Last Sunday morning before the service began, Paula asked me how I was doing. And I told her that I had been feeling sad because in these times of the church year when I most wish for time and space to be quiet and contemplative, I am instead most busy. Probably I am fooling myself that if I didn’t have tasks to perform or events to attend during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent that I would spend more time meditating on the Word or in quiet contemplation and prayer. But I do feel longing at these times for those practices.
What is Lent for? I was trying to imagine what the cultural understanding of Lent looks like these days. I think if you asked most people outside of the Church what Lent was, they wouldn’t have heard of it at all. Those who have might talk about giving up chocolate or meat, eating fish on Fridays. Maybe if they are really informed, they might talk about giving alms or acts of service.
I get these emails from The Atlantic magazine every week where they invite me to look at “the images of the week.” I like looking at these because the photography is excellent, and it gives me a little bite-sized snapshot of what’s going on in the world. I mention this because in February and March these photo essays always include pictures of Mardi Gras and Carnival, these colorful, exuberant festivals that happen in places like New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro, where spring has already come, and it’s feasible to be singing and dancing in the streets! These festivals have little to do anymore with the Church or its calendar, but they used to be associated with Epiphany and culminate on Shrove Tuesday, a time when we were meant to get all the stuff out of the pantry that we couldn’t eat when Lent started the next day on Ash Wednesday. I think Mardi Gras and Carnival were in part about getting all the music and dancing out of your system in preparation for the penitential season. All that has certainly been lost now. Now all the emphasis is on feasting and avoiding fasting.
So much for what the cultural understanding of Lent might be anymore. This is also now our third Lent in Covid-times. When the last two years have felt like a penitential season, it’s hard to get a sense of how Lent is differentiated from every other time. So what is the point? What is Lent for in 2022?
We don’t always get the messaging right in the Church about Lent. If you asked a Christian to explain what Lent was for, they might talk about sacrifice; about special effort expended in prayer and service; about fasting; about working a bit harder to be good. Certainly these are all good things. To be penitent does require paying attention, and should manifest in all those ways. A Christian might say that Lent is the time to do something hard, that sucks, to make yourselfbetter for the Lord.
I encourage all of you to do these things. Pray, fast, give, serve. But do them not so that you will make yourself a more acceptable servant of God — a better Christian. Do them so that you will fail.
Because you will fail. Not one of us can work hard enough, pray eloquently enough, give enough money, serve enough hours, to make ourselves worthy of our salvation. We can’t do it. And the sooner you fail, the sooner you acknowledge your inability, the sooner you will open your heart and mind and will to the Holy Spirit, and say to yourself, to God, to anyone who will hear you: I need a Saviour. That is what Lent is for.
Once you’ve reached that place, then you are ready to come along on this journey our Gospel lessons are taking us on with Jesus up to Jerusalem.
Jesus has been on this journey up to Jerusalem for the Passover since Luke 9:51. If you look at the text in Luke between 9:51 and where we read today in 13:31-35, he has been walking south from Galilee through Samaria, and crowds of people have been following him. He teaches them, he heals bodies and drives out demons. He argues with Pharisees and teachers of the Law. He tells parables. And all the while, his face is set toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Here in Luke 13:31-35 we have a little microcosm of the world Jesus lived in. We have the religion of the day, represented by the Pharisees, who’ve apparently been talking to Herod (which seems odd since they are natural enemies.) Herod represents the politics of the day — a despotic ruler, interested only in his own aggrandizement; a Roman puppet-king. But on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, both Herod and the Pharisees seem to agree that a charismatic messianic figure is bad for business. It’s hard to say exactly what the Pharisees hope to accomplish by this warning to Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. But Jesus shows by his response that he’s operating on a different plane altogether. He’s not interested in their religious concerns or their politics. “I am driving out demons today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will finish my work.” That is, what I am doing is beyond the concerns of your religion or your politics. They could not yet conceive of what motivated Jesus, or what goal he worked toward.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Jerusalem stands here for all of us in our sin and human frailty. God is always reaching out to us, and we are like toddlers, pushing our parent away. God sends his messengers to us over and over, in many guises. But Jerusalem rejects them all. More than that — Jerusalem abuses and murders the messengers of God. This is our willfulness; our stubborn independence. This is why we need Jesus, our Saviour, and why we so often turn away from the One who can save us.
We want to be the protagonists of our own story. And that’s understandable, really. But one way of looking at the struggle of the Christian life is that while we live in the now-and-not-yet in-between-ness of the Kingdom of God — while we yet live in this fallen world and our fallen selves, it’s hard to live remembering that God is the protagonist of this world’s story. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and ignores the religious and political distractions of the day because he intends to be the sacrifice we need. The world God created is redeemed by Jesus’ sacrifice. We are in their story, not the other way around.
Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, knowing what will be done to him there, but lamenting not for himself but for those who will reject him, as they have rejected all God’s prophets. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, knowing that in our pride and stubbornness we will try to push him away. But God is always reaching toward us. Not because of what we are, but because of who he is.
Lent works as a penitential season for us if we can get to the point where we realize that all our trying won’t come to anything. Then, when we lay down our wills, God will be a be to draw us into His story, and we can walk with Jesus as he sets his face toward Jerusalem. Amen.