As Christians, we side with the underdogs because we most clearly identify with the persecuted margins (this is who Jesus was). Through Jesus’ life and death, we have the capacity to more readily see the systems–the “powers, and principalities”–that damage and destroy life. And by following Jesus’ footsteps, we have the impetus–the mission–the challenge to expose and undermine the forces that harm those outside the “normative pattern of life.”
Note: I don’t often include the songs that were sung/performed, but on this occasion, I believe they add a certain something.
Sing: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Man, I haven’t been back here in ages–not since that night all those years ago. I was younger then, of course. Though under the circumstances, I’m not sure I was any better looking.
I remember it was a nicer day than it should have been. There was a cool spring breeze blowing gently and bright sun in the clear blue sky–of course, that would change before any of us realized.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I seem to do that a lot when remembering that day. Never before has my memory been so clear and so cloudy at the same time as when I remember that day.
I’d known Jesus for some time, by then. You’ve probably heard about me, even though you never knew my name. Everybody knows about the 12, even if they get some of the names mixed up. But they weren’t the only ones Jesus commissioned to spread the good news about God’s kingdom. I was one of the 72 that Jesus sent out—two-by-two—to prepare the way ahead of him. It was unreal: I felt like John the Baptist in more comfy clothes and with better food. Man, those were some crazy times: people healed, demons cast out, all sorts of odds overcome.
You know, I wasn’t even in town when Jesus was arrested. The Jerusalem hotels get booked up nearly a year in advance, and—once Jesus told all of us he was going to Jerusalem for the Passover this year—every one of his followers wanted to be in Jerusalem to celebrate it with him. We knew it would be too late to book a big banquet hall—in fact, I’m not sure how Jesus managed to secure space big enough for he and the Twelve. But Lazarus and his family were kind enough to put me up. And just knowing that I was within two miles of both Jesus and Jerusalem at the Passover would have made it memorable. But of course, the events of that night made it memorable for other reasons—reasons that changed everything.
It was still dark when the pounding at the door began. Mary and Martha were obviously more used to this kind of thing than were the rest of us staying there. I got the impression that they had served as a waypoint for many of Jesus’ followers who needed to pass through the area unobserved. But there was nothing covert about this man—who I later learned was named Daniel. He yelled so loudly you couldn’t even make out what he was saying, and I thought the door was going to fall from it’s hinges from the beating he gave it.
Mary got to the door first, as the man panted out: “Jesus——“ he panted.
Something had happened, but Daniel was too distraught to explain. While Martha made some tea and Mary tried to calm him down, Lazarus and I and some of the others started packing our bags. Whatever was going on, we were going to be there too.
Suddenly there was a shout from bellow: “No!!!” Mary screamed. And we all came tumbling back down the stairs in concern and fear.
My memory isn’t very good here. It’s like I sort of zoned out when I heard the word “arrested.” There had been a lot of close calls for Jesus these last years. There had been a few times it seemed like Jesus was even throwing fuel on the fire. But he had always managed to get away, even if that involved mysteriously moving the crowd like it wasn’t even there.
But we’d all heard the rumors. We’d known how people were being kicked out of the synagogue for believing in Jesus. We’d seen the last couple days how the Jerusalem leaders had stirred up the crowds against him.
Arrested. Jesus may have given them ample motive, but there was no doubt the charges would be trumped up. There would be no doubt that those snakes would find a way to……
Lazarus’s hand clapping on my back brought me out of my daze. “Time to go, friend,” he said as we set out, the early light of dawn just breaking behind us. We had only a few miles to travel, but we didn’t really know where we would find Jesus. We knew they were taking him to Caiaphus’ house, but would he still be there? Even if he wasn’t, there were only a few places to look. If we were lucky, others who were loyal to Jesus would be trailing him, leaving bread crumbs for the rest of us to follow.
Sing: Go to Dark Gethsemane
I could tell you about the next few hours—hours spent anxiously searching, fearing the worst and knowing nothing. But none of that matters, because we were too late. From Caiaphas to Pilate to Golgotha. That’s where we found him—stripped nearly naked, nails already piercing his hands and feet, crown of thorns savagely crushed into his head. I have never been able to shake that image from my memory.
Time seemed to stand still then, too. I’m sure there was chaos all around, but it was as though all the sound was sucked out of the world along with the air. Creation itself seemed to hold her breath as Jesus hung there—his heaving chest the only indicator of life.
Suddenly, it heaved more deeply than normal, and I knew it had to be the end—this would be his last breath. Jesus wasn’t going to survive long on the cross—not as long as we’re used to—but who could fault him, his body broken as it was, subjected to beatings that tore his flesh from his bones.
But after that breath, there did not come the expected death-rattle groan, but something even more earth shattering:
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)
That forgiveness was a slap in the face, for certain. Here was Jesus forgiving the people who crucified him as a common criminal, and I’m still holding a grudge against Lucas for letting his dogs poop in my yard. What a hypocrite I am!
I’d like to say this knocked some sense into me, but I’m not so sure. But it did make me more aware of what was going on around me. While my mouth had been agape, my friend Jesus—the Messiah—was being ridiculed. It was that stupid sign!—“This is the King of the Jews”—that they put on top of the cross. What started with the authorities trickled down to the soldiers. My blood was already rising in defense of my friend when one of the criminals hanging on another cross joined in. That was the last straw! Hearing him of all people taunt Jesus and tell him to save himself was simply too much.
I opened my mouth to speak, but someone else beat me to it. “Shut up, you idiot,” I heard. Not quite the way I was going to put it, but probably better considering the presence of the women around us. But who was this that was standing up for Jesus? It wasn’t someone near me…… It almost seemed like it was coming from that direction……
It was! Could you believe it?!? Jesus, hanging on a cross, being taunted by one criminal and defended by another. I don’t remember all that he said as he stood up for Jesus, but I do remember the way it ended. He turned to Jesus with a strength and resolve that betrayed the dire circumstances and he said: “Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, please remember me.”
Holy smokes, right? I mean, I’ve heard of deathbed confessions and all, but this is pushing the envelope to the bitter end. Jesus, however, never missed a beat:
“I promise you that this very day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Salvation. I wish I could tell you we all realized then and there that this is what it was all about. But we didn’t. Maybe we couldn’t, I don’t know. It took Jesus explaining it all to us afterward before we realized that salvation is where this was heading all along. At the time, it just seemed cruel. Hopeless. A tragic ending to what could have been.
But even in this moment, as we were all thinking about ourselves and what this meant for us, Jesus was thinking about others. Jesus, as he usually did, was thinking about relationships and how to bring us together—how to help us find purpose through each other—how to help us be the fulfillment of our prayers in one another’s life.
Looking down from the cross, his gaze connected with that of Mary. His mother’s. Just a few spans away from the cross that bore her firstborn son. Oh God, I hadn’t even realized Mary was there, let alone thought about how she was feeling through this! “Forgive me,” I thought, as Jesus yet again managed to shake me from my self-indulgent despair.
His head turned toward Mary, who had John at her side. John had always loved Mary like she was his own mother. I think that’s one of the reasons he and Jesus were so close. Again his chest heaved. Again we held our breath in case it was his last. [WAIT……]
And again his voice—weak as it was—sounded above the din of the crowd:
“Dear woman, this is your son. This is now your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
That was when the lights went out. [PULL DOWN HOUSE LIGHTS]
Sing: The Old Rugged Cross
Trauma has a way of messing with your perspective of time. Add darkness into the mix, and it’s nearly impossible to be sure how long it was between things. I’m not entirely sure I’m remembering it all in the right order.
The sudden and unexpected darkness that enveloped us seemed to unsettle those who had been mocking Jesus. They quieted down for a while—that was strangely fortunate. But then again, I think the darkness drove us back into our own thoughts.
Grief is a funny thing. We didn’t know about the different stages of grief (or all of that) back then, but I was experiencing most of them at that moment: there was plenty of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. But mostly, I remember feeling empty. Abandoned. Hopeless. Jesus had taught us so much about God’s care and concern for us, how we are loved by God more than the birds of the air, and all that. But here……when it mattered……God seemed nowhere to be found.
Suddenly, Jesus said what we were all thinking. It happened so suddenly that his voice scared me, as though I was startled awake once again:
“My God, My God, why have You forsake me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)
It wasn’t until later that we realized Jesus was quoting from the scriptures. That happened a lot with Jesus, but those are other stories for another time. Remembering the context of those words from Psalm 22 helped us (later on) to hear them as words of triumph instead of abandonment. They helped us transform the cross from a symbol of torture and death into one of hope and life. Because Jesus said those words, we realized that we were “the generations to come” who will “tell…of the righteousness of the Lord, of what He has done” (Psalm 22:31)
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. We didn’t know any of the yet. We couldn’t comprehend how Jesus was using one of the psalms he loved so much to transform our mourning into shouts of joy, just as the prophet Jeremiah had predicted (31:13).
Instead, it was dark. Jesus was obviously dying. And we didn’t understand.
As if we needed a reminder that his body was giving out, his voice again sounded in the darkness:
“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)
Dehydration. Exhaustion. Anemia. It was all catching up with him.
And it was like blood in the water, and the sharks were circling. That very human expression of distress and weakness ramped up the viciousness of his tormenters. Instead of water to quench thirst—or even a little wine to help abate the pain—it was vinegar they offered him.
I could see Jesus’ body tense and twist as that sponge soaked in vinegar was squeezed against his face, dripping into cuts and running into the lacerations on his back and sides. Is there no end to the cruelty of our human race? How can Jesus forgive them, even as they continue to kick him when he’s down—even as their…their…their evil is on full display?
They were right about one thing: Jesus’ life was about to end. He even said as much, as soon as they got that vinegar-soaked sponge out of his face:
“It is finished.” (John 19:30)
It’s a strange kind of triumph when the goal is to expose violence. And that’s what this was, really. To people who didn’t know him, “it is finished” sounded like Jesus was giving up—like he was quitting the fight to live any longer. But to those of us who knew him—to those of us who had been so completely changed by knowing Jesus—we heard something different. There was a resolve in his voice……a note of satisfaction, like a job well done. Jesus, it seemed, felt he had accomplished something, even if we didn’t know what that was.
Nor did we have the opportunity to ask him. Because a second later, the end really came:
“Father, I entrust My spirit into Your hands.” (Luke 23:46)
Special Music: Kelley Mooney’s adaptation of L. Cohen’s “Hallelujah”
Drama Part 4
If we didn’t know everything had changed before the moment of Jesus’ death, we certainly did afterward. The whole earth shook, like the very foundations of creation were keening with grief. After the sun reappeared, someone noticed the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. The earthquake caused some caskets to be unearthed, and (without enough time to bury them all before the Sabbath), a couple days later some would even claim these corpses were walking about and “proving” they were alive.
Of course, that’s a story for another day, too.
The remarkable thing about this day is the way Jesus taught us to see how the Kingdom was already there. In his actions and his words, Jesus pulled back the curtain of this world and allowed us to see that the Kingdom was already in place—we just had to trust enough to live it out.
He did what I think the young people these days call “flipping the script.” All those things we were afraid of proved to be nothing. All those things we had trouble seeing became real. The symbols of death became the means to life. Even death itself became redeemed as Jesus recognized in it a reunion with the Father.
I wish I could tell you we knew all this at the time. But unfortunately, we didn’t. We knew Jesus’ death changed everything, but the change we thought happened drove us to despair. We holed up in fear, hiding out with the expectation that we too would be killed. This, we thought, was the end. The cross seemed to be one giant X-marks-the-spot where the train wreck of our hope piled up onto itself.
I’m not sure what else to tell you. All these years later, I still don’t comprehend a tenth of it. But my witness remains the same: I was there. I was there. I was there.
Sing: Were You There? (vv.1-3 only)
(with thanks, appropriate credit, and all due apologies to Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.)
Two hundred forty years ago, our American forbearers dared to declare that “all…are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In the intervening years, we have struggled to live into their audacious vision of equality and value for all people. We have fought wars among ourselves—both declared and unnamed. We have passed and repealed laws both just and unjust. Well over a half-million American lives have been lost in this struggle. Two hundred forty years, and still men and women and children are killed because of the color of their skin. Two hundred forty years, and still men and women and children are victimized because of their religion, or their language, or their culture. Two hundred forty years, and we still don’t know how to live together.
It would be all too easy to dismiss our nation’s initial bold vision as reckless, gutsy-yet-empty political rhetoric. God knows we’ve had plenty of that of late. But the fact is that our forbearers appear to have been sincere in their declaration—and that generation after generation since has affirmed these freedoms to be a central component of our national identity. America, I believe, is facing an identity crisis. Pressured and beset upon by bullies both within and without, America has given up its greatest strength—the value and responsibility of freedom, entrusted to every person no matter their circumstance.
Tossed about by these blustery winds, the strong trunk of our nation is at risk. The broad branches which shelter and protect those on the margins have been pruned, our growth stunted. The mighty oak that is our once proud nation has been weakened, broken down, and consumed from the inside out.
But I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all…are created equal.”
I have a dream…that neighbors will one day be neighborly again, instead of escalating to aggression and violence at every conflict.
I have a dream…that individuals of all professions may be held to account for their unjust deeds.
I have a dream…that no one anywhere need fear using the bathroom in public.
I have a dream…that law enforcement officers will not have their already impossible job made even more impossible by the unjust actions of another, simply because they wear the same uniform.
I have a dream…that one day we learn to value plough shares more than swords.
I have a dream…that a day’s work will earn a livable wage.
I have a dream…that mothers will no longer have to teach their children how *not* to be shot.
I have a dream…that God’s name will no longer be taken in vain by being dragged into the muck of un-Christ-like politics and explanations of tragedies, instead praying only “Lord, have mercy.”
I have a dream…that employees need not fear being fired for illness or other personal setbacks, but will be seen as an investment rather than a mere commodity.
I have a dream…that one day those of all religions and no religion will not be judged on account of extremists hiding their hate behind a thin veneer of faith.
I have a dream…that we will find facts more compelling than emotions.
I have a dream…that medical bills and educational expenses will no longer hang as a death sentence over those foolish enough to get sick or try to advance themselves.
I have a dream…that my children will not fear their children’s future as I have so often done.
I have a dream…that one day we will see how peripheral things like skin color, faith, sexuality, language, gender identity, and culture fade in comparison to the giant universal reality of being created in God’s image.
I have a dream today… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope… With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brother/sisterhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
I have a dream today… the dream that “one day” will start today. That this day, in this place, at this time the dream that began more than 240 years ago might begin to be fulfilled. That we choose today to abandon the entrenched encampments we possess as foot-soldiers of the powers of darkness, that we drop our weapons of death, and that we stand up and step out in solidarity against those forces that imprison even the one who thinks he is free. I have a dream… I have a dream that all lives will matter enough to us to stand up for those whose lives don’t seem to matter as much. I have a dream… that when my days are over and my children surround me, they will know that today was the day everything changed, that today was the day their future—and the futures of those with a different skin color, a different faith, a different language, and different customs—all became a little brighter. Because today was the day we said “no” to hate and started saying “yes” to love.
I have a dream…
Earlier this week, I was in one of the neighboring “big cities” making some hospital visits. I’d stopped and grabbed lunch at a quickie mexican joint and was walking back to my car. There, on the ground near the driver’s door, was a folded piece of paper—white computer paper, folded up exactly the way I fold up notes I write and stick in my pockets.
While I didn’t remember having such a note in my pocket, I picked it up and unfolded it. It was a shopping list (is there anything more sad than a lost shopping list?), written by and escaped from some poor soul who would soon become aggrevated when he realized he would be working off memory alone.
Intending to recycle it when I had the chance, I placed this rogue list in the console of my car, and continued my day.
Today has not had a great start. In my home is an infant that doesn’t sleep well. There were some massive thunderstorms that blew through last night. I was running late (I HATE running late). When I finally got out of the house and arrived at the church, I reached in the back seat to grab my bag (containing Bible, computer, tablet, etc.). But my bag was not there. NOT THERE. In my haste to depart, I had managed to leave behind the single most important thing.
Back in the car I go. Back to home again. There’s my wife, puzzled look on her face. There’s my bag, sitting on the recliner near the door where I left it. There’s my kids, excited I’m home so early (oh, to be again so oblivious to the passage of time!).
Hugs and kisses all around, and more than one sad face. Back in the car I go. Back to church again. Round and round and round I go, where I stop no one knows.
I’m thinking of my day. The appointments I have. The small groups I have to lead. The sermon that needs preparing for the upcoming Sunday.
What’s that? The sermon?
There’s a moment’s grace. An idea. An insight. A connection. A plan. I can see it all, at least in broad strokes.
Must. Be. PRESERVED.
Having stopped at a stop sign, I allow my eyes to dart around the car for anything—ANYTHYING—within reach that I can jot some notes on.
The list. The sad, lost, rogue list. Right THERE. What I needed, where I needed it.
The list—sad no more. But suddenly a provision. A met need. A peculiar and divine coincidence of happenstance and divine action.
God is with me. I give thanks.
Every now and again, someone urges me to preach more from the heart. I get what they want. I do. I can be too academic. I can get too complicated. I don’t always seem as passionate. Some weeks, I seem more rooted in my manuscript than others.
What they often want is to see me speak passionately, decisively, and usually without notes. And even though the passionate sermons they describe me preaching were usually preached from a full manuscript, I do take these comments very seriously. They help me to assess my preaching, to recognize places of further needed teaching and ministry, and to reflect on my own levels of self care and energies. They do affect what and how I preach, in ever differing ways.
But I don’t want to speak from my heart. I want to speak from the heart of God. That’s an important distinction, and it is something that requires time, prayerful reflection, and intent consideration. I do want my heart to be God’s heart, but I know that is a work-in-progress that will not be completed in this lifetime. And that means I have a lot of me to filter out in order to zero in on God’s heart.
So forgive me, but I won’t be preaching without notes anytime soon. I think what I do is too significant to be left to my own imperfect heart. I’ll keep testing the spirits, practicing discernment, reading and studying as much as I’m able–and then I’ll try to share God’s heart as purely and honestly as I can. It’s really all I can do. Really.
Scripture: Psalm 32
“Hi. My name is Michael. And I’m a sinner.”
That is an important confession to me. It may be the most important confession I make, because without first saying “I am a sinner,” I cannot also confess that “Jesus is Lord.”
Being a minister (as I am) means that I spend more time pondering and living in the midst of death than does the average person. At least that’s what I imagine. I’ve never really been average, so I suppose I don’t actually know.
But living in the midst of death (as I often do) means I eventually work my way around to thinking about the eventuality of my own passing into the next life. I think about what music I would like to be at the memorial service, the kind of message I hope gets delivered—that kind of thing.
I’ve wondered what people will say about me when I’m gone—and what they understood about my life and convictions and the way I chose to live in this world. I hope that all of that leads them to realize what matters to most me. I hope I have so lived consistently with what I have come to understand to be my personal statement of identity and purpose.
If someone asks you on that day: “How would Michael have described himself and his life?”; it is my prayer that my life has been so lived that you will answer: “He would say he was a sinner, who hoped for resurrection.”
Introduction to Series
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. And confession is one of those disciplines that demands practice during this season, as we examine ourselves, “practice” Christian love and life, and prepare ourselves for the darkness of the Cross that we know is coming.
We are going to spend Lent in the Psalms this year, gleaning wisdom and instruction from this ancient prayerbook that was so vital to Jesus’ own life and identity.
I love the Psalms, but I realize that I rarely preach from them. I’m still figuring out why that is, though part of it may be that I find their truths to be so clear and obvious that elaborating on them seems distracting. Regardless the reason, I expect to be stretched a bit as a preacher this year, and I hope that you are willing to be stretched a bit as “hearers of the word” and “disciples of Christ.”
Lent is a season that conjures in our imagination visions of darkness and candles, of wood-paneled confessional booths, and of an absence of meat. It is a time that we spend looking inward: fasting, praying, purging.
But because of that focus, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that these things bring us to a place of celebration and joy, and that is the message of the Psalmist in Psalm 32.
In this song, the Psalmist tells us a story—a story that begins in the third verse of our reading.
The Psalmist knows his guilt—as we would recognize does God—but like for many of us, he has trouble coming to terms with the ways that he has not loved God with his whole heart; and the ways that he has not loved his neighbors as himself.
Without confession to God, his guilt eats away at his very body. The Hebrew literally says “my bones were worn out” (v.3). The Psalmist speaks of a heaviness upon him, of a weakness of both body and spirit.
The apostle Paul tells us in Rom 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death,” and I really believe that he is speaking both of the spiritual death of separation from God, and of a physical death that begins in this life, as our sins infect our bodies and live as a cancer that will only keep spreading. There are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions and consequences to our sin.
To remedy these ailments, there is but one prescription—one thing for us to practice: confession. Verse 5: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you…and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Amazing Free Will
Do you realize that in all God’s power, in all God’s might, in all God’s knowing and being, God cannot force anything on you? Not even forgiveness.
That’s amazing to me. It’s amazing that God won’t force on us even something so good for us as forgiveness. We have to open ourselves to it through confession. And confession is really nothing more than being honest with God about who we are: how we’ve failed and where we need healing.
It’s also amazing to me how hard God has to work to get us to accept forgiveness. Any half-wit can look around and see that none of us are perfect, that often Christians are the biggest sinners of them all, and that when we pretend otherwise all that comes of our efforts is death. But pretend we do, and insist we do, as though God can’t see through our ridiculous attempts to whitewash the tombs of our souls.
I mean, look at the Psalmist! He resists confessing his sin until his body is physically about to give out. Only then does he give in. Only then will he admit: he has not loved as he ought to love, he has not valued his neighbor as himself, he has not really reflected much of the light of God’s love at all.
I would contend that the Psalmist’s experience here is the normative one for we human beings. If you are the exception (who readily acknowledges and confesses the sin in your life), good on you; but I bet most of us do not acknowledge our brokenness any more readily that does the Psalmist here.
And that really is tragic. Because confession opens the door to forgiveness, and in forgiveness is found great joy.
“After seemingly coming to the end of his strength and resources, the psalmist finally confesses his sin to God; he bares his scarred soul, and God forgives him” (Rohrs, Feasting, 37). What we see in Psalm 32 is the process and results of experiencing God’s forgivness.
(1) First, we are called to acknowledge our sins. Even before confessing, we have to come to a place where we inwardly recognize that truth of our brokenness. This doesn’t mean we have to make lists of every time we failed to love as God loves us. It means we come to realize the deep fundamental reality that we are not as we ought to be; we are not as God created us to be.
(2) Second, we are called to confess our sins. As Baptists, we tend to recognize that this means we confess them to God. But I do believe we have some responsibility to confess to each other as well. I believe Jesus teaches us that we have the power to forgive in Matthew 18, and therefore we have a sacred responsibility to speak forgiveness into the world. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues in his short book Life Together that no community of faith can exist without mutual confession.
What they are speaking about is a simple sort of honesty that must undergird any community of faith. If we cannot be honest about ourselves in community, we will not trust one another and we will not be a community. If any of us thinks we are better than someone else, it is because we acknowledge their sin but not our own.
(3) After acknowledging our sins and confessing our sins, we open the pathway to receive God’s forgiveness. As C.S. Lewis noted, “A man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness” (The Problem of Pain, 122). “The Psalmist experiences God’s forgiveness only after he has acknowledged his sins” (Wigodsky, Feasting, 34).
I realize this will seem off topic at first, but I am convinced there is nothing so pure and beautiful than a newborn baby. Within that tiny package lie all the hopes and dreams and possibilities that can exist in space and time. It is a new life. A blank slate. A baby can be anything.
In experiencing God’s forgivness, we are born again into new life, over and over again. The slate is wiped clean, we are given a fresh start. It is one of the most miraculous and beautiful things this side of glory. But it is one we do not experience as often as we could because we so resist the acknowledgement and confession of our sins.
(4) Fourth and finally, knowing God’s forgiveness brings us joy. This is the part we somehow often miss. Compare the Psalmist’s descriptions of his experience of not confessing sin against his experience of joy on account of God’s forgiveness. Which sounds better to you? Bones wore out, groaning, heaviness, and lack of strength? Or happy, protected, preserved, glad, steadfast love, and joy?
The joy of forgiveness far outweighs the darkness of wrestling with the reality of sin in our lives.
And why does forgiveness bring joy? Because in forgiveness, we experience the resurrection. Death becomes life. Guilt is washed away, and we stand before God without an indictment against us. Brokenness becomes wholeness. We are truly changed.
You see, so often when we encounter Lent, we only focus on the difficult parts. What are you giving up? Which extra services will you attend? How much are you sacrificing?
We forget that the end of all of this is joy.
There’s a bit of an unstated rule in the ebb and flow of the Christian calendar: You don’t get to celebrate unless you’ve prepared. You can’t properly celebrate the birth of Jesus unless you’ve prepared through Advent. You can’t properly appreciate the resurrection unless you’ve traveled the paths of Lenten preparation.
There’s some truth to all this, as we can see in the simple example of confession and forgiveness. Without confession, there can be no forgiveness, and forgiveness is a deep wellspring of joy.
As American Baptists, we don’t often sing the somber Lenten hymns that are prevalent in other Christian traditions. But this week, I encountered a new-to-me hymn that I think really gets to the heart of Lent. One verse goes like this:
To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes,
or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal;
but to be led to where God’s glory flashes, his beauty to come near.
Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear.
(Quoted in Wigodsky, Feasting, 36)
Listen to the wisdom of Psalm 32 today: be honest. Be honest about who you are and where you fail. For without that honesty, you will never know the forgiveness and joy that God is waiting to pour into your life.
A commitment to honesty before God and before one another is perhaps the best way to begin this Lenten journey as well. Because, as the Psalmist reveals to us, without that initial turning, we cannot experience the fullness of the life that God desires for us.
“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them, and in whose spirit is no deceit.”
On account of this assurance, I know there is no confession that can bring me joy like the simple confession that I am a sinner.
Hi. I’m Michael. And I’m a sinner.
Whatever you think you know about me—forget it.
There’s far more than me than that. I am an immensely complex person who defies being put in any box, who resists any stereotype, who refuses to be what you expect me to be.
I am a pastor—but not that kind of pastor. I am a Baptist—but not that kind of Baptist. I am a husband—but I am not like other husbands. I am a father—but like no other father you have known. Same for my other roles as brother, uncle, boss, mentor, friend, and more. I don’t fit in your box.
I am me.
I am me and no one else. And the minute you forget it, you will be surprised, let down, or angry. You may feel betrayed, affirmed, or perplexed. But it’s not my fault. I didn’t put me in a box. I didn’t put me in a pigeonhole. I didn’t limit who I could be. You did.
But you know what else. All the same could (and should) be said for you too. My difference isn’t that I am different but how I am different. Because you are different too, and your difference is different than mine.
Talk myself in a circle yet? Probably.
But so much conflict, so much hate, so much misunderstanding and miscommunication seems to come from the fact that we do not allow other people to be more than we know. I am no more the pastor who has gone before me than I am the boyfriend my wife had previous to our meeting. Those people are not me and I am not them, though my relationships may be colored by those that were before.
Same thing with you. You may remind me of someone else—and therefore I am tempted to treat you as such. But you are not them; they are not you. We are each unique creations of our God. We are each unique manifestations of the Divine Image.
If only we could understand that. If only we could treat each other as the unique creations they are, then maybe we could know peace.
Still going in circles? Me too. But together—and apart—we will put one foot in front of another and live into God’s peaceable kingdom. So I hope.