**Note: this sermon was preached from notes, not a manuscript. It has been fleshed out slightly to post online.**
We have come to this most mysterious, counter-cultural season of all. Lent is bizarre. Other Christian seasons and celebrations make some sense. Christmas, non-churchy-folks get. Easter, well, it’s a bit confused with the Easter bunny, but it’s still held apart as a holiday. Even Advent is understandable; it’s a countdown to Christmas. But Lent makes no sense in our culture.
• It begins in dust and ashes… literally! Beth and I burned palm fronds yesterday… such looks of confusion from the passers-by! And such confusion at the coffee shop today when we showed up with black smears on our heads.
• With the ashes of the same palm fronds we used to proclaim hallelujah last year on Palm Sunday on the way to Jerusalem.
• It’s a time when the world watches Christians “give up things” for Lent, when people disappear mysteriously from social media and give up sweets (etc).
• And all of this is accompanied by some pretty soul-searching confession, which definitely is not in any sense normal in the world: why confess unless you’ve been caught???
But even for Christians, Lent is not always easy to understand.
• Why? Why Lent? After all, Easter does not depend on our actions: we don’t need to keep a holy Lent for Easter to come. Jesus died and rose again regardless of how much or how little we observe Lent. Why such an emphasis on fasting, prayer, penitence?
And why do we begin Lent in ashes, with profound confession?
After all, confession is hard:
• It’s becoming vulnerable
• It’s being seen for and admitting who we really are – no facade, no pretenses
• It’s admitting we don’t have it all together: that we’ve not only sinned in the past, and in a general way, but that we continue to sin in specific ways.
• “We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength”
• “We have been deaf to your call to serve as Christ served us.”
• “We confess…our unfaithfulness, pride, anger and envy, blindness to suffering and indifference to cruelty”
• I don’t know about you, but specific examples come to mind of how I have sinned in each of these ways.
This emphasis on confession is SO counter-cultural.
But it’s not just counter-cultural. It’s counter-sinful humanity.
Because we are confessing that we have, in fact, failed, each of us, at being human the way God created us to be.
And we learned early on to shift the blame.
– Adam pointing the finger at Eve, and Eve pointing the finger at the snake, and everyone we know pointing fingers at everyone else.
In Lent we pause and we point the finger at ourselves. We fall on our knees, and we admit, honestly, that we can’t do it on our own. That we need God’s grace.
The Times once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” and a brilliant, wise, insightful Christian author by the name of G. K. Chesterton responded simply,
Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
Lent, with its emphasis of confession and prayer, asks us to open our hearts to our brokenness, and Chesterton got it.
But friends, the point of Lent is not simply to see how low we can go, or because God in some perverse way wants to see us beaten down and grovelling. And it’s not about making ourselves holy: about fasting enough, or praying enough, or being penitential enough.
No – Lent is simply about making space so that we can experience more deeply the profound, incredible grace of God.
As I quoted in What’s Happening last week:
“The point about Lent is clear. All is a gift. Our Lenten disciplines do not earn us anything. At most we may break up the soil, or weed it a little, or pull out some rocks.
When all is done to break up the ground and prepare it to receive the seed,
the life that is given with the seed is a gift.” (Sarah Griffin)
There’s a sacred rhythm to the season:
• Ash Wednesday: we bare ourselves before God – clear the ground, as it were.
• through Lent and the Lenten disciplines: we are breaking up and preparing the soil for the seed that will be planted in the earth on Good Friday.
Lent is not about making ourselves holy. That’s an impossible task – we can never be penitent enough, or pray enough, or fast enough.
Lent is about having our hearts and eyes opened to seeing Jesus taking that finger of blame that we are pointing at each other and at ourselves, and pointing it at himself instead.
Paul writes in our epistle today this profound line: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus points the finger of blame at himself, so that we might go free.
So I bid you to open yourselves to the grace of God this Lent. Allow the disciplines of prayer, fasting, confession to prepare the soil of your lives for that seed of life to be planted. Allow these disciplines to turn for us the ashes into fertilizer for new life in Christ.
And with this in mind, we can hear the words from the prophet Joel with new hearts:
“Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?”
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent? We know!!
• We know that God turns and relents and leaves a blessing, because we experience that blessing in the ashes on our forehead, which are marked in the sign of a cross – the sign that we belong to God and nothing, not even the worst we can come to admit, can separate us from him.
• And we know that God turns and relents because Jesus was made into a blessing for us, a grain offering and a drink offering, the bread and the wine, poured out for us. We offer our sinful selves, our honesty and openness and brokenness, and he takes us gladly, as we are, and in return offers himself as a grain offering and a drink offering for us.
And so the author Tom Wright says this:
“Lent is a time for discipline, for confession, for honesty, not because God is mean or fault- finding or finger-pointing [at least not at us] but because he wants us to know the joy of being cleaned out, ready for all the good things he now has in store.”
Lent is a gift – a gift of time to experience the joy of being cleaned out, and ready for the good things God has in store for us.
So I invite you to confession, not from fear or anxiety, but in full faith, knowing that you are already forgiven in Christ and made new, and that he is longing to fill you with himself this Lenten season.
Thanks be to God for his indescribable grace.