On this Quinquagesima Sunday we find ourselves about to enter Lent. And our thoughts turn to what should we do for Lent. Usually we think about something to give up – chocolate, soda. And that can be good. I gave up soda one Lent and, to my surprise, I lost my craving for soda.
But often what is more important in Lent is what we add to our lives. That can be a little harder to determine and much harder to do, especially if our schedules are already full. Still Lent should be more than not doing. So what do we do for Lent?
As it so often does throughout the church year, our traditional Book of Common Prayer gives us excellent guidance. So let’s take a look at two Prayer Book themes for this Sunday before Lent.
The first theme is love. If we were having Holy Communion, the Epistle lesson would be that very familiar chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13. And the collect for today focuses on love, stating that “all our doings without love are” worth nothing and asking God to pour love into our hearts.
So many scriptures and sermons dwell on love, and I’m confident our Rector could do a much better job on this topic than I. So I will spare you any attempt to preach on love on my part.
But I will note that I Corinthians 13 has an excellent list of things to give up for Lent. And if you are wondering what to be penitent about during Lent, that chapter has some excellent suggestions when it tells what love is not. Love does not envy, is not puffed up, does not behave unseemly, is not easily provoked and so on.
But be warned that giving up even one of these may be more difficult than giving up chocolate even. “Is not easily provoked” always nails me. In fact one Lent years ago, I decided to work on my temperament by giving up being angry at local drivers . . . with predictable results. Yes, after a week or two at best, I failed.
Fortunately, God is more pleased with trying and failing than with not trying at all. And I Corinthians 13 is certainly full of worthy traits to strive for and unworthy traits to fight. The Christian life should be a good fight after all. And part of that good fight is to love better, to love more, to love more like Jesus.
A second theme of this Sunday and of all of the Pre-Lent and Lenten seasons is not as noticeable at first. That theme is the Gospel of John along with his epistles. The Gospel of John is assigned to be read during Evening Prayer beginning with Septuagesima week all the way through Lent. Then comes Holy Week when we enter that Holy of Holies beginning with John chapter 13. We read Jesus’ talks with his disciples just before his arrest, and we read of his Passion.
I’ve focused on the Gospel of John during Lents’ past and intend to do so again. All of Scripture is wonderful so I hesitate to say John is more wonderful. But I never tire of reading it and I never fail to be touched and enriched by it. I cannot say that of all scripture, but that of course is a reflection on me and not on scripture. But I think it is also a reflection on how wonderful John’s Gospel is.
I recommend you consider reading John for Lent. And read it slowly. The apostle again and again packs deep meaning in few words, beginning with verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” How much great truth can be and has been dug out of that verse alone! Some books should be read slowly. The Gospel of John is certainly among them.
John’s first epistle is also very good reading for Lent. An important theme of 1st John is sin and how the Christian should deal with sin, which certainly is also is a focus of the penitential season of Lent. But don’t take my word for it. St. John himself told us why he wrote this letter in our second lesson [which was 1st John 2:1-17].
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
John deals honestly and firmly with sin in his letter, but look at the gentleness with which he does so - “My little children.” Not “look sinners” but “my little children.” And he doesn’t even say “when you sin like the sinners you are” but instead “if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” John’s heart reflects the loving heart of Jesus in forgiving us and gently helping us to become more like Him.
Repenting of the sin in our lives can be a daunting task during Lent or anytime. But remember that Jesus bore our sin; he forgives our sin; he takes our side, he advocates for us before the Father; and he helps us to follow him more closely. And, as we heard from Psalm 23 this morning, he leads and guides us as our Good Shepherd. What great mercy and love!
And - circling back to love - love, too, is an important theme of 1st John as we also saw in our second lesson. There are quite a number of passages I could pick from the letter, but 4:9 and following stands out to me. And this passage again shows John’s talent for packing a lot of meaning into few words.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
As we strive against sin and strive to live and love more like Jesus, be assured that Jesus is right there to help us. The very reason God sent his only Son into the world is so that we might live and love through Him. And Jesus, knowing we cannot overcome sin on our own, overcame and defeated sin for us on the Cross.
And if we fail – perhaps I should be less gentle than St. John and say when we fail – we can remember again what St. John wrote: “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hears that most excellent gift of love, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.