February 2, 2020
(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)
Advent has always been, hands down, my favorite season of the church year. The happiness, the joy of anticipation, the hope shining in a star, the birth of a child… it all adds a hopeful newness to my soul. In all honesty, it doesn’t hurt that there are brightly wrapped presents waiting at the end.
However, over the years our culture has skewed Christmas with the rabid consumerism and the made for TV specials that force us into a buying frenzy and nostalgia for that non-existent “perfect” Christmas.
Lent is quickly edging up on Advent. Having been in ministry for over 25 years, I see Lent, and especially Ash Wednesday, much different than I did in my younger days. Now, I will grant you it doesn’t bring anticipation; no one sets their DVR to record the Lenten Peanuts special. No church hosts a live-action Repentance Scene with actors in sackcloth and ashes. Lent is a time to remind ourselves of our brokenness.
That confuses our culture to no end. No one knows what to make of a day that celebrates our sinfulness and the fact that we will one day die.
Sin, what an antiquated word! Certainly, we have progressed beyond the religious authority that held souls captive in the middle ages. Sin… Today, if we admit we are sinners that must imply we have psychological damage that causes low self-esteem. That’s the argument many make; even a growing number of people coming from our seminaries. Still others equate sin with standards of behavior.
So one end of the church tells us that sin is an antiquated notion and we shouldn’t mention it so we can feel better about ourselves. And the other end tells us that sin is the same as immorality and entirely avoidable if you are a good Christian with a checklist of “dos and don’ts.”
If we boil sin down to low self-esteem or morality, it then becomes something we can limit or even control. Yet, the harsh reality is that I can’t free myself from the bondage of the self. I will always fight my innate disposition to save myself instead of giving myself away to God and others.
The Psalmist said God desires, indeed, delights in the truth. The truth is that we are sinful mortals!
Saint Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, described sin as “Incurvatus in se” – The Latin for “an inward curve to the self.” Not a turn, a subtle curve… Never abrupt, usually offering a good reason behind its fear. The curve tells us to worry about self-protection instead of self-giving.
That’s usually the challenge: In marriage, in parenting, in relationships, in spirituality, even psychologically: we fight the slow curve that turns inward. The curve tells us that life is about us, and we should so live.
In preparation for this sermon, I began to wonder why Joel says to return to God with all of our heart, rather than return to God with all our actions.
In Lent, we tend to focus on our behavior. However, to call us to return with all our hearts suggests that our hearts belong to other things besides God.
So if we think Lent is about giving things up so we can impress God maybe we should ask ourselves: which is harder – the fasting or the returning to God with all our hearts?
Spending too much time on Facebook or overeating sugar isn’t most of our sins. My problem…and maybe yours too, is that I piece out my heart to things that cannot love me back.
It’s possible to piece our hearts out to the love of false promises and self-indulgence. One theologian said; “the toxicity of ‘things’ seems to preserve the human heart like formaldehyde.”
For the next 40 days, we will journey through the desert of Lent. Deserts have a way of bringing about spiritual clarity… Thankfully we will walk this desert road of repentance with Jesus. Lent will offer us the opportunity to hack through self-delusion and false promises.
That difficult work is not a season of taking on self-denial – it’s a season of relinquishing control of our own lives.
That is why I have learned to embrace the beauty and the pain of Lent. It is during Lent that I can reflect on my hang-ups and heart-aches; my sins and fears… It is then I’m able to repent.
Repentance… The act of turning the curve outward. Repentance… the statement that he who gives up his life is the one who gains it.
As we begin the Lenten journey, be reminded that what matters is not what we give up, but what we choose to relinquish.
It was late November 1943. The U.S. Navy and Marines had spent three days attacking the Japanese stronghold of Betio in the South Pacific. It was a blood bath that came to be known as the Battle of Tarawa. More than a thousand sailors and marines died. Navy gunner Harry Starner was among the 3000 wounded. His injuries were deep, and he was losing blood rapidly.
Quickly medics surrounded him to give him a life-giving transfusion. Henry looked at the label on the plasma bag and saw something that changed his life and the lives of thousands of Americans: his name – he donated the blood while stateside several months before and now, on an island in the south Pacific received life from the lifeblood he gave up.
Those who wish to save their life must first repent by giving their lives up to God.