Grace Episcopal Church
The First Sunday in Lent (A)
Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7 Psalm 32 Romans 5.12-19 Matthew 4.1-11
May the Lord be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart, that
I may rightly and truly proclaim His holy Word. Amen.
“While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, … Then I acknowledged my sin to you …” (Ps. 32.3, 5). And how does the psalm end? With the imperative, “… shout for joy, all who are true of heart” (v. 12). That, in a nutshell, is what Lent is about. My sermon today, therefore, is a little bit redundant, and as for the rest of the season—well I guess we’ll just watch cute kitten videos.
Now, before you think I’m being flip in joking about kitten videos, consider that what the world around us counsels whenever we question ourselves is that we can reject the questioning in distraction. We’re bombarded with media, entertainment, stuff to buy, which makes an interesting parallel to Satan offering Jesus the splendor of the world—“all these”. And “all these” may, in fact, not be evil or harmful. There’s nothing wrong with watching cute kittens. There’s nothing wrong with bread, which Satan also offers Jesus. But if we ever allow the good things in this world (let alone the distractions) to allure us from our relationship with God, then we’ll find that it becomes easy to hold our tongues. It becomes easy to not engage in self-examination. It becomes easy to not give voice to our hopes, fears, failures and joys to God, and we become a dry bag of bones that eventually no longer can give voice to our hopes, failures and joys to God. We wither.
What does this withering process look like? I suggest to you that our approach to Lent provides a mirror in which is reflected either withering or joy, either an approach in which (because in Lent we increase our emphasis on repentance) I begin to feel that there is something wrong with myself, or one in which, in turning, I experience how I grow closer to God.
St. Paul famously instructs that in Jesus Christ’s righteousness all are given justification, life, salvation. All we have to do is accept the free gift, and we accept this gift through our faith in Jesus Christ. The biggest hurdle those who are withering face is to realize, to experience God’s love. If you are ever tempted to think of yourself as unworthy, Lent is a time to realize how we can turn to God, how God will make us worthy, that we might “shout for joy”.
God takes delight in you. He loves you. When He looks upon you what He sees is the image and likeness of God, in which you were created. He sees you as having such infinite worth to Him that His only Son was given for you. Jesus did not just die on the cross for whichever saint you might now think of, whichever person we can look to as an example of holiness. He died for the worst person you can imagine, and you are very far from being that person. Every one of us can participate in salvation, in the justification and life of which Paul writes; by turning to God, by saying “yes” to His offer. When we do so we can then take comfort in how God deals with anything in our lives that is not holy. In the words of Ps. 103.12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.”
Lent is not about guilt; it is not about shame. Lent is about turning to God. To turn I must recognize a need to turn, but I must never be hindered in turning through any estimation of my own worthiness. God has deemed me worthy of salvation. He has deemed you worthy of salvation. He has given the infinite sacrifice of His own Son as the worth of this salvation. That’s why the psalmist recites that we are to “be glad … and rejoice in the Lord”. That’s why we are to shout for joy. We have been deemed righteous, and can shout, in our identity in Jesus Christ, and Lent is about how in turning to God we come closer to Him; how we come to experience God’s delight in each one of us.
I’m going to switch gears here, a bit, and do something that might strike you as unusual for the first Sunday in Lent—the Sunday on which we began our service of worship with The Great Litany. I want to hark back to verses we generally hear sung during Advent. [singing, from the Henry Purcell setting] “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say rejoice.” That’s right, rejoice, just as the psalm today tells us to rejoice and shout for joy. Let your observance of a holy Lent be a joyful process, an experience of God’s mercy. We can rejoice even in singing The Great Litany, for when we pray that God have mercy, and when we pray that God deliver us, we offer grateful hearts that are confident of this mercy; hearts that abide in God’s strength; hearts which in seeking God always find that He has sought us first, and that He tells us in all things “You are loved. You are my beloved child. I take delight in you, for I know you as I have made you, and as I remake you each day when you turn to me.”
The verse I quoted from Psalm 103 is one of my favorite verses in all of the Bible. But allow me to add another psalm in our tour today of God’s mercy to and delight in all who turn to Him. The verses I have in mind are in Ps. 139. The psalmist begins by reciting how God has searched for and found his child, and how God is present in all places. The psalmist continues, thanking God “… because I am marvelously made,” “knit together” by God (vv. 13 and 12). But in the midst of this cry to God we find the verses (10—11) in which we read: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night,’ / Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, …” In other words, it is when I stop and pay attention that I begin to appreciate God in all places, at all times. God’s light fills all darkness when I turn to Him, and Lent allows me to develop a spiritual “muscle memory” in turning; to begin to rejoice in how in turning I find always that God is present to me.
Notice what happens in our gospel lesson. Jesus never argues with Satan. He knows that God’s light fills the darkness of temptation, and that in doing God’s will He need never argue. Jesus knows what temptation is. He knows the feeling that rises when He is hungry and offered bread, but in each case He replies to the devil by quoting Scripture; by quoting Scripture which describes God’s will. In other words, Jesus addresses temptation by identifying the difference between what is offered or desired and what God wills. He addresses temptation by living in the light of God’s will, to say “Away with you, Satan!”
When we live in the light of God’s will we say “Away with you, Satan!” to the temptations in which the devil whispers to us that we are not worthy. We rejoice. Last Fall I had a church bulletin left on my desk. The prayer at the fraction—right before we receive communion—includes the words “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” These words were circled in the bulletin, with large letters written beside them “I am worthy!” I was not sure, on seeing this, how to react. Was this someone buying into the culture in which there is an expectation that if I am not “affirmed” there’s something wrong? But then I thought both about the prayer and about the anonymous comment. In the prayer we recognize that God makes us worthy, that God “say[s] the word”. We recognize that God takes mercy; that God delights in each of His children. In other words, in saying “ I am not worthy to receive you” I recognize that absent God having made me, absent God delighting in me, absent His light shining in the darkness, any worthiness of mine amounts to no more than what I can do; and that is very little. But when I turn to God I participate in the worthiness that He gives, that His Son has won for all who turn to Him. My bones wither no longer. I acknowledge my need for and love of God, that I might shout for joy; that I might “rejoice in the Lord alway”; that I might experience God’s delight in me. Thanks be to God! Indeed.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
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