Sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent
22 February 2015
The Rev. Carrie B. Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Friends in Christ, today with the whole church we enter the time of remembering Jesus' passover from death to life, and our life in Christ is renewed.
We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance and for God's mercy. We are created to experience joy in communion with God, to love one another, and to live in harmony with creation. But our sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation, so that we do not enjoy the life our creator intended.
As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.”
Thus begins the invitation to Lent traditionally read on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of this season of repentance and prayer, fasting, and giving. Just a few days ago, Christians gathered to receive ashen crosses on their foreheads, physical signs of their commitment to a forty day season of discipline. Maybe you’ve decided to avoid coffee or chocolate. Maybe you’ve closed your Facebook account, or are writing a thank you note to someone every day. Maybe you’ve decided to follow one of Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount in a radical way (giving to everyone who asks, for example). There are many ways to observe this season, but the idea is to follow Jesus into the wilderness for a time of spiritual discipline. Just as Jesus encountered temptation and struggled against Satan while there, so we also are called to “contend against evil and resist whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.” An earlier edition of the “Lutheran Book of Worship” put it this way: “Repentance, fasting, prayer, and works of love—the discipline of Lent—help us to wage our spiritual warfare.”
The idea of Lent as a time of “spiritual warfare” goes back to the Middle Ages, and is especially suited to this first Sunday in Lent, when we hear of Jesus struggling with Satan in the wilderness and overcoming every temptation. I must admit, however, I’ve never been too comfortable with either the phrase or the idea of “spiritual warfare.” When I was a teenager in Oklahoma, someone gave me a book that was part of a very popular series of teen Christian fiction. Set in modern times, these books graphically depicted “spiritual warfare” as a fight against very real demons. The demons in these books were creatures you could see, and they sat in trees, peered around corners, and lurked in movie theaters, bars and other places that might be harmful to a young Christian’s modesty, purity, and faith. I remember being so affected by these books, that for a while I fully expected to see one of these demons, one of these “powers and principalities”, popping out at me, perhaps from behind the “forbidden aisle” at the video rental store.
As an adult, however, I saw that the reality of evil in the world is much scarier. I saw that there are indeed powers of evil at work against God, but they look very different. Instead of demons in trees and lurking around corners, I started seeing fundamentalism, oppression, racism, religious persecution, and powers and principalities at work even through unjust government policies. Even more terrifying, I recognized the internal forces working against God and God’s kingdom which could be found within any of us: greed, self-importance, lack of compassion, grudges, hatred, and narrow-mindedness, to name a few.
In a way, I would prefer a fight with those fictional, physical, creaturely demons from the novels! They were easier to contend with. It was comforting to think I would know one when I saw one. It was nice to think that evil existed “out there.”
But in reality, it’s not so easy to identify the real demons. It’s not so easy to point and shoot, especially in light of the words of Jesus, who challenges us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and turn the other cheek. It’s not so easy to draw lines between good and evil, when we recognize the temptations to abuse of power, greed, hatred and hypocrisy which lie inside each of us.
Lent. The cross. The desert. Contending against evil. Spiritual warfare. These were the words in my ears and the images in my mind at the conclusion of Redeemer’s noon Ash Wednesday service. I hurried away after the service with Robert and Bishop Younan to the Coptic Orthodox Church for a memorial service for the twenty-oneEgyptian Christians killed in Libya last week. As we entered the church courtyard, we walked under a huge banner featuring the images of all twenty-one men, kneeling in their orange jumpsuits, with their killers behind them. Even though I had already seen this image on the internet, it was truly a shocking sight to behold on such a grand scale.
Robert whispered to me that this was the new iconography. We were seeing the first holy images of twenty-one new martyrs of the faith.
After being greeted with coffee, we were seated with Bishop Younan near the front of the church to hear messages of condolence offered by local clergy. I must admit, I was prepared to hear some messages of defiance and righteous anger. Newly marked with a cross-shaped sign of my own mortality, and with the images of men killed for being marked with that same cross displayed all around me, I expected (and might have even welcomed) some talk of battle. A part of me wanted to join in contending against the forces of evil which had caused such a tragedy, and which seem to be flourishing in our world today.
And then, I noticed I was sitting between a Muslim man and woman. Looking around a bit more, I saw that seated with the patriarchs and archbishops and bishops were representatives of the Waqf, the Muslim authority responsible for governing the holy sites of Islam here in Jerusalem. I started to wondered how this event was going to go.
But as the speeches began, I didn’t hear angry diatribes or calls for revenge. This was indeed described as a time for spiritual warfare, but not against Muslims or even against the hooded executioners shown on that huge banner. What I heard was a passionate call to contend against our true enemies-- the demons of hatred, terror, fundamentalism, extremism, and violence. Again and again, the religious leaders of Jerusalem called on Christians and Muslims alike to fight against the forces which defy God, and to do so with the power of love, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They called on people of faith to follow the path of Christ, who teaches us even to love those who persecute us. The message was clear: We are in a battle, but we need to be clear about who (or what) we are fighting against—and what the cross tells us about how to engage in that fight.
All we have to do is turn on the news to see how sin and evil persist in the world, both within us and without. As baptized members of the Body of Christ and citizens of God’s kingdom, we are called to actively resist and deny all that opposes the kingdom. In this way, the entire Christian life is one of spiritual warfare. After all, Lent isn’t really forty days to be lived in a completely different way from the rest of the year. It’s more like a booster shot of discipleship, a time to intensify our commitment to the Gospel of love, and to be strengthened for whatever lies ahead.
At this point, you may be wondering how giving up Facebook or your morning cup of coffee can be called “spiritual warfare.” It’s hard to imagine how our small Lenten disciplines can fight against terrorism, for example.
But then, there we go, confusing our enemy again. When we turn our spiritual warfare into a holy war against our neighbor, then we are no better than the terrorists.
Our struggle is not with our neighbor, but with the hatred we have for our neighbor.
Our struggle is not with Islam, but with human division and misunderstanding.
Our mortal combat is not with ISIS, but with the fear such groups intend to instill in our hearts and in our communities.
Our Lenten disciplines themselves may be no match for the evils of the world, but when our hearts are free from distractions, the power of Christ’s love becomes a Christian's greatest strength. This is the spiritual warfare to which we are called. Confident in the grace of God we have in the cross of Christ, we are extremists for love, mercy, and forgiveness, for the sake of the whole world.
Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Repent and believe in the good news! The fight against extremism, against terror, against occupation, against hatred, against every evil that starts in the human heart, begins when we repent and turn away from all that opposes the kingdom of God.
This includes turning away from things which distract us from love of God and love of neighbor—like an unhealthy obsession with Facebook, or chocolate, or coffee.
This also includes turning away from the urge to return evil for evil, and from the temptation to punish an entire religion for the actions of a few.
It includes turning away from all who would intend to divide us, infect us with fear, or make us ashamed of our faith.
We turn away from these and all other forces which defy God, and we turn towards Jesus, in whom we believe the kingdom has come near.
For we believe goodness is stronger than evil, and love always conquers hate.
We believe the lives of martyrs will never be in vain, if we refuse to let hate infect our lives, our communities, and our hearts.
We believe that on the cross, Jesus has conquered sin and death once and for all, so wherever our journey leads--even if it means we give our own lives--the hope of resurrection is always before us.
One last thought for today. As I was preparing for the sermon this week, I “accidentally” read the wrong verses from 1 Peter. Our lectionary includes only verses 18-22, but I had been meditating on the passage beginning at verse 13.
It’s funny how these “accidents” work, though, because these extra verses were exactly what I needed to hear this week. As we enter this season of Lent, and as we are faced nearly every day with images of terror from those who want to goad us into fighting a different kind of religious war, consider these words from the 1 Peter chapter 3:
“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”