Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

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

So, apparently this holy season in which we find ourselves has been re-branded. At least you might think this was the case if you saw a particular chyron on the Today Show on Ash Wednesday morning. Henceforth, Lent shall be known as “Mark Wahlberg’s Forty Day Challenge.” I’m glad Marky Mark is doing this, but what of the rest of the Funky Bunch?

In all seriousness, I’m grateful that Mr. Wahlberg is using his fame to encourage faithfulness, and what little I know about him suggests that his Christian faith has truly changed him for the better. From engaging in a couple of racially motivated assaults in the late-eighties and early-nineties, to seeking forgiveness from and reconciliation with his victims and becoming (at least to all outward appearances) a family man who spends his time raising funds for at-risk youth, volunteering in homeless shelters, and engaging in pretty public evangelization efforts. He seems a pretty good, public example of God’s transformative power. (We are fortunate that our program at coffee hour today on the Welcome to a New Life program promises to give us an example of how that same sort of transformation is being encouraged right here in Findlay.)

All that said, we must be very careful here, because as I said on Wednesday, Lent is not a self-improvement program, nor is the Gospel about how we can become better by trying hard enough. It is, rather about the Law having convicted us and Grace having freed us. It is about the imputation of Adam’s sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which has nothing to do with keeping score (as if God has a massive excel spreadsheet for each of us, totting up the sins in one column and the good works in another and seeing if we’ve got a positive or a negative balance when we die). Yes, through fruits of faith can make things better. However if God is most concerned with how we are on our worst day, we’re doomed, and if we think he’s primarily concerned with how we are when at our best, we can start to get the idea that it’s about our own efforts rather than the free gift of grace, setting us up for yet another fall.

That is what it’s all about, and why it’s so appropriate that we have both the story from Genesis about the Fall and the reading from Romans about its reversal appointed on this first Sunday in the season in which our increased attempts to be faithful in prayer and self-denial and works of mercy might get us putting the cart of human striving before the horse of God’s infinite grace. I’ve heard it said that the doctrine of Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian tenet, and I’m inclined to agree. That is to say, while we must rely solely on faith to put our trust in things like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, one need only look around to prove the fact that we’re fallen.

I do have one minor quibble with our appointed readings this morning, though. I wish that reading from Genesis went on just two verses further. Adam and Eve’s disobedience caused them to become ashamed of their nakedness (Nota bene: not because nudity is inherently sinful, but because they had just contracted a concupiscent nature) and they made themselves some rather flimsy clothes. Then what happened?:

And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

Where are you? I think this question God asks can be taken two ways, both of them correct. On the one hand it is an accusation. God knows the answer, but wants the man and woman to come clean, like the parent who asks the child “who took the cookie from the cookie jar?”

But it is conversely a question which would presage not something frightening but wonderful, namely–that God would always search for and find us no matter how far we’d fallen.

This project begins immediately. I think we misunderstand God’s passage of judgment on Adam and Eve, as purely punitive when I think it is more gracious than we might expect. (This whole story is richly metaphorical, after all, and for every rock … or fig leaf … we turn over, there is some new insight.) Should the man and the woman take the fruit from the tree of life, they should stand under God’s judgment in his presence for all eternity. An eternity of shame. Their ejection from the garden is both punishment and protection. The toil that would accompany their labors would provide a means not of atonement but at least of partial penance. The entry of death into the world, though tragic, would provide for a rest from those labors. In what is the first sacrifice in scripture, God provides the skins of animals to clothe the man and the woman in a manner more suitable in the harsh reality they were entering.

And then for countless ages, the Lord God would continue to ask “where art thou?” To the children of Israel captive in Egypt and the Jews in exile in Babylon. Again and again through the prophets whenever they went astray. And finally, most wonderfully, (as Paul makes clear) through his supreme condescension in the person of Christ Jesus, the New Adam, by whom many have been made righteous. And to each of us still, God asks “where art thou?” because he desires that each of us should be inheritors of the promise.

Whatever Lenten discipline you’ve adopted (or whatever goal’s you’ve set for yourself in Marky Mark’s Forty Day Challenge) my prayer is that it serves not merely as a means of self-improvement, but rather that it primarily serves as a reminder of our contingency and our need and our reliance on the Grace of God alone, whose sacrifice is sufficient to call us to himself and to strengthen us in this life and to give us hope for unending life with all the saints who have been brought through the ordeal and washed clean in the blood of the lamb.

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