Sermon: Making Sense of Lent: Being Sacrificial
Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10
Date: March 10, 2019
I am going to be right up front about this – but I have always had a lot of confusion about the Church Season of Lent. In fact, when I was a kid, I can’t remember even hearing anything about Ash Wednesday and Lent in the church. Oh some of my friends who were Catholic would sometimes come to school with ash smudges on their foreheads but I had no idea what it was all about. And that always seemed to be followed by a period of time leading up to Easter when they were not allowed to eat meat, but again I didn’t really understand that either. Ash Wednesday and Lent seemed to be primarily Catholic practices. All I really knew was that it was somehow tied to the Cross and Good Friday. But I struggled to understand what ashes on the forehead and not eating meat has to do with the cross. I don’t really remember when it was that the Methodist Church finally discovered Lent and the first time that I had ashes imposed on my forehead and I gave up something like candy, or soft drinks, or some other essential item for Lent. I think it was somewhere in my teenage years that I became vaguely aware that there is a profound sense of holiness in it all. But I do remember the Lenten moment when God finally caught me and convinced me that I needed to give my life to serving Him. It was at First United Methodist Church in Frankfort, and I was vacuuming the Sanctuary after one of the Lent and Lunch services. A half hour of community worship, followed by sandwiches in the Fellowship Hall. And I was reflecting on the sermon of Dr. J.T. Harmon, which was all about “Understanding the Cross” and he used these words from Ephesians as his text. And I remember him saying that “the church has always struggled to understand the sacrificial nature of the Lenten Season, because we have always struggled to really understand the sacrificial nature of the cross.” And then if that wasn’t enough, he went on to talk about this practice of “giving up” something for Lent, as compared to picking up the Cross and carrying it, as Jesus talked about. Well, now I thought, he has just gone to meddling. After all, I had given up Cheeseits that Lent which I thought was a major sacrifice. You see, I was in law school at the time, and nearly every day of law school, at lunch I would walk across the street to the little grocery story and I would buy a small box of Cheeseits and a coke and then I would return to my study carrel in the library and I would eat lunch and get ready for the next class. So giving up Cheeseits was no small matter. In essence it was giving up lunch. But that day, as I reflected on what Dr. Harmon had said, I saw that I had been looking at God’s call on my life all wrong. I had been looking at it as a call to give up parts of my life that were keeping me from really following him. Bits and pieces that seemed so essential to me at the time. That was how I understood the Lenten Discipline until Dr. Harmon pointed out that Jesus didn’t just give up bits and pieces of His life for us on his way to the cross, but instead He gave his all. And I realized that I had been living my life in small increments, giving up something here and there along the way in order to continue my faith journey. Hoping that would be enough for God. And that’s really what I understood Lent to be all about. “Giving up” some worldly things, in the hope that would somehow make me worthy to receive heavenly rewards. But starting that day I began to see that to understand Lent, to make sense of Lent, we need to first understand the cross. Because to follow Jesus to the cross, we can’t just settle for tiny, mostly insignificant steps. When Jesus went to the cross, He didn’t just give up some things. No He sacrificed everything. Jesus didn’t just give up parts of Himself on the Cross. No He gave up everything. He died. And I think the reason that we struggle to make sense of Lent is because we struggle to make sense of that fact. Though the Cross calls us to death, we choose to try and bypass it by giving up bits and pieces, in the hope that will somehow make us worthy for resurrection, for eternal life. What we struggle to make sense of is that there cannot be an empty tomb with out there first being a cross. That we must sacrifice our life in order to truly live. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who ended up sacrificing his life for his faith, expressed it this way: When Christ calls us to be His disciples, He calls us to come and die. You see, I think in order to come to terms with Lent, to make sense of it, we need to come to terms with the difference between just giving up bits and pieces of our lives in the false hope that will be enough, as opposed to what it means to sacrifice our all. To give up everything. And that’s really what Paul is saying to the Ephesians. He was writing to a people who were really living lives of despair. Paul himself was in prison in Rome, ultimately awaiting his execution. A time of great persecution of both the Jews and Christians throughout the Roman Empire had begun that would eventually lead to the death of both Peter and Paul in Rome, the attempted genocide under the Emperor Nero and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. Paul describes the world as one that lusts after pleasure and power and is filled with children of wrath. Kind of sounds like our world today. And he had heard the hopelessness and despair in the letters that he had received from the church in Ephesus. And in what might have sounded like a strange understanding of the hope of the Christians, Paul describes a world that is dying in it’s sin but then he says I am thankful for you, my Ephesian brothers and sisters, for the steadfastness of your faith because though the world is dying, you will live. And why is that? Because, he says, when you were already dead in your sins, Christ called you to life. He writes to them: As for you, you were dead in your sins, in which you used to live in this world, gratifying the cravings of your sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts, making us people of wrath, when God, in His great mercy made you alive with Christ. You see, to make sense of Lent we must first come to terms with the fact that the Lenten Journey is not one to simply make our lives better. Lent is not a time of self help, nor is it simply en extension of our ill fated New Year’s resolutions. I heard a discussion on the radio the other day about the practice of Lent, and someone asked the question why people give up things for Lent, and another person said that we give things up in order to make ourselves better. For instance, he said, one year “I gave up soft drinks for Lent and I ended up losing 12 pounds.” Commendable. But not really what we mean by a Holy Lent, is it? But for most of us, that’s what Lent has become. We believe if we give up bits and pieces of our worldly life then we are somehow replicating Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. But, you see, we will never be able to truly make sense of Lent until we understand that sin is not a temporary state of being that we can solve by giving up bits and pieces of our life in this world. It is not a trivial matter. No, Paul tells the Ephesians that in this sinful, hopeless world, sin had become their very nature. It was who they were. Sin was not just in their DNA. It was their DNA. So before they could have the new life, the new nature that Jesus was calling them to, there had to be a death to their worldly nature, their worldly life. Not just by bits and pieces but by sacrificing it all. Just as Jesus did on the Cross. But here’s the thing that is clear in Scripture. Jesus didn’t really sacrifice His own life on the cross. Oh yes, He died on Calvary that day, but it was really our death that He died. It was our sinful nature that He sacrificed there. He died our death, so that we might live. Boenhoeffer said that the Call to Discipleship is first the call to come and die but that we die so that we might live forever. Paul tells the Ephesians that they should not give in to the despair and hopelessness and sinfulness of the world, because when they became followers of Christ they had died to the world. It no longer had dominion over them. You see most have forgotten that the world was not created to have dominion over human beings but rather human beings were created to have dominion over the world. But sin turned all that upside down. From the sin of Eden to the cradle in Bethlehem, humanity was controlled by our worldly natures. Until finally, on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus turned the world right side up again and invited His disciples to die to the world and embrace new life, new creation, in Him alone. Lent will only make sense to us when we understand that we can not fully live in Christ until we completely die to the world. That before the empty tomb there has to be the Cross. That before Christ could be resurrected in us, He had to be crucified for us. That there is no room for the things of the world in us, if Christ is in us. That we can’t be people of two natures. Two DNAs. People of the world. And people of God. And that the way of the cross is not a matter of giving up some things in our life. It is a matter of sacrificing our whole life in this world, and living in the image of Christ.
I had a friend in high school named Brian who introduced me to an old comedian by the name of Eddie Cantor. Eddie Cantor (show picture) was one of the most popular performers in the world in the early to middle 1900s. He began his career in Vaudeville and in the 1930’s took his act, which consisted of singing and telling humorous stories to radio. His Sunday night radio program became one of the most popular of all time. And somehow Brian had come across recordings of some of those radio shows and occasionally we would go to his house and he would play those recordings. Cantor would always end the show with a story from his life with his wife Ida and their five daughters. On one of those shows he told about walking home from the radio studio in Burbank, California one afternoon and getting caught in a terrible rain storm. He described how the rain seemingly came out of nowhere, and how the lightning was striking all around him, and the winds blew with tornadic force. In the middle of the day, everything turned dark as night. Cantor said he feared for his life. And then he said in the light of one of those flashes of lightning, he saw a little house across the street that had a large covered porch. So Cantor made his way across the street and waited out the storm on that porch. When the storm subsided, he hurried home and was telling his wife what had happened. “I’m not sure what would have happened if I had not found shelter on the porch of those nice people’s home.” So his wife asked, “Did you knock on the door of that home and thank the people who live there for providing you shelter from the storm.” And when Cantor admitted that he had not thought to do that in his haste to get safely home, his wife said: “That’s not like you Eddie. If I were you, I’d leave early tomorrow, and on your way stop at the corner drug store and buy a box of chocolates and take them back to that home and thank them for providing you shelter.” And so the next morning Cantor did just that. But when he got to the house with the covered porch, he discovered that it was not someone’s house after all, but the sign on the door indicated that it was the Church of the Savior. And even though he was a devout Jew, Cantor opened the door and stepped inside. Not seeing anyone, Cantor said he walked down the center aisle towards the altar and called out: “Hello, hello. Is anyone here?” But no one responded so after standing there in the silence for a few minutes, Cantor said he turned to leave. But as he did, he noticed a large picture of Jesus above the door. And he walked back up the aisle and stood in front of that picture and told Jesus all about getting caught in the storm and finding shelter on the porch of his house. “And I just came to thank you for providing shelter for me.” And then he looked at the box of chocolates that he had brought and looked back at the face of Jesus, and then he held the chocolates up for Jesus to see. And at that moment he realized just how inadequate his offering was and he said: “I brought these chocolates for you. But I know that you don’t want my chocolates. I know you want me. And I promise you as one son of Abraham to another, I will never do anything to dishonor your name.”
So here’s the rest of my Lenten story. As I stood in that empty sanctuary that day, that was not the first time that I heard God’s call on my life. In fact, I had heard it many times before. And I had decided that God would have to be content with just bits and pieces of the life that I had planned. Things I was willing to give up as an offering to Jesus. And so Karen and I volunteered to help with the youth group at church. And we served the church as part time custodians. And we went to Sunday School and worship and we hosted Bible Study in our home. And I tried to convince God and myself that that would be enough. That I didn’t have to give up my dreams and ambitions in order to follow Christ. That giving up some would be good enough to serve God in my world. It was a Cheeseits approach to faith. It was only when I realized that day that God did not desire for me to give up the manifestations of my worldly, sinful nature, but instead desired that I sacrifice that nature entirely, that Lent began to make sense to me. That, like the Ephesians, I needed to die to my sins and transgressions, so that I might live in Him and He in me forever. And I began to make sense of Lent that day when I went to the altar and knelt before God, and said, in essence, Lord, I have given up Cheeseits, in order that I might remember that you were willing to sacrifice everything and die on the cross for me. Forgive me for thinking that giving up Cheeseits could ever come near to equating with what you did for me on cross. And I know that you don’t want cheeseits, or sugary drinks, or chocolates, or any of the other things I’ve given up down through the years for Lent. No what you want is me. It was that day when I realized that God’s call on my life was not to “give up” some things, but it was to give Him everything. To die to this world, so that I might live forever with Him, that I really began to make sense of Lent. It was that day that I really understood the nature of God’s call on my life and less than a month later, I finished up my first year of law school and I gave up all of my dreams and ambitions that were tied up in a career in law and I walked across the street and enrolled in seminary.
So I began this morning by asking what you are giving up for Lent and asking you to turn to your neighbor and share your response. But I want to conclude with a slightly different question, and instead of turning to your neighbor to share, I want you in the quiet of this Sanctuary to turn to God and share your response. Because here’s the question we need to ponder as we close this service out and we begin this journey trying to make sense of this season of Lent.. What are you willing to sacrifice for God this Lent? Because it is only when I truly understood the difference between giving up some things in this world and sacrificing everything of this world, that I truly began to make sense of Lent and the Cross and ultimately God’s call on my life.