Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Back in Advent, Fr. Brian gave a great reflection on why we wear rose vestments a couple Sundays each year, once in Advent and once in Lent, to express the joy that is to be found in even the penitential seasons of the church year. I won’t rehearse that again, except to point out that (you guessed it) this is one of those Sundays. Our opening hymn this morning made the point:

To bow the head in sackloth and in ashes,

or rend the soul,

such grief is not Lent’s goal,

but to be led to where God’s glory flashes,

his beauty to come near.

Make clear, make clear, make clear where light and truth appear.

Lest we think Lent is all about being lugubrious, we are reminded this week that there is joy to be found here. Coming to terms with sin and redemption can be a very joyful thing because we can finally internalize the truth of today’s Gospel: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” Even in this most penitent season then we may, paradoxically, rejoice in our penitence.

St. Paul knew this well, which is why in his letter to the Ephesians he may in one breath say that we “were dead in trespasses and sins” and in the next breath proclaim the joyful news that God has “hath quickened us together with Christ…and hath raised us up together, made us sit together in the heavenly places.” Paul knew that we could not be perfect by our own efforts, but “by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God.”

This is very good news for all of us. In fact, it is the Good News. We can only fully appreciate it though, we can only attain to the joy which God intends for us, when we recognize that we are too sinful to dig ourselves out. This realization releases us from perfectionism, which is terribly close to narcissism. Only when we get over ourselves, when we realize that we cannot attain perfection on our own terms, that we need an Other will we experience the joy of redemption. Of course, getting to the point of experiencing this joy may not be entirely pleasant, as I’ve said more than once in sermons during this season, because it requires that we be honest with ourselves. The process of recognizing our own fallen-ness, our own sinfulness, is full of tears and travail. But we may take the psalmist’s affirmation to heart in the midst of this process of self-searching: “Weeping may spend the night, but joy cometh in the morning,” reads Psalm 30. Or from today’s psalm:

Foolish men are plagued for their offence, * and because of their wickedness.

Their soul abhorred all manner of meat, * and they were even hard at death’s door.

So when they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, * he delivered them out of their distress.

He sent his word, and healed them; * and they were saved from their destruction.

O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness; * and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men!

It is only after the realization that we are sore afflicted, that we have the capability of recognizing that only God has the power to save us, that we are not expected to save ourselves, and that in this fact we may rejoice.

I’d like to end this sermon, if I may, with a suggestion which you take or leave as the Spirit moves you. Those of you who have been attending this or any Episcopal church for any length of time will have noticed that each week we include a prayer of confession. This is meet and right and provides an opportunity in our public worship for the kind of hard self-examination which is necessary to attain the joy I’ve been talking about. I find, however, that this period is too brief for me, sinner that I am, to sufficiently recollect where I have gone astray and to come to terms with that in the light of Christ’s promise of forgiveness. There is another more fulsome opportunity for people like me to undergo such examination to the end of true repentance. There is another opportunity for this sort of honest examination which provides a greater opportunity for such reflection.

In all events, I wish you all not only a productive and edifying Lent, but a joyful Lent. May God give us such an awareness of His redeeming love that we no longer remain captive to our own sinful pride or to the perfectionism which leads us to deny sin, but come to the full realization that He “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him,” not perfect, sinless people, but “whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.