Lent is the time we prepare for Easter. It’s a time for prayer, introspection, self-examination, self-denial, repentance, confession, reconciliation, and amendment of life. And all of this is in service of being ready to celebrate the great and central fact and feast of our Christian faith: Easter, the Sunday of the Resurrection.
This has been the tone and the task of Lent since the early Middle Ages, and there is a great deal to commend it. After all, who among us is without sin? Who has not fallen short of the glory of God? Who does not stumble and trip – or at least stub their toe – on their own human frailty? We need this time and framework to clear out our hearts, and minds, and behavior, and press the re-set button on our faith.
But that is only one part of Lent. In the early years and centuries of the Church, the forty days before Easter were the home stretch for those who were preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil. For three years these adult converts learned “how to pray, how to listen to and learn from Scripture, how to care for the poor, the sick, and the orphans, how to care for and advocate for the needs of older people, and how to overcome addictive patterns in their lives, among other things”1 – the daily practices of being a Christian.
In the final six weeks, the worshiping community would embrace these converts, these catachumens, even more closely so that they could come to their baptisms ready to answer the questions of renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil; and turning to Christ as savior, trusting his grace and love, and promising to follow and obey him as Lord. In short, people were learning how to follow the Way of Jesus, a new Way of being in the world.
Those of us who are part of the Wednesday Bible study group have seen over and over again in our reading of the Book of Acts – the record of the earliest days of the Church – that Christians were first referred to as followers of the Way, that is, the Way of Jesus. And if you have been following along with those Acts readings in the Wednesday e-mails will have seen it, too.
The phrase reminds us that faith is not just about doctrine, or what we think, or our morality, but it’s about how we live, and move, and have our being in the world as followers of Jesus, as people whose lives have been touched and are in the process of being transformed by the Lord, as we become more and more fully-formed as his people. And that was God’s plan, right from the very beginning.
It is the story that the Bible as a whole tells, even though sometimes it seems round-about, full of fits and starts, with side journeys and back stories, with poetry, letters, history, legal writings, family chronicles, court records, vision literature, the social critique of the prophets, prayer, and worship instructions. The whole big story tells of how God made a good and beautiful creation, including men and women to be the stewards of creation; of how we got off-track by putting our will before God’s; of how time and again God called his people into a covenant relationship with him, even after we had failed and gone astray.
Until finally God came into human life in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, the One who had long been promised to inaugurate the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, in God’s realm. All that happened through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, who then gave the Holy Spirit to his followers so that we might be filled with the power to do God’s works, and to think and speak God’s thoughts and words after him, to be truly human as God had always intended when he made us the stewards of creation.
In the two generations after the resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost, Christian leaders reflected, prayed, and wrote about this new Way of being in the world, what it meant to be a Jesus person. And in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, we hear in highly dramatic and poetic language the vision of the world and its people flourishing according to God’s purposes.
We’ve dipped into the river of this big story in a number of places this morning. The first reading tells us of God’s purpose in calling Abraham – and all of us – to be on the journey of faith with him. That purpose is to be a blessing to the rest of the world, to be “for” others, to act as a conduit of God’s grace.
And we responded to the Genesis reading with Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” It’s a song of trust in God’s purpose, strength, and protection as we walk in his ways.
We began the service with the recitation of the Ten Commandments as we always do on this Second Sunday in Lent. They come from Exodus; that record of the Israelites being freed by God from slavery in Egypt and then led by Moses into the desert, to Mount Sinai, to enter into a covenant relationship with God, and to hear from him the pattern and the shape that covenant life would take – the Ten Commandments.
In the Letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul reflects on the nature of faith, grace, and promise in Abraham’s story, recognizing that faith and trust in God is the key component. All our efforts of trying to please, or impress, or cajole God to get in his good graces don’t work because the promise of God’s love for us can’t be bought or sold.
Finally, the story of Nicodemus the rabbi coming to Jesus, impressed by some of the signs he has done – healings, exorcisms, miracles. “You’re a teacher from God, right?”
“Well, Nicodemus,” Jesus says, “if you are only concerned about signs and miracles, you’ll never be able to participate in God’s reign; you need a spiritual awakening, a spiritual re-birth, to see what God is up to in this world. To share the life of God’s new age, to live a heaven-filled life, to have a life worth living now and for eternity, you need to know, to have a saving encounter with the Son of God.” It’s that encounter with Jesus that marks us out as his people, as those who follow in his way.
We need continually to be renewed in our practice of the Way, to draw deeply from the well of Scripture and prayer, to be fed and formed by our worship together, to go out into the world with the sign of the Cross upon our foreheads – an invisible tattoo that marks us as Christ’s own forever – ready to act as agents of blessing, healing, truth and goodness, God’s wise stewards of all that has been made. That is what we practice in Lent. That is what we prepare to celebrate at Easter: faith over fear, true worship over idolatry, life over death. That is the Way of Jesus, our Way of being in the world.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, you say to us:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife;
such a life as killeth death.
Let us follow where you lead,
and strengthen and equip us to be your people always. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2017
1from the United Methodist Church website article on Passion/Palm Sunday