Texts: Joel 2:12-19 | Psalm 51 | 1 John 1:4-9 | John 3:14-21
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19-21)
What a far cry from the words we heard on Christmas Day, not even two months ago, about the birth of Christ,
“what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:3b-5)
Separated by only two chapters in the gospel of John, these verses together describe the reality of sin, our separation from God. Jesus Christ, the form of life that brings light to all of creation has been made known to us, and yet we still pursue forms of life that are harmful to us and to others. We conceal our hurts and our hurtful behavior, rather than return to the arms of a loving God who wants to name our sin not as a way of shaming us, but so that we can let go of those forms of life that bring us misery and finally embrace the fullness of life that God desires for all of us.
Tonight we begin a journey of forty days, one that each of us must take alone, though we will gather with children and spouses, friends and neighbors, for worship each Wednesday evening and Sunday morning during this season of Lent. The theme selected by the congregations in our cluster is “Words that Last Forever,” a meditation on the famous seven last words. We begin tonight with a verse from the 23rd chapter of Luke, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I have to say, I struggle with this. It’s not clear to me that we know not what we do. I often think we know exactly what we are doing, but we hide the implications of our actions from ourselves. I know plastic water bottles are harmful for the environment, but when I’m really thirsty and stuck at the airport, I buy a bottle of water rather than look for a water fountain. I know diets heavy in beef are environmentally unsustainable, and hard on my body, perhaps heightening my risks of colon and other cancers, but I continue to eat beef and other fatty meats when I’m home or away. I know that most of my clothes are produced in countries without the kinds of labor laws that protect Americans, which means that I put neighbors out of work and support inhumane working environments abroad for the sake of inexpensive clothing, but I still buy them. I don’t need to keep up this public confession, which could go on and on. I just mean to say that I think most of the time we actually do know what we do, and we continue to do it.
Like the gospel of John puts it, “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” I don’t enjoy saying that my deeds are evil, but I think the truth is that they are, and that yours are as well. That is not fire and brimstone preaching, or shame-based religiosity. It’s more like the kind of diagnosis for which you go to a doctor, knowing that you feel sick and want to be healed.
Traditionally the season of Lent has included practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Over time some communities have transformed, maybe even reduced, these practices to the annual discipline of giving something up: chocolate, or television or alcohol. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, though I am sometimes concerned that by identifying the season of Lent with a practice of giving up things you enjoy, the meaning of Lent as a season of repentance is lost. The season of Lent, after all, is not about punishing yourself for your misdeeds by enforcing unpleasant disciplines upon your body. Instead, during this season we are invited into a process of self-examination, looking for those places where we have so filled our lives that there is no room for God to enter in and heal us.
My friend and fellow pastor, Bradley Schmeling, who some of you noticed was here to worship with us a couple weeks ago, has written,
Fasting, or giving up something for Lent, has been a traditional way to feel hungry. Why feel hungry? Because it puts us in solidarity with those who really are hungry. It also helps to counter our culture’s pressure to be full all the time. Fasting is the most countercultural spiritual practice in American life. It means that we actually consume less, rather than more. Feeling hungry also makes space to be filled by God; it connects us with our deeper hunger for relationship with God and one another. So many of us use food so that we don’t feel our deepest feelings.
Reflecting on Bradley’s words, I realize that it’s not just food that I use to keep from feeling my deepest emotions, but also late night television, and long hours surfing the internet or playing video games. Strategies for numbing myself to the aspects of my life that I know need to change, but always seem to lack the strength to change on my own.
Then I begin to wonder, “do I need to change my life all on my own?” Is that really how lives are changed, in solitary? Or, is it through solidarity that lives and communities are transformed? Jesus came to challenge a form of life that privileged power over people. He toppled a temple establishment that traded animal sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. The world then, like the world now, told people to gather up all that they could so that they could pay their own way – and had no mercy for those who could not. But Jesus came with teachings about giving away what you think gives you worth, and acting like family to people you were taught to fear, and for that he was crucified.
From the cross Jesus says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I think I do know what I do, and that what I do is wrong, but now I wonder if that’s what Jesus is referring to. Maybe Jesus doesn’t mean that we don’t know how wrong our actions are. Maybe Jesus means we don’t know that there is a form of life, a means of grace, a path to forgiveness, and that it is completely open to us. We can begin at any time. We can always take the next step. We are not stuck in the dark places of our lives. We have been given a light so bright, no darkness can overcome it.
The first word from the cross, the words that last forever, is forgive. It is the promise that we will not be defined by our past, but that we are always free to step into our future. We are always free to come to the light. And if, during this season of Lent, you are having trouble finding that light, locating that first step, then consider taking on a Lenten discipline such as fasting – not as a way of proving how disciplined you are, or of punishing yourself for a sense of nagging guilt, but to make room in your belly, in your schedule, in your life for God to come and fill you. Make room for the life that is the light of the world to be present in you, to heal you and to forgive you.
Return to the Lord your God.