A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018
The Epistle, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 4:1-11
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
Lent is the central chapter in the story of the Christian year. Easter lies out in the horizon as the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams—the fullness of life in the body in God’s New Creation. Lent teaches us that we can only get to Easter through the cross. This is why Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. To save the world he must say not to it and its promises; he must die to it and for it. This is where the gospel confronts our world. Most people want Easter; most people want to be set free from the effects of sin and the reality of death. Most people want to live in a world full of health and peace. That is why our world is full of activism and agitation. Everyone has a plan for how to fix what is wrong in the world. But these plans try to get to Easter without the cross.
Jesus did not join any of the movements of his day; movements that planned to save the world by politics, revolt, or religion. He did not side with the Sadducees, who wanted to maintain their power, rooted in the control of the temple, by maintaining rapprochement with the Roman authorities. He did not become a zealot, advocating armed rebellion. He did not become a Pharisee, who believed that if Israel would only obey the Torah and the tradition, God would save the nation. Jesus saved the world by dying to it and for it.
II. Dying with Christ.
Jesus invites us to participate in his work of salvation by dying with him. This is the meaning of our baptism. As Romans says:
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).
The Christian life is a continual growth into our baptismal identity; a continual dying to the world and for the world. Baptism confronts us with the unavoidable truth that we cannot rise to newness of life unless we die first. Lent is a season of growth in to our baptismal identity. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24).
Death sounds pessimistic because it emphasizes only part of the truth. What Lent really teaches us is that when we unite our sufferings and our death with cross, they will result in resurrection. This is good news. For we will suffer and die anyway; apart from Christ that pain will be fruitless. But everything we offer to God through the cross will rise with Christ on Easter. Thus, as 1 Corinthians says,
We do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
III. What is means to try to reach Easter without the cross
What does it mean to try to reach Easter by skipping the cross? To skip the cross means to try to solve the problems of the world while avoiding the reality of sin that is in all human hearts. The temptation of the world and its activism is to locate the problem “out there” somewhere. If we can fix the external problem in the system, or get our people in charge of the government, or cure all disease, then we can build paradise—or the Tower of Babel.
When Jesus calls us to follow him, he calls us to die to the world and for the world with him. This means we must face a hard truth. The problem is not out there somewhere; the problem is in each of our hearts. If I want to change the world, I must begin by changing me. Or, more accurately, I must begin by becoming what Christ has made me to be through baptism and faith.
The only hope for this world is Christ, who saved the world through the cross. There is nothing in this world that can be saved except through its participation in the cross; nothing gets to the Easter except by way of Good Friday. Thus, the only thing I can offer to the world is my participation in the cross; my dying to the world and for the world with Christ. We are witness for Christ and for the life he has given us. When the world sees us, does it see Christ in us?
IV. Lent is an interior pilgrimage.
Lent forces us to look within ourselves. The cross does not allow us to blame people and circumstances out there. The cross is a mirror into our own hearts. When we look at Jesus on the cross, dying for us and for the sins of everyone, everywhere, and always, we see our own selfishness. We see our own pride, anger, greed, covetousness, gluttony, lust, and sloth. The cross moves us to humility and confession. We experience grace, the forgiveness of our sins and the power to live in a new way. In this grace of forgiveness, we find the power to forgive others. This means the power to stop blaming them for everything that is wrong with our lives and the world. Grace sets us free from captivity to sins—both our own and the sins of others.
It is only as we grow into Christ through the cross that we have anything to offer to the world. Christ is the savior of the world, and it is only as witnesses to his life, his grace, and his power to conquer sin that we can lead people into Easter, into God’s New Creation. Thus, the focus of Lent must be our own hearts.
Lent is not merely about giving things up. Lent is about entering more fully into our union with the cross so that that we may enter more fully into the power of Jesus’ resurrection. As St. Paul says, “Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10).
So, let us fast and pray, but let us also ask the larger questions. Are you taking responsibility for your role in the disorder of your life and the world? Are you ready to make a good confession? As Jesus said to the man by the pool of Bethesda, do you want to get well? Whom do you need to forgive? Against whom do you hold a deep grudge? Are you ready to let go of your right of retribution and your need for anything to be different than it is so that you may enter into Easter through the cross? Or do you want to continue to fight your old, losing battle? What deep pain in your past do you need to face and grieve through? Is Christ the foundation for your life—the thing around which your life is ordered? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind? Until you do you, until you begin to open your heart to God, you will never love your neighbor as yourself. With whom do you need to reconcile? Blessed are the peacemakers. These are questions that require a season. Lent is a season of opportunity to ask them and answer them in new ways. As St. Paul said in our epistle:
We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, And in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.