22 Feb 2015
“[Jesus] was in the wilderness 40 days …” (Mark 1:13) In the name …
According to the legend of Noah, it rained for 40 days during the flood. We pick-up the story this morning after the waters have receded and God establishes a new covenant with His people. Today we also hear that after Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit drove Him into the desert where He spent 40 days. When Jesus reappears, He is prepared to preach: “‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’” (Mark 1:15) These biblical allusions to 40 days are the basis of our 40 days of Lent, but they also point us in the direction of Lent’s purpose. After the purification of the flood, God is able to establish a renewed covenant with Noah. After the temptation in the desert, Jesus is ready to proclaim God’s new kingdom. Lent is not about sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. It’s about renewal. And sometimes renewal can be hard. Sometimes it may require sacrifice and discipline. But these are only the tools of Lent, they are not the purpose of Lent.
And this brings me to a topic that came up frequently at Wednesday’s first Ecumenical Lenten Discussion: guilt. A lot of people have a lot of hang-ups about guilt. A lot of people think the church is preoccupied with guilt. And a lot of people would like to see it just disappear. I can understand where they’re coming from – to a degree. If the only incentive the church can offer for being an active Christian is the guilt associated with not being an active Christian, then I agree with them. It says that there is nothing sufficiently inspiring or healing, nothing truly transformative or consoling, nothing sincerely joyous in the practice of the faith. When all there is is guilt, it’s like the 40 days of rain with no rainbow at the end. It’s like Jesus’ 40 days in the desert with no new kingdom of God coming out through a fired-up and single-minded Jesus. That kind of guilt can be thrown away by the church.
However, there’s another side of guilt. Not guilt as motivation, but guilt as consequence. Let me tell you about my trips to the grocery store. A lot of times Sharon will give me a list. If there’s something unusual on it she’ll even write me a note saying it’s in such and such an aisle and it’s in a yellow can, for example. If I make a mistake one time while shopping, the next list, for example, will have “one chicken stock,” and stock will be underlined, and in parentheses it will say in capital letters “not chicken broth.” I don’t even know what the difference is, but I sure don’t make that mistake twice. But then I get on the shopping list the non-specific note of “breakfast bread.” That can mean whatever I want to have in the morning. Then I get to that aisle and it’s filled from the top to bottom shelves the whole length of the aisle with options. I get overwhelmed.
So now I’m home. I’m having my breakfast bread, and it tastes terrible. God awful. I’m not expecting a lot. It’s a generic store brand of english muffins. I have them one day, a second, a third. Every day they’re bad and I’m thinking it’s because they’re just a cheaper muffin. Then I look a bit closer at the bag. In big letters it reads: “Plain english muffin.” But in small letters it says: “Lite.” 1/3 fewer caleries, no sugar, less salt, no fat, more fiber – no taste!
Now try to forget about the part that they’re healthier for you. Instead, think about “lite” as uneatable, distasteful. Lent’s 40 days are meant to be more Christ-centered than usual. Wherever you are on the religious spectrum, Lent is supposed to turn it up a notch. If you’re barely religious, maybe you can at least keep the Friday fast. If you’re an every Sunday worshipper, maybe you can go during the week too. Since Lent’s discipline and sacrifice is supposed to lead us to renewal, we’re supposed to come out at the end of this 40 days changed, which means changed for the better. But if we replace the cleansing of Noah’s 40 days and the clarity of Jesus’ 40 days with Lent-lite, then it can leave an awful aftertaste. There are a whole slew of choices out there on the shelf during Lent, and if we pick Lent-lite, then there’s this awful aftertaste of guilt. That’s guilt as a consequence. It’s not something I preach or talk about very often. I can’t remember ever giving a sermon about guilt. But guilt can’t be shoved to the side just because we don’t like its aftertaste of not taking Lent seriously enough.
Lent is a time to look to the cross. After our first Lenten Discussion on Wednesday, it’s clear that we can all see different things in the cross. I for one don’t see testimony in Jesus’ death of our sinfulness. I don’t see in the cross the message, “Look what we did to Jesus.” I see in the cross Jesus’ complete devotion to us. It’s not that we’re terrible sinners. The cross says we are so terribly loved by God. You know, it’s not much of a distance from the statue of Joseph holding the baby Jesus to the Station that shows the death of Jesus. Jesus gave up all the glories of heaven to be born as a child among us. That wasn’t enough. Some 30 years later Jesus gave up whatever He had in this life as He died on the cross. Whatever God had to sacrifice He did both in heaven and on earth. And He did it only for us. That’s an amazing commitment of love. It should become an inspiring and humbling commitment of love. One that we can’t take for granted.
When we realize how devoted Jesus is to us, if we reply with only faith-lite or Lent-lite, then maybe guilt shouldn’t be shoved aside. Maybe we don’t like the taste, but maybe this Lent we can try and deal with guilt in a more fair-minded way, not to just dispose of it as a relic of the past, but as our souls telling us that Jesus maybe deserves better. Lent is not about the sacrifice and discipline for their own sakes. Noah’s 40 days led to a new covenant. Jesus’ was about the new kingdom of God. Maybe our 40 days of Lent can be the start of the end of guilt not because we just say we don’t like it, but because we live rededicated lives to a Saviour who we recognize as loving us as much as the cross, and then there’s no reason for guilt. May this be our prayer today in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo