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Sunday, March 6, 2022
First Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
Jesus’ temptation is always the first scripture in Lent. In Luke’s account, the devil tests Jesus’ devotion to his saving mission. It is not accidental that, after resisting earthly power and earthly food, Jesus is taken up to Jerusalem, the site of his eventual suffering and death and instead asked to prove his divine invulnerability. We too are tempted to mistake the faith for a scheme for self-satisfaction and empowerment, when in fact the glory of the Christian life is made perfect through weakness and faithfulness through suffering. We can see also a pattern of increasing craftiness in Satan’s tempting, whereby Jesus is first offered power in exchange for worshipping Satan, the next try is to get Jesus to exalt himself and test God’s own care of him. Satan tempts us in much the same way. The familiar and explicit “deal with the devil” is rarely the tactic. Rather, we are usually tempted to worship ourselves and let God play the attendant to our desires. In Lent, we ought to remember that, though we hope in his grace, the fear of the Lord means killing in ourselves the attitude of presumption that would cheapen that grace by causing us to intentionally test its limits. God is the one who tests us, not the other way around.
Sunday, March 13, 2022
Second Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
The Revised Common Lectionary presents a choice of Gospel readings this Sunday. The preacher will be rewarded for choosing the Transfiguration account. Though to modern ears, something rings false about Jesus’ glorification coming in the penitential season of Lent, in fact, it reveals an enormously important truth since it comes right on the heels of Jesus’ command that his disciples deny themselves and take up their cross. The message is that for both Christ and the Christian, suffering and victory go inevitably together. The glory and strength of the Christian life is sourced by its consent to weakness and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others. The Transfiguration shows where the way of the Cross leads, to glorification on the Mountain of the Lord.
Sunday, March 20, 2022
Third Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
Jesus helps us rethink the sense of divine judgment. Jesus does not accept the theory that God sends calamity as retribution for sin. The question is not what sorts of behavior will trigger God’s lethal anger, but why he allows anyone to go on living at all. The image of the fig tree—which may be applied both to Israel and the individual believer--shows that its only purpose in taking up the soil is to bear fruit. If the tree, the human being, or the nation, does not use its resources to do good works, then sooner or later, God will cut it down and put it to other ignoble uses for which it was not created, but may nevertheless serve (cf. Matt. 7:19). The question that should be asked when faced with another’s calamity is not “what did this person do to anger God?” but rather, “what am I doing to fulfill my purpose of bearing good fruit in the world for God’s sake?” Nevertheless, God’s heart is merciful and he sends his Son the vinedresser to cultivate good works and holiness of life in us fallow trees by the nourishment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus prescribes repentance as the appropriate response to God’s saving work. It is a posture that God never despises, even in the driest trees (see Luke 23:32-43).
Sunday, March 27, 2022
Fourth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
Though the focal point in preaching the parable of the Prodigal Son has been as an allegory for repentance. However, this is hardly a very inspiring portrait. The younger brother remains entirely self-interested, cashing out his inheritance and then after squandering it all, realizing that he would be better off as his father’s hired hand. This emphasizes the love of the Father all the more--how willing he is to restore to full honor even the slightest hint of repentance. However, the overlooked and very significant focal point of the story is the father’s words to the indignant older brother: “All that is mine is yours.” The older brother’s claim that the Father does not lavish love on him for all his dedicated service shows that, in a greatly ironic twist, it is the “good” son who has failed to consider himself as a fellow heir of the Father’s estate, and instead has regarded himself as the hired hand, waiting impatiently for a wage. The father reminds him that he is an incorporated part of the family business, not an outsider hoping to earn his way into the storehouse. In this way, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for their hardness of heart, despite their proximity to Synagogue and Temple worship. They are unwilling to join God on his saving mission to the world, and so count themselves out of heavenly blessings. The preacher may apply this parable to ourselves by reminding the congregation that each of us shares in God’s “family business” of evangelism, reconciliation, and works of mercy as beloved sons and daughters, not wag-earning slaves. This is the sort of religious posture that draws on the Father’s great storehouse of love for us, distributes it to others, and may finally rest in that eternal love.
Sunday, April 3, 2022
Fifth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
John’s account of Mary anointing Jesus for burial contains several details that can help the congregation find their posture at the close of the Lenten season and anticipating the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.
Like his narration of Jesus’ first week of ministry, John’s Gospel sequences the final days of Jesus’ last week, announcing each day’s passing of this final week. Jesus announces the countdown at 12:23. His hour that he alludes to at his first miracle is now at hand. By the end of the week he will be glorified in his crucifixion. The eighth day, the first day of the new week, will begin the new creation heralded by his Resurrection.
Mary’s anointing of Jesus anticipates the church’s liturgy. She strikes a sacramental image, kneeling before the Lord as we do at the altar in Eucharist. The passage focuses on the sacrifice we may make of our own lives when we come to Jesus in faith to worship him. The word used for the ointment is pistikos (“pure”) deriving from the same root as “faith” (pistis) indicating that her anointing is an act that derives from her great faith. Judas’ legalistic (and also hypocritical, as John points out) criticism shows that the source of good works lie in the worship of Christ, and that extravagant worship in no way contradicts the command to give alms to the poor. Indeed, the work of worshipping God enables service to the poor. John also records the detail in Matthew and Mark about the smell filling the place, recalling the “pleasing aroma” of the sacrifices in Leviticus. Mary truly fulfills Psalm 51:17, that the sacrifices the Lord loves are “a broken spirit and a contrite heart.”
So too as the congregation prepares for Easter, they may be reminded that the effort and treasure expended in worship of Jesus at Holy Week—made more burdensome by its observance in a world in which Holy Week is just another 9-5 work week—is indeed a pleasing sacrifice to God, even a participation in his suffering, even if in a small way.
Our present situation gives us more opportunity to worship like Mary, who alone among the disciples seemed to perceive that the glorification of Christ was on the cross, not in worldly success. Similarly, the world today overlooks Easter, taking no pause to “stay with me.” The bemusement and offense taken at Mary is like what we may experience as we bow out of social gatherings, fast while others feast, or even take time away from work. This is the sacrifice God desires, even as the world may wonder why we aren’t doing something useful with our time and money. The church alone knows that Jesus’ glorification on the Cross is that great good thing from which all other goods come, for Christ alone gives life to the world.
Sunday, April 10, 2022
Liturgy of the Palms—Lent, Year C
The great contrast between joyful hosannas to the passion reading is a feature, not a bug, of the Palm Sunday liturgy. The preacher’s unique job is to help the congregation enter into the mystery of Jesus’ sacrifice, his crowning act of love for humanity.
Luke’s passion narrative places special focus on Jesus’ innocence. What may not be obvious to a modern audience is how Roman justice, though brutal, was generally well-regarded. To be crucified would not have made Jesus a pitiable sight but a contemptuous one. Jesus, next to the thieves, would have been thought to have deserved his fate. Luke’s painstaking reconstruction of events, quotations, and testimonies of the players involved, like one of our modern documentaries aimed at overturning a guilty verdict, is meant to show that the fix was in from the start.
What is remarkable is Jesus’ silence in verse nine. If anyone could take it upon himself to vindicate himself before men it would be the sinless Son of God. But the passage from Isaiah 50 discloses the heart of Jesus: a total reliance on the Father’s purposes that needs no vindication in the eyes of men. It is enough for Jesus that the Father knows his innocence “therefore I am not disgraced, therefore I have set my face like flint. And I know that I will not be ashamed” (v. 7).
When we are unfairly treated by others, we also can choose the way of peace instead of rancor and so enter into Christ’s humiliation, suffering with him on the way to glory.
Sunday, April 10, 2022
Liturgy of the Passion—Lent, Year C