or Psalm 119:9-16
We are in the deep end of Lent now, the far side of the wilderness. The forty-day path of prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy, is drawing ever closer to the cross. It’s like the last few miles of a marathon; the last set of finals before the end of term; the last month of a pregnancy; all yearning and aching to end well but not quite there yet. Too far to go back, and so we continue to strain forward. There are so many ways that life in the world in general these days has been like a long journey. You would be forgiven for feeling a little or even very weary. But, take heart, because there is hope on the horizon although, it may not be readily apparent.
The Jesus whom we encounter in this 12th Chapter of John has also set his face toward Jerusalem and the completion of the race marked out for him. In fact, Jesus is more aware of this unravelling than most. When Philip and Andrew go to tell Jesus about a whole new group of people that want to see him you can feel a sense of eagerness and enthusiasm at beginning to know Jesus. His fame is spreading. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!”
Oh, but glory looks different than fame and notoriety, which is why Jesus immediately begins to explain what it means for him to be glorified. It’s like a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies so that it may bear much fruit. Without descent and death, there can be no new life. Without transformation and conversion, it’s just a lone grain of wheat, small and ineffectual. Without being broken open, it remains closed and unto itself.
Cognitively we know that seeds produce plants. But, it’s a hidden process that takes place in the darkness of soil and isn’t immediately apparent to the eye. Planting a seed in the hope of new growth takes trust and patience. Experienced gardeners and farmers grow in that trust but planting is never without risk. What if the seed doesn’t grow? What if something goes wrong and it’s all for naught? That waiting in the dark can be terrifying when a crop is badly needed.
These days of sowing the seeds of renunciation and penitence can feel exhausting when spiritual fruit is hard to see and only the darkness, fear, and pain of death are near. Our rule of life describes the nature of this kind dying, “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations, and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death. Through them we practice the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying to us.” (Ch. 48, Holy Death)
At this point in our Lenten journey, Christ points to a glimpse of the glory we await because seeing is part and parcel of God’s glory. The root words in Greek and Hebrew that are ascribed to God both take on the meaning of visible splendor, power on display. Glory is outward. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God and displays God’s power in his life. The death he was willing to die, like a grain of wheat falling to the earth, has produced great fruit for us to see.
I can still recall the wonder of the childhood experiments where we would place little beans against the side of a clear plastic cup lined with just some wet paper towel. It seemed like overnight we would come back to find that the outer casing had cracked open and little shoots were coming out, top and bottom. Before long, that original little bean was hardly recognizable as the plant grew right before our eyes. It was quick and gratifying to young attention spans and it gave me the visual confirmation of the process that typically goes on in secret in the soil. I could see with my own eyes how the death of that seed produced new life.
But the stakes are higher with a human life. The fear and uncertainty of death are magnified. And they get personal when Jesus tells us to follow him into a death like his. Thanks be to God, Jesus was willing to feel this, and to make it evident. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
Faced with death, and the ignominious death of the cross, Jesus goes to great lengths to encourage us along. “Father, glorify your name.” Show them what I have seen! And like, thunder the voice replies, I have glorified it and I will glorify it again. The signs and wonders of Jesus were all God’s visible splendor. The work of the cross is God’s power on display. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”
Christ was lifted up in his obedience to the Father as the letter to the Hebrews says. His obedience and submission to the Father has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. As Jesus calls us to follow him, to serve him, to lose our life like him, we are inexorably drawn to him like a strong magnet. Pulled inwardly to remain with him.
And we have seen this glory.
Who in your life has drawn you to Jesus?
Can you see them? Name them?
Do they know what fruit has been born of their dying to self?
They may not know it just as we may not know who is being drawn to Christ because of us.
The good news is that is has happened, it is happening, and it shall happen.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Take heart, dearly beloved of God. The path we walk with Christ will lead us all the way to through death until our baptism is complete. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain” Unless we lose our life in this world we cannot keep it to everlasting life. Unless the bread is broken it cannot be given. Bind yourself to Christ in his passion. Pray for the consolations of Christ in this home stretch of our pilgrimage. Be nourished by the prayer, Anima Christi, in poetic translation by John Henry Newman:
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne’er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love,
World without end.
Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20
Psalm 50:7-15, 22-24
Much of the snow here melted last week, changing our perspective. The grounds and gardens came back into view. As soon as the river thawed, rowers went back out in their sculls. We see what was hidden: water, plants, and paths along with trash and twigs. Lent invites revealing, attending to what has been hidden, and reordering our lives. It may include gathering the trash and raking up the twigs within our souls, what we can see is out of place.
God says through the prophet Isaiah in tonight’s scripture: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. … Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove evil … cease to do evil.” It is more than lawns or riverbanks and more than simply tidying up. Wash yourself from evil. From denying goodness in each other. From denying goodness in ourselves and in the world. From all our little to large words and actions and inaction—including allowing others and systems to act on our behalf—all that degrades, oppresses, shames, and enslaves.[i]
Particularly in Lent, we are called to realize, name, and turn from our sin. As we will sing: “Lenten gifts invite us, searching deep within, claiming our desires, naming all our sin.”[ii] Not in order to beat ourselves up. Not because God wants revenge. Rather, surrender by acknowledging our need and receive grace. God comes wanting to save.
Again?! More?! More giving up, letting go, and self-denial, more awareness of need and sin, more repentance and vulnerability? Do we really need more Lent? The past year feels like a long Lent with so much loss and grief, and it is as if we are still waiting for Easter. Now more Lenten wilderness again? Let us keep praying with the psalmist “How long, O Lord?”[i] Scripture both gives voice to our lament and reminds us of our story.
Back near the beginning, in the Book of Genesis, seeing evil pervasive throughout the world, God sent a flood. God also chose to save through the ark. Afterward, God gave a promise: I will never destroy like this again. I choose you and all living creatures forever. The flood is not as surprising to me now as it once was because I have experienced more of the prevailing evil. I see the wrong not simply in others as it is easy to point out, but that which is in myself. I mess up so much over and over again in thought and action, opposing God, not loving my neighbor, nor loving myself. The flood reminds that we all sin and fall short.
Notice God’s promise to Noah. It’s one-sided. There is no requirement for how Noah or humanity must behave. It’s all up to God. Just after this passage, Noah gets drunk and is ashamed. In the Bible, we hear stories of human folly again and again. The characters cheat, steal, fight, conspire, sleep around, murder, and all the other things that, if we are honest, resonate with our desires and actions. From the flood and throughout, scripture reminds us we all need salvation.
One question sometimes asked about Jesus, concerns his own self-understanding. How did he understand who he was, and the purpose of his mission? We get a glimpse of his answer today. ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
It was as physician, healer, restorer, forgiver, saviour that Jesus, at least here in Matthew, saw himself. Such an understanding should not surprise us. In the opening chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the angel tells Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
It is in that context, Jesus as saviour, that the rest of Matthew’s gospel unfolds.
The thing about a saviour is that, just as we don’t need a doctor if we are unaware of our illness, we don’t need a saviour, if we are unaware of our need for salvation. And that for me is the key, to Scripture; to Lent; even to myself.
All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers shared their memories of him, trying to make sense of what he had predicted. That is often the case as we look back on life, the “ah-hah” experience that comes when we remember and understand someone or something from a new perspective: “Oh, I get it. That’s what he meant when he said such-and-such.” “Oh, that’s what was going on then. I can see it now.”
- Jesus had earlier predicted that when he arrived in Jerusalem he would be killed, not crowned. Most of his followers had not understood him at the time.
- That after his crucifixion he would regain life, be resurrected. When they first heard it, most of his followers had missed what he was saying.
- That he would then return to his “father” – he would leave them, but not leave them without comfort or power. God’s Spirit would come to be with them. When they first heard it, most of his followers could not make sense of that.
- That his followers would take up their own cross and suffer. They had not missed that, because of what had been happening for decades. The Roman Empire had found Jesus’ followers seditious and treasonous; they were like sheep to be slaughtered.[i]
Our first lesson, from Saint Peter’s second letter to the church, was written around year 65, more than a generation after Jesus had finally left them, had ascended. One last promise that Jesus had spoken, his followers clung to: that he would return to earth, that he would come again in their lifetime, so they understood.[ii] They had lived with that hope. But Jesus’ return had not happened, and there was every imaginable explanation why. Peter is writing here about the meantime, in a very mean time, how then shall we live in the absence of Jesus’ return? “What sort of persons ought we to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?” He answers his own question. Peter’s words still pertain.
- Peter writes that we are waiting on the Lord, but it’s actually the Lord waiting on them.” Why? For our repentance: to realign ourselves to life on Jesus’ terms and to change our ways: to repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.
- And then Peter calls his readers to “lead lives of holiness and godliness, at peace,” he says, “without spot or blemish… and not carried away, such we they lose their own stability.”
Lent is upon us tomorrow. The forty days of Lent remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. For Jesus, those forty days were not a time when he would confront the misaligned political and economic powers that surrounded him, about which he was well apprised. Rather, those forty days were a time to re-align himself to why God had given him life: to claim the right purpose, the right power, the right voice God had given him. There he was in the desert to be purged of anything in the world that tempted him to stray from his reason for being.
And for us, Lent will give us forty days for the purgation of our own souls, where we may have colluded with the very powers we condemn. The focus of Lent can create space anew for the light, and life, and love to Jesus to teem in us and through us to our desperately broken world. Lent is to help us.
[i] Romans 8:36.
[ii] See Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32. See also Acts 1:11.
Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scripture bids us fast; the Church says, now:
It is a poem I return to each Lent, because that first phrase turns everything upside down for me. I need to be reminded that Lent is not a time of misery, but of joy and delight. It is the springtime of the Church, and holds within it the promise of new life, similar to what we see emerging all around us, at this time of year.
Like any gardener anxiously eyeing the weather, and scouring seed catalogues, waiting, waiting, waiting, to begin the hard work of preparing the garden for another season, we turn our eyes inward, and begin the hard work of preparation, so that like Mary Magdalene, we too can encounter the Risen Lord in the garden of our souls.
Though her eyes were filled with tears, and at first unable to see clearly, Mary, like Herbert, was richly rewarded.
Who goeth in the way which Christ has gone,
That travelleth byways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.
We begin Lent today in this way: kneeling, with ashes on our foreheads, and reminded of our sins. This is not in order to make us feel guilty and miserable, but in order to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, and hands, to the mystery of love, and the One who is Love. With eyes and hands open, we may find God taking us by the hand, and leading us the rest of the way. When that happens we, and all God’s people, will discover the fast which God chooses:
Is not this the fast that I choose: [says God]
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Lent is not a time to be miserable. It is a time to feast on the mercy, love, and justice of God. And that feast begins, kneeling in the garden of our souls.
 George Herbert (1593 – 1633), priest and poet
 Herbert, George, Lent as found in George Herbert, The Country Parson, The Temple, The Classics of Western Spirituality, edited by John Wall, Paulist Press, New York, 1981, page 204
 Isaiah 58: 6 – 7
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 16:19-31
Our first reading today is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Over time, Jeremiah has garnered for himself the nickname, “The Weeping Prophet.” He’s earned it. Called to be a prophet at an early age, he is initially reluctant, but trusts in God, and diligently urges his people toward repentance. They don’t listen, and respond with dismissiveness, hostility, and violence. As such, the disaster Jeremiah has been foretelling comes true; the armies of Babylon come and overthrow the houses of Israel and Judah. Jerusalem is captured, and the Temple is destroyed. Jeremiah is cast into exile in Egypt, where he dies, estranged from his homeland and his people. He can do nothing but lament; he has no other option but to weep in the desert.
When Jeremiah tells us, then, that the one who trusts in God shall be like a tree planted by water, unafraid of the drought, still producing fruit, it is reasonable to ask, “Where is Jeremiah’s river? Where is his fruit?” His life appears to be a drought, from start to finish. Does Jeremiah condemn or contradict himself? Where are the waters to cool his scorched tongue?
It is further reasonable to ask this about ourselves. When we are in seasons of drought, when we are striving our hardest to live in faithfulness to God rather than to the flesh, it makes sense to say, “I feel like I’m withering; where is my fruit? I feel like I’m in the desert; where is my river? I’m a poor beggar and sore all over; where is the refreshing water to cool my tongue?” Indeed, it can be difficult to offer any prayer at all in this state of mind. When the tongue is dry, when the lips are cracked, it is a great, even painful effort to speak. We may feel we are living in the poverty of Lazarus, and yet receiving the treatment of the rich man, begging for a cool drink. Not only the mouth, but the soul itself may be parched. In the desert of Lent, we are especially prone to this drought. How, then, can we pray?
Here, Jeremiah’s story is instructive. The lament, the weeping, the tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment. These tears are rain to the thirsty land, the wellspring of the river of life in the midst of the desert, the water that soothes the dry mouth and the tormented soul.
“Jesus wept” is the most iconic depiction of the tears of grief leading to life; Christ’s tears both show his human sorrow and foreshadow the abundance of life that will literally burst forth from the earth at the resurrection of Lazarus. Hagar’s tears in the wilderness after she and her son had run out of water are met with God revealing a well. Writing around the year 600, the monastic saint John Climacus wrote in his Ladder of Divine Ascent that, “Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears…If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find. Groans and sadness cry out to the Lord, trembling tears intercede for us, and the tears, shed out of all-holy love show that our prayer has been accepted.” St. Symeon the New Theologian, another monk, writing at the end of the 10th century, argued that holy weeping is a recurring gift of immersion in the waters of baptism, cleansing us and giving us life whenever we are bathed in our tears. Tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment; they are a sign of repentance, a sign of sorrow for the world, a sign of awe, a sign of love. They are the waters within, just waiting to course through the desert when words are too much and not enough.
We are in Lent. It is the season of the drought. We can look around and see plentiful sorrow, and we may be unable to fix it. We may find no words, no actions, are sufficient to dress the wounds of the world. So, take heart; do not shun your tears. Do not be ashamed or afraid or dismissive of weeping, for when the heat of the desert seeps into our bones, tears can be living water.
What do you usually think about as we begin the season of Lent? Discipline? Penitence? Fasting?
Lent is usually thought of as a season of discipline. The other three words, Austerity, Penitence, Fasting, are important for the full development of Discipline. It is more than any one of those. Lent is a season for Spiritual Formation. Lent is a time for us to let the Holy Spirit form in each of us the image both of a child of God and of a good servant of God.
The 1st lesson read today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah gives some contrasts between wrong ideas about fasting and positive ways in which we can use fasting as a way of doing something good for those who are in need.
The autumn of my 4th grade year I had the sudden desire, much to the surprise of my parents, to play football. I say my parents were surprised because I had never even shown the slightest interest in watching a football game much less playing football. Maybe it had more to do with the fact that my friends were not around to hang out with after to school because they were at football practice, after which they’d come home to eat supper with their families before doing their studies and going to bed. Whatever the reason, I remember begging my folks to let me play, even against their counsel. Finally, my Dad said to me, “If we let you play, you’re in until the banquet at the end of the season.” I was overjoyed and after I had agreed to the stipulation, we were off to pay the fee, get weighed in, and get my football pads.
Now, it only took one practice of getting hit and knocked into the dirt for me to appreciate my parents’ wisdom, and I came home and told them as much. My father graciously thanked me before reiterating, to my dismay, that I would play Center for the East Pee Wee football team until the banquet. Even a trip to the ER to treat a laceration to the elbow which required stitches did not change his mind. The solution: elbow pads. I played through the season and you may be surprised to know that I did not get MVP nor most improved; just a participation trophy and a scar on my elbow. This story came to mind when praying with our lesson from Ecclesiasticus: My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing. Set you hear right and be steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of calamity. Cling to him and do not depart, so that your last days may be prosperous. Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.