Monthly Archives: March 2012

Fifth Sunday of Lent

OT: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Epistle: Hebrews 5:5-10

Gospel: John 12:20-33

The new covenant promised by God through the prophet Jeremiah is coming through Jesus Christ. Jeremiah says it will be a new covenant, not like the old. It seems from what he says that the new feature is our inability to break it. God’s commitment to us in the new covenant is unconditional. He loves us so much he sends his only begotten son to offer a perfect sacrifice for our sins.

We hear in the letter to the Hebrews that the Son’s suffering perfected the offering. The sacrifice was perfect because redemption came through one who obeyed even to acceptance of a terrible death he did not deserve. Truly, there is nothing we can do to work our way into Heaven. Only God’s love is sufficient to the task. His love is so great it overwhelms our ingrained patterns of sin and disobedience. His obedience redeems our disobedience.

In his discourse during the Last Supper, Jesus said that he knew what was coming. He opened briefly to us the mystery of how his two natures exist in one Person. In his human nature, Jesus was like us in every way except sin. In his divine nature, Jesus is eternal and omniscient. On the night before he suffered, Jesus admitted he was troubled. What man would not be troubled as he anticipated the events of Good Friday? Beyond the awful physical abuse — the loss of sleep traveling from official to official all night, the beating, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, nails in his arms and feet — there was the injustice of it all. He was the one Good Man there, yet he would be beaten and killed as one having committed the worst crimes. Luke tells us his agony was so great he sweat blood, that the physical stress was so great capillaries broke and mixed his blood with his sweat. The flow of blood and water from his side mark both the beginning and the end of his Passion.

Jesus admits his suffering, but he knows he must do it. He says, “but it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.” Only his divine nature could know what that really meant. In his divine wisdom, Jesus knew the Fall of Man, God’s repeated embrace of his people, and our repeated rejection of his embrace. Jeremiah was one of those holy messengers sent from God to save his people, to tell his people to turn around and walk toward him. The people of God rejected Jeremiah, as they rejected all God’s messengers. Finally, the world rejected God through the Crucifixion. But God never rejected the people of God. He retained his claim on us, extending his claim to anyone who turned to him. Only a remnant remained at the foot of the Cross, but his sacrifice was so perfect it made sense and opened the eyes of disciples as they walked the road to Emmaus, and it opened their mouths as they preached at Pentecost.  It opens our hearts even today.

Jesus illuminates in his discourse the root of the problem as he explains the power of his anticipated sacrifice: “the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Satan rules this world. He whispered lies to us — Adam stands for every man that came after him — and we chose to believe those lies. Death and destruction entered into the world as a result of our choice. God’s messengers came to call us back, but Satan rules this world. The pull of evil was too strong, and God’s people refused to listen.

In Jesus’ offering of himself — both priest and sacrifice, as Hebrews tells us — was the perfect oblation. Satan, the father of lies, could not see Truth because he had lived in lies so long his eyes were darkened beyond all hope. He had lived in despair so long, he could not see Love. Love offered itself and the offering was sufficient: Love triumphed over Death. Communion with God triumphed over alienation from God.

In his image of the necessity of the wheat to die so as to yield a rich harvest, Jesus is calling us to do more than just open our hearts. He is calling us to see the nobility, the mercy, and the righteousness of the sacrificial life. When I deny myself the desires of this world for the glory of God, I participate in some small way in the Way of the Cross. Perhaps he will not ask me to give up my life as he gave up his: brutalized by a bureaucratic machine marching to the Devil’s drumbeat. Perhaps he will only ask me to give up some small pleasure I pursue when nobody is looking, the kind of thing that I might be tempted to tell myself brings no harm to anyone. The acts of self denial we take on in Lent are training opportunities for greater acts of self denial the rest of our lives. (When we use the term “self-denial” we are talking about saying “no” the self-centered impulses and designs that otherwise run amok in our lives.)

We already redeemed. Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross paid the debt incurred by Adam’s sin. We have an opportunity, an invitation, to be sanctified, to become more holy. Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross — his obedience and self-denial — is a model for our sanctification. As we grow stronger in our faith, we will be able to be more obedient, and we will be able to deny our selfish impulses, just a little bit more than we could. Our sanctification will increase the Kingdom of God just a little bit, and Love will triumph over Death just a little bit more through our sanctification. We will participate in a small way in the Way of the Cross and the Easter joy that follows Good Friday.

Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday)

OT: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23

Epistle: Ephesians 2:4-10

Gospel: John 3:14-21

This Sunday is a joyful reminder that Lent leads to Easter, that purgation leads to purity. Forty days can seem such a long time, especially if one is diligent in the extra practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that are part of a traditional Lenten observance. Our merciful Lord reminds us we are on the road to Glory in the readings of Laetare Sunday. He also reminds us that ultimately He is the road to Glory. All things come through Christ, who willingly gave himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of the people.

We hear two stories of disobedience by God’s people, followed by God’s allowing the consequences of disobedience to run amok, and then followed by God’s providing a means to overcome the consequences and return to a right relationship with him.

The Old Testament reading from 2 Chronicles is a summary of the kingdom of Judah’s wandering from a right relationship with God. Judah was one of the two tribes that were not lost after the Israelite kingdom split upon Solomon’s death. Already the ten tribes were under the thumb of a foreign overlord, but Judah remained faithful and independent. But the people of Judah were weak, as all people are weak. They listened to the lies of the father of this world, so they could not hear the truth of the prophets of their heavenly father. Not only did they not listen, they turned on those holy messengers of truth and love. God allowed the consequences of this disobedience and faithlessness to follow their course: foreign powers overran Judah and the people were dispersed. Their community and distinctive life of worship was destroyed by their sins, and they lost their way. But God never abandons us, even when we abandon him. God used a pagan, Cyrus of Persia, to save the Israelites and return them to their city and their house of worship.

Jesus alludes to another story from the Old Testament when he says, “Just as as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Nicodemus, the man with whom Jesus is talking, was a scholar and immediately knew the reference to chapter 21 of the Book of Numbers. The people of God, having been saved from a life of slavery in Egypt, were impatient with God. They wanted the good life on Earth and they wanted it immediately. They resented the food he sent them daily, and they were tired of following and obeying Moses. These, of course, were the same people who had seen Moses transfigured after his direct encounter with God; they knew he was a holy man, consecrated by God to lead them to the Promised Land. But they gave in to temptation and refused to continue the arduous journey. So God allowed the consequences of their choice to run amok. Serpents were among them, biting the people. Many Israelites died. When they turned back to God by turning back to Moses and acknowledging their sin, God had Moses fashion a bronze snake on a pole. It says in Numbers 21:8 “The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” God used a bronze snake (the kind of pagan image he seemed to have proscribed in the Ten Commandments) to effect his saving way. He reminds us we cannot understand his thoughts, for they are much higher than ours.

Jesus offers himself on the Cross to be lifted up like the bronze snake of Moses. Like the wayward Israelites, we can look upon him on the Cross with eyes of faith. Through faith in the crucified Christ, we are healed, just as the sin and sickness of the Israelites was healed when they looked with faith upon the bronze snake lifted up on the pole. God used a pagan punishment, Roman crucifixion, as the central tool in his ultimate gift of himself to us. His thoughts are much higher than ours; we can approach him with faith and obedience even if we cannot understand everything about him.

Our God is Love. We cower and try to avoid the light because we know we are not worthy of his love. But God does not condemn us; we condemn ourselves. God created us in his image; he loves us more deeply than we can fathom. He loves all of us, for he knows as we often do not that the minor distinctions over which we obsess are lost in the chasm between us and Him.

Only one thing can bridge that chasm. Jesus Christ, Son of God. Begotten, not made. Born of the Virgin Mary, a woman. True God and True Man. St. John the Divine sums it up for us: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

The Church in its wisdom has given us a Sunday halfway through our penitential season to remind us we got in this mess through our own efforts but we will get out of it because of his loving efforts. Like the Israelites with Moses or the people of Judah dispersed at the Babylonian empire, we can acknowledge our sinful choices, turn back toward him, look upon him crucified, and accept the gift of redemption and salvation. It is truly a day to be joyful.

Third Sunday of Lent

OT: Exodus 20:1-17 (Ten Commandments)

Epistle: 1 Cor. 1:22-25 (Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and madness to the pagans)

Gospel: John 2:13-25 (Jesus vs. the temple merchants and his statement to the Jews)

The desire for a “humanized” and “human-sized” deity is strong. We are told of Moses’ reading the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, but let us be reminded that they sent him alone to the holy place at the top of the mountain because they were afraid of direct intimacy with the Deity. We find it hard to live out the simple commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” By “heart,” do we mean “the deepest, most interior part,” as the people at the time of the writing of the Scriptures meant it? Or do we mean it as “a powerful wave of uplifting emotion,” which is the meaning of the current age? By “mind,” do we mean that deepest part of our thinking, where knowledge and wisdom come together and recitation and cleverness are left behind? Or do we mean rhetorical techniques perfected to permit us to push people in arguments to the position we prefer? What of “strength?” Am I as a Christian somehow to have the burst of strength that comes easily to men and the sustained strength that is so often characteristic of women? Is this what God meant in Genesis 1:27-28 about “male and female, in his image he created them?” It is more than any man can do.

That is all just too much work for most of us. Ten rules read to us by the holy man is much more attractive. Moses was a man, just like me. The Ten Commandments are rules we can follow, and they are guardrails that offer protection from wandering too far along the path to Perdition. Some of the rules are dramatic and compliance is easily verified: do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie. Others are more subtle rules for our minds as well as our actions: do not let thoughts dwell on others’ property and perhaps lead you to violate the injunction against theft, and do not let your thoughts dwell on others’ spouses and perhaps lead you to adultery.

We might say that the first of the Ten Commandments given to us by God through Moses is so difficult we should not be surprised that man was unable to keep the covenant of the Old Testament. “Have no other gods except me.” Every aspect of this fallen world conspires to promote polytheism: it is the rare person in human history who has not worshipped, if only for a moment or two, the gods of celebrity or authority or safety. The effort to “leave one’s mark on the world” is service to the god of being known by strangers to the glory of oneself. The effort to “change the world” by activists of every persuasion almost always devolves into the pursuit of power, albeit for allegedly noble ends. How do we reconcile our constant efforts to accumulate enough resources to ensure our long-term comfort with the commandment to rely totally on God?

Our human understanding is overwhelmed by the Cross. Surely we have some sympathy for Judas Iscariot, a zealot looking for the messiah promised in the scriptures. Judas had fixed in his mind what the messiah would do, and it involved political action even to include violence if necessary to effect the noble outcome. This weakling, Jesus, needed to be removed from the scene so a stronger and more combative messiah could emerge. The ends justified the means, the omlette could not be made without breaking a few eggs. But the Cross is the unavoidable path if we are to obey the Ten Commandments with all our heart, our mind, our soul and our strength. We may not be lifted up on a wooden cross and killed by that terrible method, but we will only live in Eternity if we are willing to die to self. The message of the world is to glorify self, and so the Cross is insanity to the world.

Our commitment to following God can mean we engage in behavior that confounds the sensibility of the world. We are temples of the Lord, and we must be willing to drive from our temples the comfortable accomodations we have made to the world’s priorities. Are we renewing and purifying our practices, or have we become comfortable in our religious routines? The path after Baptism is one of sanctification, or growth in holiness. God will not give me more than I can handle, but he knows better than I what I can handle. We are told the road is narrow but straight. I think most serious Christians would add that it slopes upward. We do not coast our way to Heaven.

This time of ascetic reflection we call Lent prepares us to be more attuned to the reality of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Like a a careened ship, we are turned on our sides so the debris to which we have become attached can be scraped away. Like a ship from which the barnacles have all been removed, we will move toward our destination more smoothly and with more efficiency. Our intended destination is reunion with the risen Christ. We cannot be an Easter People, however, if we refuse to participate in the Lenten preparation.

Turn me on my side, O Lord, and scrape away!

Second Sunday of Lent

OT: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13,15-18
Epistle: Romans 8:31-34
Gospel: Mark 9:2-10

Abraham and Sarah had waited so long without a child. Their gift, Isaac, had grown strong. The walk up Mt. Moriah must have been so painful for Abraham, who knew how it would end if he was obedient to God’s will. Abraham was obedient to God, following the awful instructions to take his only son up the mountain for a holocaust, a sacrificial offering from a sinful people to Yahweh. The boy was growing into a young man, able to carry wood up the mountain and still have energy to converse with the father he loved so much. A strong boy like Isaac would have little difficulty preventing an old man like Abraham from binding him. The son acceded to his father’s wishes even to the point of helping to prepare the sacrifice: himself.

The knife must have been like a heavy weight in Abraham’s hand as he lifted it to kill his son. What agony he must have experienced, obeying the commandments of God yet not fully comprehending them. We can imagine the turmoil in his mind. Take my only son up the mountain and kill him? Where is God’s glory in that? How can that be consistent with the promises God made to me about the number of my descendants? This is the child God sent me, yet he wants him to die. This makes no sense to me.

It made no sense to Abraham, yet he found the strength to be obedient to God’s will. At the moment of truth, Abraham demonstrated he would pay the full price of discipleship and God stayed his hand.

God sent his son at the fullness of time. The world had waited so long for him. He grew into a strong man and powerful teacher and healer. God will do what he would not ask of Abraham: sacrifice his only son. This is not just a good and powerful man. This is not just somebody’s son. This is God’s own son.

Jesus carried the means of his execution to the place of his execution, just like Isaac. Jesus knew the nature of his execution. He had spent hours in the Garden of Gesthemane, his stress level so high he was in a bloody sweat. He knew that Abraham’s words were true. God would provide the lamb for the holocaust. God was the Lamb.

Lent is a time of preparation. St. Mark tells us Peter, James, and John kept the transfiguration to themselves, “questioning what rising what rising from the dead meant.” We know what it means, yet we, like they, run from the Cross on Calvary rather than stay in peace as Mary and the women and young John stayed. Let us prepare ourselves so as to be able to stay with Jesus when we find ourselves on Calvary.