Sermon notes 04-05-20 Flunking Lent, Finding Freedom

21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two
disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied
there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say
that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt
and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the
road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went
ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

This is a very special day on the Christian calendar. It is of course Palm Sunday, and it is sometimes also known as Palm/Passion Sunday because this Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week when we commemorate our Lord’s Passion. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but there is something else special about this Sunday that might easily be lost in the midst of everything else, especially this year, and that is that this is the last Sunday in the season of Lent.

Lent is of course that 40-day period that began on Ash Wednesday and ends next Saturday, the day before Easter. It’s almost hard to believe now, with everything that has happened since Ash Wednesday, but many of you were here then, just five and a half weeks ago, when we were invited to: “observe a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” So, now that we are down to the last week of Lent, it’s time for some Lenten self-examination. We didn’t know when Lent began how much our world would change before Lent ended, so let me ask, how’s it going with keeping your Lenten commitments and practicing your Lenten disciplines?

In some ways it might have been easier to keep your Lenten commitments this year, and in some ways it might have been harder. If, for example, you made a commitment to not lose
patience with a certain co-worker during Lent, that might have become easier to do once you were forced to work from home. If you made a commitment to read your Bible more, you may have found you have had more time on your hands and it has been easier to keep that commitment.

On the other hand, if you committed to cutting back on snack foods for Lent, that might have become harder to do once you were confined to your home, mere steps away from your snack cupboard, all day, every day. I know someone who gave up worrying for Lent. Think how much harder that must have become, with what has taken place in our lives since Ash Wednesday!

Whatever we might have committed to, or given up, for Lent, the vast majority of us find the self-examination that comes with Lent to be hard. It is not a pleasant thing to face our shortcomings, our faults and our failings. But I want to suggest that self-examination need not be as unpleasant as we make it out to be, because as Christians there is always good news for us in the end.

I re-read an article this week written by Debra Dean Murphy. Kim and I were once members of the same church as Debra. Debra has gone on to be a professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan University. She wrote this article several years ago, but it certainly still applies this year, and every year, I think. Debra entitled the article “Flunking Lent.” In the article Debra quoted the words of a sermon by a preacher named Fleming Rutledge who wrote, “I have flunked Lent. I flunk it every year.” And then Debra added, “But those are my words, too, this week, and perhaps yours also. We’ve flunked Lent. We always do.” Yep.

“But,” Debra writes, “this is not the bad news it may at first appear to be. When we set out on Ash Wednesday every year to observe a holy Lent, we pray … for mercy and cleansing, for wisdom, and for an erasing of the record that stands against us—a blotting out of our iniquities. We pray that God will ‘create in us a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within us.’

And then we often act as if we must accomplish these things ourselves. We embrace Lenten disciplines— a good thing—but we easily mistake them for what they are not: self-improvement programs meant to make us better (thinner, smarter, nicer) people. We come dangerously close to narcissism, shifting our gaze from Christ and our neighbor in need, toward ourselves and our trivial preoccupations.”

So friends, as we arrive at this last Sunday in Lent, we are likely to realize that we have either failed to practice the disciplines we set out to practice, or we have practiced them for the wrong reasons, or both. And in our failure, we are forced to acknowledge that we are not able to become the persons we desire to be on our own. We admit that we cannot cleanse our hearts or renew our spirits ourselves. If we are honest in our self-examination, we are humbled to the point of despair.

And this is where we actually find good news. It turns out that in flunking Lent, we are set free from the illusion that we are in control of making ourselves ‘better people.’ Our failure forces us to acknowledge our dependence on God to do the much-needed work of transformation in our lives. There is great freedom in acknowledging that only God can create in us a clean heart, and only God can put a new and right spirit in us. So in flunking, we actually find great reward.

And of course this applies not only to the season of Lent but to all of life for Christians. We can easily get caught up into living life as one continuous self-improvement program, trying on our own to become better people, to break away from sinful habits and destructive patterns of behavior by our own strength and effort. We imagine that we can overcome our sins and become better people on our own, without the need for God’s forgiveness and grace. Sometimes we are so stubborn about improving ourselves by ourselves that we give God the silent treatment and we don’t acknowledge our shortcomings and our need for help. But that only serves to leave us estranged from God and exhausted by our efforts and our inevitable failures.

One writer describes those kinds of efforts this way:

There are people who try to raise their souls like a man continually taking standing jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time may come when he will no longer fall back but will go right up to the sky. Thus occupied, he cannot look at the sky.
We cannot take a single step toward heaven. It is not our power to travel in a vertical direction. If however we look heavenward for a long time, God comes and takes us up. He raises us easily. from Waiting for God by Simone Weil).

Sisters and brothers, we cannot raise ourselves up, become good, turn from sin, or earn our way to heaven by ourselves. But it’s easy for God to raise us up if we will just look to our Savior for help, for forgiveness, for freedom.

Which brings us back to Holy Week. We have rightly commemorated our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem this morning. But if we commemorated only Palm Sunday this morning, we would be forgetting something thoroughly essential: our Lord’s Passion. You may wonder why we call the events of Holy Week our Lord’s Passion. We call it his Passion because it was what he was all about; it was the reason he became one of us, it was the purpose behind his Incarnation, it was the ultimate expression of his wondrous love for humanity.

When Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowds shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David.” By Friday, those same crowds would be shouting, “Crucify him.” Jesus went up to Jerusalem knowing that he was headed for the cross. But Jesus did not run from the cross, because the cross was the purpose of his coming. Jesus went willingly to the cross, for us.

His death on our behalf was the reason he entered human history, because it is only in his death that we can have forgiveness and freedom and eternal life.

Friends, we may have flunked Lent and we may feel like we have failed at living a Christian life. But it is never too late to begin anew. God is in the business of creating clean hearts and putting new and right spirits in all who look to him. God knows about all our sins, and he knows our need for forgiveness. If we give God the silent treatment, not acknowledging our failings or confessing our sins, it is exhausting and futile. But when we look to God’s Son whose passion was to die on the cross for our sins, and confess to him our need for forgiveness and help, we find not only forgiveness and help, but freedom, and eternal life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

As our response to the word, may we join together in praying our corporate prayer of confession:

Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will, we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.