First Sunday in Lent
“I acknowledged my sin … then you for gave me.” The Psalms are a critically important part of our understanding of who we are as people of God. And yet they often get lost in the proverbial shuffle of readings and other things that happen during our time of worship. But, for 2,000 years, the Psalms have been an integral part of how we understand worship and how we worship. The Psalms existed, of course, long before the Christian tradition and were one way for Israel to communicate intimately with God. In Christian monastic tradition, communities may pray the Hours 5 to 7 times a day. Even if they are in a community that observes silence, they come together and, in the course of their worship, may pray all 150 Psalms over the course of a single week. Thereby, the Psalms became a part of their DNA, a part of their life, using them not merely as praise to God but as an acknowledgment that we are in continuing relationship with God.
Today I want us to look a little look more closely at what is sometimes a terribly difficult part of the Christian life. I want us to look a little bit at the reality of not only sin but simple separation from God, along with how the cleansing and healing power of God brings us back into relationship with Him. Learning the way back to God and the way forward can sometimes be hard and that is why the life and ministry of Jesus are such a vital part of understanding how we move in relationship with God.
So, let’s get this over with from the very beginning. There is this really difficult idea, one that we don’t like to talk or think much about, and that is the idea of sinfulness. The Psalmists were very keenly aware of how their behavior and the things that happened to them in their life, often caused them to feel separated from God; to feel the absence of God. Psalm 32 is a nearly perfect Psalm for the season of Lent. The Psalm begins “happy are those who is transgressions are forgiven, and who sin is put away.” This notion of God putting away our sins is a prevalent one in the prophetic vision, in the Psalm tradition, and in the New Testament witness, as well. Yes, the Psalms can seem all a little too familiar, even repetitive. They all have this cycle of petition: I am in a certain place and I need God’s help; where are you God? And then there is supplication, this idea that that I need God’s intervention, presence, and there may be some attendant complaining as well. Finally, the Psalmist acknowledges, as do most of them, that his/her pleas have been heard and there is deliverance at hand.
While Psalm 32 follows this same pattern, it speaks of separation from God as being tied to a specific thing. The cycle of avoidance or silence, for the Psalmist, is about confronting separation from God. Ultimately the Psalmist decides to stop concealing that separation from God because it’s impossible anyway; God always knows where we are. But the confession of transgressions - of how the behavior of the Psalmist has separated the Psalmist from God - that acknowledgment opens up the pathway to forgiveness and liberation. We have a general confession, during services, and if you were to look at our Ash Wednesday service, it is filled with the language of repentance. Psalm 51, which we all said together on Ash Wednesday, is a Psalm of lament, a Psalm where we acknowledge that we need the cleansing power of God to heal us in all the ways that we have become separated from Him; even by our own sinful behavior. But that is the sticky wicket isn’t it?
Why is the idea of sin such a hard thing for us in the progressive church tradition of which the Episcopal Church is a part? I think it’s because we have a tendency, along with every other church tradition “back in the day,” to use the idea of a person’s sinfulness as a weapon to bring them to church, to get them to pledge, to scare them into the fear of judgment, and thereby control them. We moved away from that tradition, certainly in the episcopal church, but perhaps we have lost something along the way. The notion of sin is not about judgment; it is about how we become separated from our awareness of the goodness, forgiveness, grace and mercy of God.
Psalm 32 helps us to understand that when we are able to see how we are living parts of our lives separate from God, we are then able to open those parts of our lives to God’s healing and presence; then we find mercy and blessing. In verse eight of Psalm 32, the Psalmist, having unconcealed his or her transgressions, says, “You are my hiding place: you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance,” there is an acknowledgment that when we name our separateness from God, we find strength, hope, and liberation that didn’t seem possible before. And this separation isn’t only about our choices which make it more difficult for us to see God’s providence in our lives; it is also about the things that happen to us. Addiction, mental illness, and regular old-fashioned sickness, despair, and loss can all overwhelm us and make it nearly impossible, if not impossible, to be in relationship with God.
The Lenten spirit of repentance, of turning back to God, is not only acknowledging how we have struggled to follow the path that God has called us on. Lent is also about how we have struggled to take the real-life challenges – those things that happened to us because we are human - and finding the courage, strength, and trust to offer all those things to God.
Yet, it’s important that we acknowledge how hard all of this is. One of our devotions this week addressed this very issue and was, in a way, an inspiration for this sermon. The title of this devotion is “feels like dying.” “I acknowledged my sin … and you forgave me” is how the devotion begins. The author talks about how opening up our lives to all of the ways that we have become separated from God, both through our own sinfulness and through the human challenges that we face in our lives, can feel like drowning. But it is only through our willingness, in an intentional way, to look with a clear-eyed view of where we are and who we are in the present time, in our relationship with God, that we open up the pathways to God‘s forgiveness and realizing the great, wonderful, and powerful benefits of God‘s merciful and unending grace and love.
Matthew’s gospel, the Temptation of Jesus, shows us how clearly Jesus looks at his pathway and his life journey to God. He has three Temptations in this passage. And we know them fairly well. Jesus is offered bread which is not a bad thing when you haven’t eaten in 40 days and there would be nothing wrong with Jesus accepting bread. But the point isn’t the bread but how it is offered. The connection to us is: how do we allow comforts, not necessities which is what Jesus is dealing with, but the creature comforts of life to potentially move us down a different path than God would have us on. And then Jesus is tempted, finally, with fame and recognition. Throw yourself off the temple and the Legion of angels come and save you, Satan says, and you will have tons of followers. Everyone will know you are the son of God. And in the final challenge is Jesus being offered, essentially, everything. He is offered wealth and power beyond anything anybody could ever hope or dream of. The only catch is he has to be disobedient to God. The only catch is He must follow a different path than the one God calls him on. The only catch is he would be forced to claim an idol that is the world and has nothing to do with the goodness and blessing of God. Each of these temptations Jesus counters with a passage from scripture and makes it clear what he is going to choose. Jesus always chooses, with stunning clarity, the pathway that God would have him on.
No, we are not Jesus of course but, thanks be to God, we are not intended to be. We are Jesus’ disciples, fumbling around in the dark, trying to find our way; sometimes without much light. The season of Lent invites the light of God in Christ more fully into our lives. Imagine that our challenges and struggles were little shards of darkness. And all of those shards of darkness make life obscured and cloudy stained glass through which it becomes difficult, often impossible, to see, reach out, and experience the grace and goodness of God. When we muster the courage, however, to name the darkness, we begin to erode its power. We are not called, in this holy Season, to wallow in our sinfulness; that we are broken human beings. Part of the process of repentance is acknowledging where in our lives we are struggling to see God. We are invited, by God, to look more closely and more clearly at where we are. Our sinfulness, our brokenness, and our real-life struggles shape us but they need not define us.
What God asks of us is that we allow his narrative to define us and move us forward into life, walking more closely along the path of love, liberation, and awareness that he desires for us. We are beloved children of God. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes things get in the way. Lent is a God-given time for us to more closely, soberly, and hopefully pray about where there may be places we can move more specifically, in our lives, toward God. It takes courage and trust and dropping our guard to look, without flinching, at where we are now. But it’s only through a growing trust in God, even if it brand new to us, that we can ultimately know God more fully and, thereby, reap the benefits of His great mercy, love, strength, and health that are already clearly laid out before us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Take courage.