A seasonal journey

February 18th, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12

Perhaps no prophet is more representative of the Lenten season than Jeremiah, and no psalm more appropriate for repentance than Psalm 51. Desolation, weeping, mourning . . . Jeremiah has it all. Transgression, iniquity, hyssop . . . so does Psalm 51. Wow, if you were to make your all-time Lenten team, these two would be first ballot entries. Still, we don’t often rush to read these passages. Fifty-two chapters of Jeremiah could be too much. Too much hyssop could be depressing and disturbing. Maybe that’s why we don’t begin looking forward to the next Lenten season as quickly as we do Christmas. Day after day of desolation, weeping, and mourning is difficult to digest. Am I being too hard on Lent? No, but do you ever feel like Lent is being too hard on you? I know I do. So many weeks I spend in sackcloth and ashes. So much sin I find. It’s everywhere. Places I couldn’t have imagined. And it spreads—quickly.

“Enough already,” I find myself saying, when it’s only the second week of Lent. “How many more weeks of this!” Then it dawns on me, I understand a little better about this spiritual path I’m on. After all, isn’t that what Lent calls us to? Brutal honesty. Repentance. Self-awareness. There is a reason Lent is referred to as a season. It lasts for a while. It lasts longer than we might like, and it always comes back around. Just like our sin. You’ve been on this path long enough to know that your sin doesn’t take a vacation when Easter arrives. We don’t retire from spiritual work. And contrary to many Christian books, real spiritual assessment doesn’t happen overnight or in seven easy steps. We can’t get to Easter without engaging in serious spiritual labor, but that doesn’t mean some of us won’t try. We can’t find resurrection without first encountering repentance, but that doesn’t mean some of us won’t try. We don’t get Easter morning without experiencing our own dark night of the soul, but that doesn’t mean some of us won’t try. No, Jesus didn’t bypass the desert or the cross. So here we are on this fifth Sunday in Lent, and we find that we really do need Jeremiah’s outlook and the uncanny ability of Psalm 51 to voice what we are unable—or perhaps unwilling—to voice.

But to our joy and surprise during this season, neither Psalm 51 nor Jeremiah is all gloom, doom, and tears. In fact, it is in the midst of these brutally honest words that we are reminded that this season, like all seasons, will transition into another. Jeremiah points to the future and the new covenant it will bring. The psalmist looks to the future by begging for the restoration of joy and salvation. We too need a new covenant, joy, and salvation, so we look where Jeremiah points; we strain to see what the psalmist already sees. For this moment, as we pause on this journey toward Easter, will you look with me to that bright horizon? If you do, you might get a momentary glimpse of life after cloudy skies, a future after our own pettiness and smallness fade away.

Can that be? Can you see it? It’s hard to understand at first. Our eyes aren’t used to it. Our eyes are in Lent mode, so we have to concentrate and be open. Can you see it yet? I see a ray of life extending after and beyond death. The future is not like the past we all know. No, you’re not quite seeing it if you think it is exactly like those times we broke our promises or took advantage of people. You’re not quite seeing it if you think only of those times when self-doubt consumed you or prideful arrogance overtook you. No, I’m not getting it if all I can think of are those times I tried to pull myself up by my bootstraps only to fall on my face time and again. No! It is not like those times we wondered why grace was not extended to us, or when we refused to give mercy. No, what we are looking at is something altogether different. Look harder, let your eyes adjust, let your mind be open to God’s future.

Yes, yes, I can see it too! God is beginning again with us. He’s not giving up! God has not scrapped the whole project. We who were beyond repair have been given new life, along with those who mistakenly thought they needed no repairs. Do you see it? If you’re picturing two irreconcilable parties reconciling, you see it. If you picture God forgiving sins great and small, then you see it. Do you see the son forgiving his mother, the worker her boss, the wife her husband? Do you see the parent refusing a promotion in order to spend more time at home? Do you see the church opening its arms to a hurting, violence-plagued world? What’s that? Yes, I see it too. I know it hurts to see him on a cross in the near future, but don’t look away. . . he’s not.

The clouds of our current situation are rolling back in, and we have much left to do during this season. It’s tempting to try to skip ahead in this redemptive journey, but if we resist that temptation, maybe, just maybe, somewhere along the way it will dawn on us that it is only in the midst of mourning and hyssop that we encounter our need for redemption . . . that we experience redemption. A lot can happen in forty days. Just wait, you’ll see. Amen.

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