the Second Sunday after Lent
8 March 2020
Today’s readings are:
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here for these readings.
Okay, so the journey of Lent has begun, and here we are, now, at the start of the second week. Last week, the first Sunday of Lent, we began with the question, “Where did we come from?” And this is a great place to start, isn’t it? How can we know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been? While we’re starting our Lenten journey afresh, we’re not starting it with a completely clean slate. We all have histories, be they long or short, good and bad, and just because we got a bit of ash on our foreheads and started off on our journey doesn’t mean that everything in our past has up and disappeared. We’re no longer bound to it, but it is still there.
Think of it this way. Have you ever had a down and dirty, drag out fight with someone you love? You know, one of those really nasty arguments where one of you, or both of you, said some really hurtful things – or did some really hurtful things? Sometimes these sorts of arguments break the relationship, and there’s no going back, but sometimes, when we have the courage, or when the love is strong enough, we return, and we apologize. That relationship, that was broken, is now healed, but the history is still there. Those hurtful things were still said and still done, and an apology won’t heal things completely. Our work with our beloved, now, is to repair that relationship, to repair the trust and the love that were so sorely wounded.
This is something that Jesus reminds us of pretty often: that the past, be it good or bad, doesn’t just disappear; it sticks with us. He reminds of this while talking about the Law – I did not come to change the law, he says, but to fulfill it. And he reminds us of this in our Gospel reading this morning; he says: the Son did not come into the world to condemn it, but that that world might be saved. What goes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in other words, is not destroyed and remade but refounded on something deeper, stronger, more beautiful and more holy than we could ever imagine.
Yes, we are products of our upbringing; yes, we are people who developed and grew because of the history that came before us; and, yes, we need to know where we came from, but we’re also free of it – and that’s the theme of this second Sunday of Lent. And this is very good news. Those things in your past that have hurt you, that have caused you grief and sorrow, those things that you might regret – you are not bound to them. You can be healed from them. That is some of the work of Jesus Christ in our lives, that we are not merely products of our past, and certainly not products of those painful or regretful things that we’ve done or that have been done to us.
And this is a great, great joy. Have you ever thought about how much a miracle this is? We humans have the ability to grow beyond sin. We often have to deal with the repercussions of sins in the past, be they our own or those done to us, but we do not have to remain in that sin or oppressed by it. We are free to move on through the power of the Holy Spirit. It takes work, surely, but that path towards life and away from darkness is open to us. That is a miracle.
And it is also, often, extremely, extremely scary. For the Lord said to Abram, “Go. Go from your country – oh, and your kindred, too – and your father’s house – go from everything you have ever known and all the things that have made your life comfortable and happy. Go. Leave. Don’t turn back. Oh, and by the way, I’m not telling you where you’re going. But don’t worry. I’ll tell you later.”
I’m paraphrasing our reading from Genesis, adding a bit to it, but I think the sense is there. Leaving what we know – even if what we know is painful – can be a scary, scary thing. Do you remember the first time you were out on your own? Yeah, it’s great at first, but the adrenaline tapers off after a while, and the sense of adventure turns (sometimes quickly) to the real struggle and trials of a journey.
I remember, once, I was traveling with some friends in Thailand. We were off looking for ruins and wandering through old castles and monasteries, where the bricks themselves were works of art. Then, as often happens, there was an argument, and the group split up. And so there I was, alone, in this ancient, ruined capital, alone. Alone.
At first it was pretty cool. I didn’t have to go where my friends wanted to go (I was up for seeing ruins, they wanted to go to bars). I could sit for hours (and I did) wandering through these old temples or gazing artistically at the colorful minarets. And then, you know, the coolness of all that kinda wore off, and I realized that I was alone, I didn’t know where I was, I had no map, I knew no one for literally one hundred miles, I was catching a cold, and I couldn’t speak (much less read) a lick of Thai. I was far from home, with no safety net, and I was alone.
Now, you don’t have to have ever been wandering the old ruins of Thailand to have felt this emotion. God may have said to you, like he said to Abram, “Go, leave everything behind, everything, without knowing where you’re going.” And that place may have been where you could not hear God’s voice, or where that presence you always have had of Love, capital L Love, was not present anymore, and you felt like you were alone. Turning away from all we know, even if what we know is something painful, can be scary. We don’t know what will happen. We have no map to help us along the way. Things don’t make sense anymore, and we don’t know if they ever will again.
This is what is called a Dark Night of the Soul. It’s that time in our walk with God where God asks us to go deeper. It’s when God takes the training wheels, those training wheels that make it so easy to ride that bike, but until they’re off, we won’t really be riding a bike. It’s that time in student teaching where, after team teaching and helping out, our mentor finally says, alright, you teach the class. The whole class. And no, I’m not going to be in the room to help.
Because God isn’t satisfied with a training-wheel faith. Jesus tells us that we need to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our mind, and all our spirit, and often we just give God some of our heart, and a little bit of our mind, and a dash of our spirit. And God says in these times, no, I know you can do more than this, and he steps away, just as many of us let go of our kids’ handle bars and let them petal that bike on their own. That doesn’t mean that we’re not still standing there, praying to high heaven that our kids will really learn how to ride that bike, and ready in a jiffy to rush up and help if that bike crashes – but God wants us to petal that bike.
There are two things to say about this, and then I’m done. First, we should be careful not to confuse real despair with a dark night of the soul. Sometimes God steps back so that we can grow; sometimes we fall into a grief so deep that we think God is turned away from us. This is why we practice Lent in a community, so that if we do experience darkness, we can speak that to wise and discerning guides who can help us see whether we’re in the depths of doubt and despair or whether God is calling us to go deeper. The dark night of the soul is not one that we go through alone, like me off like a dork in Thailand, thinking I can huff it through a country on my own. Dark nights of the soul are experienced alone and discerned in community.
And this reminds us of something else, that when we, as parents and grandparents, take the training wheels off of our children’s and grandkid’s bikes, it’s not so that they can go and leave and disappear. It’s so that they can grow, and continue to grow, into stable, strong, honest adults. And, as adults, we can enter with them into a deeper and more loving relationship. It is the same with God: God doesn’t tell us to go and leave our father’s house, he doesn’t lead us into (and then out of) dark nights of the soul just so that we can be more self-reliant and self-possessed, so that we will need God less and less. No, God leads us through these times, and again, out of them, so that we may mature as Christians and grow into an adult faith. For what God hopes is that we are not mere children but true Daughters and Sons like his own Son Jesus Christ. And for that we walk through the darkness of Lent with the dawn of Easter on the horizon.