the point across. People would ask why in the world we were wearing electric chairs on the necklaces around our necks, and we would say, “Well, because people who take the faith I follow seriously are often hated for what they believe. We see the world differently. We look for reasons to forgive when others look for reasons to seek revenge. We look for ways to help the poorest of the poor, without judgment, while others call them lazy and say they are getting what they deserve. We seek ways to create peace when others seek reasons to fight wars. And people often hate us for it. They think we’re foolish. After all, who could take seriously a man who tells us to confront evil with love, to love everybody, to judge nobody, and to grab our electric chair and follow him.”
Okay, what do we do with this Lent thing? Obviously, we’ve got to come to some sort of grip on what the cross is all about. Because as we make our way through Lent, we can’t help but see the cross just over the horizon, waiting on us, calling to us, the words of Jesus hanging in the air two thousand years after he spoke them: Take up your cross and follow me.
This can be pretty daunting unless we remember that our personal crosses are considerably easier to bear than was the cross Jesus carried to Golgotha. In my first week of seminary, my Introduction to Theology professor said something that has stuck with me all these years, something from which I still take comfort. He looked out at all of us eager, inspired, first year seminarians and said, “Some of you are here thinking you can save the world. Well I have some news for you. That job has already been taken.”
That really is good news! The path that has been created for us does not end at the cross. In fact, our path begins at the cross. Because it is at the cross that we are given the eyes of faith. It is at the cross the we recognize as foolish the so-called wisdom of the world—the wisdom that tells us to have the biggest house and to drive the most expensive car and to in all ways and at all time look out for number one.
At the cross we see that life in this world is a momentary flash of light on the brink of eternity. At the cross we understand the message of Jesus, that it is in losing our life—the life of self-centered greed—that we gain real life—eternal life. At the cross we can anchor ourselves on the God who calls us into being. At the cross we can enter into a full relationship with our own eternal nature, leaving behind all that deserves to be left behind, and embracing the full power and glory of the gospel.
The cross has this power because the one who was hung from that cross was a reflection of God. Forget the thousands of theological ideas that try to explain how that is so. They honestly don’t matter. What matters is this. When the human reflection of God hung from that cross, he did not look down on us with judgment, he did not look down on us with anger, he did not look down on us at all. He said, in effect, “You can mock me, torture me, and kill me in the moist painful and humiliating way possible, and I still love you and forgive you.”
“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” It is in the hearing of those words that we realize that really is a reflection of God on that cross. And when we place ourselves in the presence of that cross through prayer, and when we open ourselves to the power of the love we see there, we are suddenly granted eyes to see, and ears to hear, and the world really does look different because we are given the eyes of faith. And the wisdom of the world does seem foolish.
Lent. We modern, liberal Protestants don’t spend much time at the cross. And that’s good, really. We are not meant to go through life that way. Jesus came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. It is with our new eyes of faith that we understand abundance. It has nothing to do with houses and cars and big bank accounts. And it has everything to do with…well, you know.