Sunday, February 28th, 2021 (Lent 2)
(Revd Canon Malcolm Convery - Associate Minister)
Keeping a Holy Lent
(Related Bible readings from can be found here)
On the front of our Ash Wednesday Service Sheet are the words KEEPING A HOLY LENT.
What does this mean and what does it involve ?
What is our understanding of the word Holy ?
Holiness is the nature of God – his perfect character – his righteousness.
God calls us to be Holy- set apart, sanctified for His service.
I am sure we are all familiar with the Lenten disciplines we are called to engage in.
The disciplines of prayer, reading and meditating on God’s word, fasting and self denial.
But what is the purpose of these disciplines ?
When we turn to the introduction to the Ash Wednesday’s service we read :
'By carefully keeping the days of Lent Christians take to heart the call to repentance
and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel,
and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord.'
These words deserve special attention.
The call for repentance is important and can easily be overlooked.
The words used during the signing of the cross with ashes on our foreheads remind us of this :
'Turn away from your sin and be faithful to Christ.'
This reminds us of the calling of John the Baptist who said
“Turn away from your sins, be baptized and God will forgive you” (Mk3v3)
and Peter, who on the Day of Pentecost called the people to turn way from their sins and be baptized in the name off Jesus Christ,
'so your sins will be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.' ( Acts 2 v38).
And Jesus himself called people to turn away from their sins and believe the Good News.(Mk1v16).
It is easy to think sinners are bad people who harm and hurt others
and that we are not bad people.
We lead what we consider to be a good life. We don’t set out to harm people.
The truth is we are all sinners.
That is we fall short of God’s standards, we are far from perfect, but as Christians we believe God can transform our lives and help us to be Christ- like.
Some words from the first letter of John remind us that
‘If we say we have no sin , we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all wrong doing.’ (1John 1 v 8).
The fact we are sinners is not good news .
The Good news of the Gospel is that we are loved and forgiven and accepted by God,
released from the hold of sin on our lives and healed from the destructive effects it has on our lives. The words in the introduction to the Ash Wednesday service remind us of the
Assurance of Forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel.
During his ministry Jesus not only proclaimed the Good News,
but made it a reality in people’s lives.
He brought healing and forgiveness to the paralysed man lowered by his friends through the roof. (Mk 2 v 2 ff). He said to the paralysed man
‘My Son your sins are forgiven’ then he said ‘Get up, pick up your mat and go home’
Think what the man and his friends must have felt! His life was transformed by Jesus.
The Samaritan woman at the well also experienced a life transforming experience
when she met Jesus. (John 4 v7 ff).
Then we have the woman caught in adultery whom no one condemned and neither did Jesus.
He said ‘ Go, but do not sin again’ (John 8 v 11 ).
And the thief on the cross who turned to Jesus and heard him say
‘ I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.’ (Luke 23 v 43).
Countless lives have been changed through an encounter with Jesus and that first meeting when he becomes a reality in our lives is just the beginning – the beginning of a life transforming journey in which we are called to continue the work that Jesus began in the building of God’s kingdom. A work that is both a privilege and a joy to be involved with.
And Lent is a time to stand back, reflect and prepare for the next steps in this exciting journey
with the hope of eternal life beyond this part of the journey.
This is the other aspect of the Good news of the Gospel - the promise of eternal life.
Today’s epistle is about a promise.
A promise made to Abraham long before the birth of Jesus.
God promised Abraham and his descendants that the world would belong to him and that he would have numerous descendants, as many as the stars.
This seemed highly unlikely as Abraham was old and his wife Sarah was beyond child bearing age. But Abraham believed and God’s promise was fulfilled beginning with the birth of a son, Isaac.
God chose Abraham, not because he obeyed the Law – at this point the Ten Commandments hadn’t been given – but because he believed and was accepted as righteous by God.
Paul is mainly addressing the Jewish Christians in Rome who thought that one was accepted as righteous in God’s sight by keeping the Law – the Ten Commandments.
Paul himself believed this before his Damascus road conversion.
Paul makes the point, that if God’s promise to Abraham depends on keeping the law, though it can never be fulfilled as no one can fully keep the law, it becomes a burden, a heavy yoke.
In the Book of Common Prayer Communion service we hear he following words :
‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you’ (Matt. 11 v 28).
This is referring to the heavy burden placed upon us in keeping the Law.
The burden has been removed in that God accepts us
when we believe in Jesus and what he has done for us.
Paul writes that the words that Abraham was righteous were also written for us
who are accepted as righteous by believing in him who raised Jesus our Lord from death.
'Because of our sins he was handed over to die,
and he was raised to life in order to put us right with God. ' ( Romans 4 v 23-25).
Paul wants to make it clear that we are not put right with God through keeping the Law.
The Law highlights our short comings
whilst Jesus, through God’s grace, offers forgiveness and a way back to God
and opens the door to eternal life.
This is indeed the Good News we are called to proclaim!
Returning to the introduction to the Ash Wednesday service
we are reminded of the Call to repentance and the Assurance of forgiveness
proclaimed in the Gospel.
The introduction continues by reminding us that our Lenten disciplines should lead to us Growing in Faith and in Devotion to our Lord. Growing in faith is not just an increase in knowledge, but growing closer to the Lord and in our trust of him.
I am sure we have all been through phases where we feel our faith has been diminished
or God seemed to be at a distance. Lent is an opportunity to get back on track by putting the focus on Jesus, starting with his time in the wilderness, then journeying with him to Jerusalem
and the cross.
Jesus is the focus of our Gospel reading which follows a passage that is the highlight and halfway point in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus had said to the disciples
‘Tell me, who do people say I am? (Mark 8 v 27) .
Then comes the crunch ‘ Who do you say I am ?’
Peter responds immediately :‘You are the Messiah’ (Mark 8 v 29).
This was confirmed in the two readings and sermons we had over the past two weeks when we heard the words of the Lord at the Transfiguration and at Jesus’ Baptism :
‘This is my own dear Son with whom I am well pleased’ (Mk 9 v 7, Mk 1 v 11).
Our reading today begins with a surprising word from Jesus which Peter finds difficult to accept. Jesus speaks about his suffering , his rejection and his death by the Romans and his own people, including the religious leaders.
They accused him of claiming to be the Son God which was blasphemy.
Although a suffering Messiah was foreseen by the prophet Isaiah, it came as a shock and hard to accept. Paul makes this point in his letter to the Corinthians when he wrote :
‘We proclaim the crucified Christ, a message that is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles; but for those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, this message is Christ, who is the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor, 1 v 23,24)
Many people today find the cross a stumbling block to believing.
The cross speaks loudly of God’s love for each one of us
and among the words spoken on the cross perhaps the most significant are
‘ Father forgive them for they know not what they do’
John 3 v16 sums it up :
‘ For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life’
What a promise and God keeps his promises as we have seen with Abraham.
In our Gospel reading Jesus calls the crowd and the disciples to himself and says to them :
‘If anyone wants to come with me he must forget self, carry his cross and follow me’
This is precisely what we are called to do.
It is easy to fall into the temptation of being self-centred ,
looking inwards rather than outwards and considering ourselves number one.
Being a Christian involves dying to self and living for Jesus.
He becomes the priority in our lives,
the one we worship and serve and in return we enjoy his presence in our lives.
Following Jesus is not an easy path to take,
which Jesus reminds us when he says ‘ carry your cross’
This may involve making difficult and unpopular decisions,
or facing opposition from family and friends, persecution or even death in some cases.
There is a cost in following Jesus but it is worth it. The benefits far outweigh the pain.
I once worked with a lady who taught RE. She had been a Hindu who became a Christian.
The day she became a Christian the family kicked her out and she never saw them again.
This was a cross she had to bear, the cost of being devoted to Jesus
but she never regretted the step she took.
So as we journey through Lent with penitent hearts,
may we be reassured of God’s forgiveness
and may we be encouraged to grow in faith
and draw deeper into our relationship with Jesus and each other
that we may be effective in our witness to him.