Our lectionary – the set of lessons assigned to be read and preached on each Sunday – is already looking forward to the season of Lent.
In Deuteronomy, we hear the clear call to God’s chosen people to persevere in following the Saviour, even after 40 years – practically a lifetime – of following through the desert, they once again are presented with a decision: here, on the banks of the Jordan River, with the promised land coming into view, they once again need to choose to follow or to stray, to choose what is really good over what merely makes them happy, to choose the abundant life that God has in store over the death and decay that awaits them if they follow their own devices.
And as if that wasn’t a strong enough warning, did you hear what St. Paul said to us in First Corinthians? They were some pretty strong words. In fact, if someone walked up to me and spoke to me like that, I’d be downright insulted. Did you hear it? Let me read it again.
“My brothers and sisters,” he writes – “I can’t even speak to you like adults. You’re a bunch of babies.”
Ouch. …But there’s more.
What’s he saying here? ‘You think you’re so sophisticated, solving the world’s problems, and choosing the denomination or the worship style that fits you best’… but what does he say?
‘You babies are still drinking from bottles’. I can’t even give you solid food, I have to give you milk in a sippy cup. You’re no where near mature enough to discuss the things that matter.’
Now, as someone who has spent years studying the scriptures and learning theology, those words hit where it hurts. And, I think, that’s the point – after all, the wisest minds and the purest hearts will tell you that, as long as we think we’ve got all the answers, we’re unable to learn anything of any value at all.
Rough lessons: even after a lifetime of obedience through the heat of the desert, choose this day whom you will serve; and then the stern message to grow up, to get over ourselves.
Well, you know what, maybe we can look to the words of Jesus in the Gospel to find something a little more encouraging.
…but what do we find there today?
Jesus says, ‘you think you’re doing alright because you aren’t a murderer? Guess what,’ he says, ‘if you’ve ever been angry at your sibling, you’re as bad as a murderer, and if you’ve ever called your neighbour or that politician or that cashier at the store a fool, you’re fit for eternal punishment and utter separation from God.’
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve done alright this week with the murder bit, but – and confession is good for the soul – there’s not much easy encouragement for me here: I was dealing with CRA again this week, and let’s just say the words “you fool” crossed my mind more than once.
Well, let’s keep reading and see if it gets any better: Jesus says, “you think you’re doing alright because you haven’t committed adultery? Just thinking about it is as bad as the act itself.”
…Harsh words this week.
And what does this have to do with Lent?
Well, thanks be to God, Lent is meant to be an annual opportunity to hit the reset button on our journey as followers of Jesus.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about how we are to be shaped, conformed to match the pattern of humble obedience and sacrificial love set by Jesus. And we’ve talked, at length, about how that isn’t a one time thing, but like arrows sent on a flight towards the target, when we land in the dirt, what we need is for God to pick us up, dust us off, gently bend us back into shape, and send us forth once again.
And, in that same vein, the inescapable point in today’s lessons is this: there is no “set it and forget it” option for our faith. The journey is life-long, and indeed, continues even after death as it’s only then that we’ll fully know ourselves, as we are made fit to share in the perfect life of God in the new heavens and new earth that He is preparing for us.
More than a decision.
Or, to put it this way, the message this morning is that, “I have decided to follow Jesus” is great, but not if it stops there. Jesus is leading us to share in that perfect love and obedience of God Himself, and after that decision to follow Jesus – even after a lifetime of following Jesus through what feels at times like a parched desert – the journey means committing daily to pick up our feet and follow.
“Deciding” is just the first step.
I can decide right now to go on vacation down South. (Surprise, Kristina – you can come too!).
But that decision isn’t going to do me much good unless I buy a ticket.
But just having that ticket in my hand isn’t going to get me to Mexico unless I actually go and get on the plane.
But even that isn’t going to do me much good if I haven’t first gotten my passport in order, gone to the bank to get the right kind of money, and packed my bag with the stuff I’ll need. And, though I don’t enjoy diet and exercise, and sometimes it even hurts in the moment, the destination will be more fun if I can actually fit in my swimsuit.
There’s more to a journey than simply deciding to go.
Childish rather than Child-like
And this is why Paul addresses us as spiritual babies.
When you’re a kid, your parents say “we’re going on vacation”. And what does the kid say? Does the kid say, “oh, well there’s a lot of work to be done first! Make sure you get our passports and refill our medications, and call the credit card company… oh, and make sure you find someone to feed the cat, water the plants, and check the mail while we’re gone”.
No, the child says, “oh, a trip, I’m excited!” And then goes back to drawing or building with Legos, and thinks only about the destination, perhaps bragging here and there to their other young friends about why their vacation is going to be the best one ever.
…But St. Paul tells us to grow up.
A child-like faith is sufficient, but we’re to imitate Christ as we grow in wisdom: we’re called to be wise as serpents, but innocent as doves. We’re to move from our spiritual milk in a sippy cup to become mature, eating a healthy diet of solid food.
…But to do that, we’ve got to have a plan, a sensible progression.
Or, as we heard this morning, we’ve got to have a firm foundation in place first, and then and only then can we get to work building the rest of the house.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit, laying a foundation is tedious and sometimes boring compared to the higher-level stuff. Children like to tell stories, and have great imaginations. No child enjoys sitting at a desk and tracing their lower-case letters. But you’ve got to learn how to write your letters before you can write a story.
Sadly, all these years later, the Church isn’t much better at following St. Paul’s instruction to us. We find ourselves in a Church, in a world, that wants to gobble down solid food, though we haven’t yet been weaned off our milk. We’re literally biting off more than we can chew: we want to discuss what justice looks like, and the nature of love and marriage, and how differing religions can co-exist peacefully side-by-side; but, how many of us, if an unchurched stranger asked us to explain something as basic, as fundamental as the Apostles’ Creed, the Creed of your Baptism, would be able to do so?
And, so, Lent is an invitation.
No matter how long you have been in the Church, whether you’ve been worshipping Almighty God ever since you were a baby in your mother’s arms, or whether you’re a new member preparing for baptism, whether you’re a committed pillar of this congregation, faithful in daily prayer and study of the scriptures, giving generously of your time and resources to care for your brothers and sisters in Christ, or whether this is the first time you’ve heard this invitation, all of us – all of us – are invited to grow.
Those who followed through the desert 40 years were invited to grow closer, to learn again what it means to choose good over evil.
Those who had become experts in the law were invited to grow deeper, to go beyond commandments to learn what it really means to love someone, to wish and work for their ultimate eternal best.
Lay a firm foundation
And if you’ve ever built something – whether it’s a house or a shelf from Ikea – you know how important that foundation is. If that first corner isn’t square, then there’s no hope for anything else to fit together and stand the test of time.
For there is no foundation that can be laid other than Jesus Christ, that stone which the builders rejected, but which has become the cornerstone, that sure foundation that can never be shaken.
And no matter where we are in our journey, Paul’s message is for you and for me: “grow up. Get on with it.” We have a destination, we have a story to tell to the nations… but there’s work to be done, and our bags aren’t going to pack themselves.
To God be the Glory.
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness
we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your
grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please
you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever. Amen.
Prayer over the Gifts:
God of unchanging glory,
accept all we offer this day as a token of our lives which we
offer in your service.
May this sacrament be our manna in the wilderness as we
commit to follow where you lead, this day, and forevermore.
Prayer after Communion:
Almighty God, you have fed us with the spiritual food of the
body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Conform us to his likeness as we follow him in our earthly
pilgrimage. This we ask in the mighty name of Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.
An Exhortation to a Holy Lent
(Based upon the 1979 BCP, to be read before the final blessing)
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by an
annual season of self-examination, works of mercy, prayer,
study, and fasting.
Each year, the whole assembly of the faithful
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
Our Lenten Observance will begin on Ash Wednesday, the 26th
day of February, on which all the faithful will gather unless
prevented by illness or other grave necessity.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. In the coming days, consider how
you may best use this opportunity to grow to maturity in the faith;
and, if, in your preparation, there are weighty sins, the guilt of which
is too heavy to bear, then go and open your grief to a discreet and
understanding priest, that you may receive the benefit of absolution,
spiritual counsel and advise, the assurance of pardon, and the
strengthening of your faith.
And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the
Holy Spirit, be with you this day, and remain with you forever more.
 1 Cor 3:11; Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16