First Sunday in Lent
Death is a pretty universal condition. We don't seem to be able to get away from it, and we don't have to look too far to see that death keeps coming. Who knew a week ago that dozens of people would be killed by the severe storms that rolled across several southern states? Or that a man with a grudge would try to solve his problems by shooting city council members in suburban St. Louis? Death is happening every day, to people all over the globe. And when we're faced with these reports of deaths, something bizarre seems to happen. The greater the number of lives lost, the less real the situation seems to those on the outside. When a natural disaster strikes and levels an entire town, or when thousands of people are killed in a war, scale of the tragedy grows beyond our ability to mentally or emotionally process it. We're too small to cope with something that big. Death seems much more real, much closer, when we see it at the personal level - even when it takes someone like Sean Taylor from the Redskins or Heath Ledger. How many people have grieved the deaths of individuals like these because they felt a sense of loss, despite never having met them? Death comes for the people in our own lives, like Aileen Bassett, St. John's first music director, who served at our congregation for twenty-five years. Aileen died on Ash Wednesday, and now we grieve her passing, because this is not the way it is supposed to be. Death is a problem. It is a problem both general and specific, and the more specific it becomes, the more clearly will its effects be felt.
How many times have you found yourself sitting in the pew here, or in another church, wondering how the sermon or the hymns or the Scripture lessons related to you, to your situation in life? Did it all seem to be too general, too vague? I hope that this has not often happened, because, again, that is not the way it is supposed to be!
If you were here on Ash Wednesday for our services, you may have taken part in the imposition of ashes. Many of you came forward to receive the mark of the cross on your forehead. As the ashes were applied, these words were spoken: "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return." That's the reality about which St. Paul writes in our text today from Romans. Death is real, and you can't get away from it. Death is now a part of our general human condition, and so, it is a specific problem for you. Each of us struggles with specific sins in our particular situations in life. You may feel tempted to gossip or cheat on a test, to act in hate or self-centeredness, to be jealous or prideful or lazy, or to seek physical intimacy outside of the marriage bed. Like ashes, our sin clings to us. And although you can wipe away ashes if you scrub hard enough or long enough, you can't wipe away your sin. You can't wipe away the problem of death - specifically, your death.
But God is specific, too. And in that one man Jesus Christ, God is at work for you! Christ came to contend with the specific problems of sin and death, and he faced them head-on. As Paul tells us, in Jesus, God gives grace and abundant righteousness. Through his obedience to the Father, Christ won for us that which is now given as a free gift: we are made right with God - that is the gift of righteousness. He does not hold our specific sins against us, because they have been charged to Christ's account. And our Father in heaven does not see the ashes which have covered us, because we have been washed clean in the blood of Jesus' cross. "Forgiveness" and "righteousness" are not general terms, unrelated to your life. You have been forgiven, because God cares specifically for you.
That's why we're here. God has come to us, people who have suffered death since Adam and Eve, and brought life. And it's for you. This life which God now freely gives for Jesus' sake is real and active. In it, you may find hope and joy, not as fleeting emotions or passions, but as a part of the reality of being one who has been forgiven and made right with God. You may have heard these words on Ash Wednesday, too: "the body of Christ, given for you," and "the blood of Christ, shed for you." As we gather around the cross in the Lord's Supper, God gives you specifically of Himself, food for living your life. It's for you.
Lent is a journey through death to life. In today's Old Testament and Gospel readings, we heard of two accounts of temptation. In the former, Adam and Eve gave in: they chose their own plan over God's direction for life. The consequence of their choices brought death into the world for all people, even to us now. That reading from Matthew also shows someone else with a choice. Unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus followed the path that his Father set before him, rejecting Satan and his lies. And Jesus' obedience to the Father's will would bring life, not death, into the world - and not just for a few, but all who would believe. During this Lenten period, we remember Christ's 40 days in the wilderness and his victory over the devil's temptations. This is a season of repentance and preparation, looking ahead to what is to come. But we're not looking ahead to death. We're looking ahead to life. We're looking ahead to the new life that Jesus brought into our world and into our specific lives through his cross and empty tomb. We're looking ahead to a life from the hand of God which is real for you even now and lasts beyond death.
Lent is a journey through death to life. I would encourage you to be steadfast in your prayer and worship life. Come together with others around Christ's cross during these forty days to be fueled and equipped for your journey, and to see that God is at work for you.
In Jesus, God gives life, life that overcomes even death. And it's for you.