Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

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

A few years ago I was a guest preacher at a place of worship I’ll not mention to protect the innocent, and had an interesting experience afterward. A young woman approached me after the service was finished to express her gratitude for something I did in the sermon, namely acknowledge the reality of sin. She said it was refreshing and encouraging to hear a preacher do that in that church, suggesting that this was not a common occurrence. I wish I could say that this surprised me, but it didn’t. Reflection on this basic truth about our nature is deemed by some to be too negative, and is too often replaced with a sort of positive humanism that might sound comfortable but has little to say, I would argue, about the reality of our situation as fallen people in a fallen world and how we are to be saved, namely not through our own worthiness but through Christ.

What encouraged me about this interaction, and what I thought could be instructive for all of us, is that this young woman was not upset or depressed about reflecting on the reality of sin, but seemed instead to find comfort and encouragement in it. Coming to terms with sin and redemption can be a very joyful thing because we can finally internalize the truth of today’s Gospel: “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Even in this most penitent season then we may rejoice in our penitence.

This Sunday, the fourth in Lent, has been called Laetare Sunday, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to rejoice”. It comes from the first word of the old Latin Introit, or entry hymn, which would have been sung in the Roman Catholic Church, every year on this Sunday until Vatican II suppressed that bit of the Mass. The hymn goes like this:

Rejoice ye with Jerusalem: and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her: that ye may drink and be satisfied with the milk of her consolations. I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord.

Thus, church would have begun on a very high note indeed, and in the midst of Lent at that! That’s why we have rose-coloured vestments today, by the way, a much more joyful colour than the purple of the rest of Lent, at least in the eyes of church tradition.

All of this is to say that that woman who found joy in penitence, who wanted to be part of a church in which she could acknowledge sin, was quite right. Redemption makes no sense without something to be redeemed from. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross for us wouldn’t have been anything more than an historical fact had it not been that we needed and are in need of saving.

St. Paul knew this well, which is why in his letter to the Ephesians he may in one breath say that we “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which [we] once lived” and in the next breath proclaim the joyful news that God has “made us alive in Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Paul knew that we could not be perfect by our own efforts, but “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift from 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. 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 a couple times over the last few weeks, 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 comes in the morning,” reads Psalm 30. Or from today’s psalm:

Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; *
they were afflicted because of their sins.

They abhorred all manner of food *
and drew near to death’s door.

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.

He sent forth his word and healed them *
and saved them from the grave.

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.

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 Son, so that everyone who believes in him,” not perfect, sinless people, but “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

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