Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2019
“ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness”
WE HAVE ENTERED LENT, that mysterious season of preparing for the later springtime festival of Christ’s Resurrection, but a season that seems to be Easter’s opposite. In April, we will rejoice that He is risen, and that we are likewise to rise in Him at the end of all things, in the judgment when He will spare us. But here we are, wrapped in serious violet hues, holding ourselves to disciplines, marking time in a forty-day countdown, coming to confession and generally looking like people who should be having a miserable month and a half. And we’re not miserable at all. What is the secret? Are we daft? We are for certain inconsistent. Why should we be so content when we fast and again when we feast?
Well, St. Paul says that he’s achieved that equilibrium and he encourages us to follow suit. Be content with your lot. But we create our lot in the days of abstinence. We remember His forty days’ fast on the desert and we think of how He triumphed in the face of extreme malnutrition and temptation, seeing how river rocks actually did look like tasty loaves of bread. If any man alive ever could change them into sourdough, this was He. And He resisted the tempter’s challenge. Man does not live by bread alone.
Our collect for the Lenten season tells us something Christians ought to remember and we certainly do. “God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent…” This statement flies in the face of several religious traditions, some very popular and successful, some even Christian.
The barnstorming fiery preacher, Jonathan Edwards, sparked the first great awakening in the American colonies in 1741, with a religious revival that eventually led to a movement for independence from England. This Calvinist preacher saw pathetic and lukewarm religious sentiments among his fellow colonists, and his religious outlook was so bleak anyway, that he expressed God’s outrage like this: “The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose… The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over [our] heads, and 'tis nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God's mere will, that holds it back… The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire ... you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.” Sinners in the hand of an angry God
Maybe you’re glad I don’t preach like that. I don’t believe like that. I am sure that God will be our judge and that the great day foretold will be both wonderful and terrible. Revelation’s great scenes of blood flowing like rivers and staining the Rider’s cloak are probably more literal than we’d like to imagine. God comes for His own, and those who will oppose Him to the end will suffer for it. Jesus did in fact raise a whip above the heads of the moneychangers.
But God is not first angry. Islam imagines Allah as a great Caliph, an Emperor on a throne whose judgments are unsearchable and sentences against infidels ultimate. All the Moslem websites claim God’s mercy and love are his reason. So that explains ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Allah is explained as kind, but shown to be in fact angry to the point of insanity.
The gods of the East are not really any better. Shiva, Cali and other deities of Hinduism are as much gods of destruction as of creation. All things balance, all is fore-ordained. No use to complain. Buddha leads his students to non-existence, a passionless peace that nevertheless also comes to annihilation.
The God of Israel, and especially exemplified by Christ, comes humbly among us, submits to our abuse and misunderstanding, and places Himself in the place of our wrath, to receive the punishment for our sins in His body, to die the death we deserve, and then conquer sin and death by rising again.
The power released by that mighty act has reached to both ends of human history, freeing all mankind from the inevitability of sin, judgment and death. That power has changed the question, the answer to which determines our fate. It is no longer a question of our sins, or the weight of them, or a balancing between good and evil deeds.
That never worked out in our favor. We were always hopeless debtors and destined to burn. Now those sins are atoned, and we are free from that judgment and its terror. We are not like spiders hung from a thread over the abyss, hoping for mercy and expecting the fire that we deserve. That’s over.
The answer lies in our faith. And our faith need only be like a mustard seed. God is very interested in the turn our will might take, a decision toward Him, anything that marks our return to our Maker. It’s all been about coming out of our bad dream and receiving His gift. The gift is given. It’s right here. We need only hold out our hand, open our heart, and believe.
C.S. Lewis, rather than Jonathan Edwards, puts the question right, I think. In The Great Divorce, his characterization of Scottish Calvinist George MacDonald says, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” “Hell is a state of mind - ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind - is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
In Epiphany, we remember Jesus standing in the river with John, His cousin, and after His baptism He strides up the bank as John sees the Spirit descend on Him and the Father’s voice claiming His Son. That moment began a public ministry for our Lord, but only after a subsequent test of His spirit on the desert, fasting forty days, praying constantly, searching His human nature with His divine mind and growing in the depths of His understanding in the mission His Father was sending Him on.
Three temptations He faced are shown to us. The account has to be one He told His Apostles later. No one else was there but another very unreliable witness. Jesus was tempted and He passed the tests. Each temptation offered Him the easy way out. Each time, Jesus chose the road of immediate suffering, but ultimate victory and freedom. He was choosing to suffer for our sake.
Hungry beyond any normal human resistance, the devil challenged whether He truly was the Son of God, and if so, prove it by changing stones to bread. Jesus could have made a shortcut to universal popularity by going into the bread business. How easy it is to say, “Feed the poor! That will solve all our problems!” It solves a little hunger for one day. The deeper problems of human sin—greed, idleness, political intrigue, lust for power—are untouched by a simplification of such need and fulfilment. No dice.
The Temple heights could make you dizzy, and all the people down below might remember the Psalm with its promise not to let the foot of God’s beloved be hurt, while angels carried him safely down. It would impress the Jews immensely. No way—Don’t tempt God. And such fair-weather followers would insist on more tricks to please themselves by a wizard who does their fancy.
On a mountain of supernatural vision, Jesus saw every human culture and age, the entire span of history, every army, city and civilization—the very beings He had come to save, and He was offered their allegiance to Himself, if only He subjected Himself to Satan. It was His mission, to reach us all, and this way would prove painless to Him. It would be so much easier. And it would also be the opposite of His mission. All the world would be forever under the dominion of the dark one. Refused. Thank God.
Jesus came, not to be ministered to, but to minister. He came to rescue us. He came with mercy and love and forgiveness. His anger rose only when the religious establishment stood in the way of sinners gaining their redemption and freedom and access to God, barring the path to Him, claiming rules that God never wrote, sins that God never defined as such. Ritual washings and numbers of footsteps allowed on a Sabbath, no healings allowed, no forgiveness for the adulteress, no access for Samaritans, no, no, no… Jesus calls these religious figures white-washed graves, mausoleums for the dead, but looking good with a fresh coat of paint.
God is always ready to hear our prayers. God has already taken the burden of our many sins upon Himself, and died in our place to pay the debt we owe. That’s Christianity. You can add burdens, and claim rights for the clergy that others are unworthy to have, and inject fear back into the faith for Purgatory or even hell’s probability for sinners such as we are. But then you have another religion. That isn’t Jesus. He is the way, the truth and the life. He has given this with no price, and no taxes. It can’t be earned, or purchased, or deserved. The only question is: “Who is Christ. Whose Son is He? What do you choose? What about your sins?”
The answers are: “Christ Jesus is God’s Son, begotten of Mary by the Holy Ghost, Son of the Father for all eternity. I choose Him as my Lord and my Saviour, and take His blood shed for me to wash clean all my sins. I am so thankful for this, because by myself I was lost. I am no longer lost, but a victor in Him.”
God doesn’t hate anything that He has made. He can’t really even hate those who will refuse this arrangement. It’s sad, but He won’t let them ruin Heaven also. They’ve done their worst to this world, and that’s all they get. He will protect us from their outrages at the last. And that’s His love working. Even damnation comes by love. His respect for their choice not to have Him shows Him not to be a raging, angry deity, but a kind and holy God who says to them, “Thy will be done.”
Some folk need the image of God raging against evil powers. But they forget that He made even the one now called Satan, and when He made Lucifer, he was a glorious bright and holy angel. God doesn’t forget that. It has to sadden Him to let that potential good go to the fire, but what else is there? Satan can’t and won’t repent. He has made his choice. There’s no room for us to entertain sympathy for the devil – sorry Mick Jagger.
And so we ask our merciful Lord to please “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”