Thus says the Lord in the book of Joel, "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God."
A Catholic priest working in an inner city was walking down an alley one evening on his way home when a young man came down the alley behind him and poked a knife against his back. "Give me your money," the young man said.
The priest opened his jacket and reached into an inner pocket to remove his wallet, exposing his clerical collar. "Oh, I'm sorry, Father," said the young man, "I didn't see your collar. I don't want YOUR money."
Trembling from the scare, the priest removed a cigar from his shirt pocket and offered it to the young man.
"Here," he said. "Have a cigar."
"Oh, no, I can't do that," the young man replied, "I gave them up for Lent."
Yes, it’s funny in a sort of warped kind of way. We laugh at the hypocrisy. We laugh that a thief would steal and commit assault on the one hand while giving up tobacco on the other. We snicker and think to ourselves, "I would never, ever do such a thing."
Oh, really? Do you not think that you and I are not capable of such hypocrisy? Do you think that you and I are really so consistent in our faith? Do you think that you and I do not share the same traits and qualities of that would-be thief?
Let me take a moment to remind us all here this evening the truth of the Christian faith. In Romans, chapter three St. Paul writes unabashedly, "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We can change the tense of that sentence, and it will still ring true, "For there is no distinction since all are sinning and falling short of the glory of God."
You and I have no room to laugh. You and I have no room to snicker. You and I stand here this evening having been reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return now being reminded that we are sinners!
There is no escaping that reality. Yes, each of us have been saved by the grace and mercy bestowed through Jesus Christ, but we have not arrived at the fullness of that grace. We have not arrived at the fullness of that mercy. We have not been completely transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus. It was He who commanded us, "Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect." And we know, deep down within us, that we aren’t there. We know, with every fiber of our being that we have not arrived. We know in the deepest places of our hearts that evil still lurks there; waiting to ensnare us and lead us down the wrong pathways.
Oh, and if we are truly honest with ourselves, we know that there is no way to eradicate this dark part of us. We know there is nothing we can do to root it out completely. Some of us have tried. We’ve tried to expel the darkness so that we are full of light. We try changing our courses in life. We try to enact Christ’s goodness and peace and faithfulness in our lives. For a time, we might even be successful. For a time, a sin that we confront might seem to recede into the background, but before long it surfaces. It comes out once more. Old, ingrained habits are hard to break.
"Return to me with all your heart," says the Lord, "with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing."
Yes, there is good news. There is good news that despite our brokenness, God is merciful. God is gracious. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God relents from punishing. Why? Why is God so generous? Is He simply allowing us to get off scot-free? Is He so wishy-washy that He excuses our sin without recourse or cost?
No. Not at all. For God knows we deserve death. God knows we deserve to perish. But God does not want this for us. God does not want His prized creation to suffer eternal torment, so God sent Jesus–a part of His very self–to take on that punishment, the punishment we deserve.
Perhaps this is an old fashioned, out of date idea for you. Perhaps you believe God should just forgive and forget, and that there should be no substitutionary atonement. So, if you believe this, do you think if someone rammed their car into yours that one escapes payment? Do you believe that if a wrong is committed, there should be no justice? Do you believe that if someone has hurt you emotionally, no price should be paid? Of course, most of you don’t believe that at all. When a wrong is committed, payment is demanded–either by the person who committed the wrong or by the person who suffered the wrong. If it is the person who suffered the wrong who pays, then it is called forgiveness.
As we enter Lent, we are called to reflect upon the great cost God paid to obtain forgiveness. We are called to reflect upon the death of God, who took upon human flesh and carried our sins to the cross. And we are called to confront our own sinfulness which nails Jesus once again to that cross day after day after day.
Of course, usually we don’t take the time to contemplate this. Usually, we are so busy rushing from one event to the next. We occupy every waking moment with doing things: web browsing, work, social events, extra-curricular activities, shopping, dining out, partying, or what have you. Our calendars are full and overflowing, and at the end of the week we are so worn out and worn down that we crash and burn.
You see, I believe that one of our sins as a society these days is that we have come to idolize time. It is at a premium, and we have to do as much as possible lest we be seen as lazy, slothful, incompetent, or unfulfilled. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself, when is the last time you said or thought to yourself, "I have nothing to do," and you were glad about that?
And so, before we can confront all the other parts of our heart which are darkened, I believe we must begin confronting our need to stay busy. I believe we need to begin confronting our fear of silence and solitude. I believe we need to confront our fear of being still and quiet–of remembering a time before cell phones and games and apps which occupy our minds even when we are alone and actually have the time to think and observe what God may be up to in the midst of our daily lives.
This Lent, I intend to slow down. I intend to carve out space for quiet and solitude. Already, I have had to give up a couple of nights of choir practice, much to the chagrin of Janice. But my evenings have filled up with work related items. My kids need their dad around at least one night per week. Slow down. Be. Be a father. Be a mother. Be a child of God.
Slow down and return to God. Confront your sin. Ask for God’s healing touch in your life. Be at peace. Amen.