The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for Ash Wednesday, 10 February 2016. The text is II Cor. 5:16–6:2.
“The times, they are a-changin’.” Bob Dylan was talking social politics; I’m talking liturgics. The colour has darkened from white to violet. We’ve put to bed the Alleluia and the Gloria in Excelsis and the Te Deum. The music is more sombre, the flowers are gone from our churches. And by one tradition or another the change of seasons has been marked also in our homes. Yesterday we had pancakes or jam-filled doughnuts—in theory using up the old yeast according to Paul’s injunction: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (I Cor. 5:7). Of course, there’s no yeast in our pancakes, and few of us have a lump of sourdough to use up. So the symbolism of yeast as persistent sin to clear out of our lives is lost. But, nonetheless, the feast marks the change of times, just as the mostly secular festivals of Mardi Gras and carnival still symbolise one last hurrah for the flesh before it’s denied for forty days.
After Christmas itself, Lent is the most programmed season of the church year, encrusted with customs to mark the time. It’s forty days till Easter (not counting the six Sundays, which aren’t part of the Lenten fast). And I think we all know that these forty days imitate Christ’s wilderness temptation. We’ll hear that story on Sunday, and we’ll perhaps conclude we should use this time to imitate Him in His victorious struggle against sin by the Word of God. Not such a bad sentiment. In times long past, Christians who’d denied the faith through immorality or false teaching could be restored to the church through this forty-day discipline. On the first day they exchanged their clothes for sackcloth and painted their faces with ashes to make their sorrow obvious. Forty days of repentance, and then restoration through absolution on Holy Thursday and Communion with Christ and His church on Easter Sunday. This was the yearly rhythm of Lent, an instrument for restoring the lost. And then the discipline was gradually softened and extended to all Christians, who, like us, marked themselves with just a little bit of ash, and re-committed themselves to the battle against sin.
Again, it’s not such a bad idea. In fact, it’s rather biblical. Remember Jonah, who preached, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4)? For wicked Nineveh it was a message of both Law and Gospel. In other words, they needed to repent, but God would graciously delay His punishment for a while. He gave them time. They repented, and He relented. So those forty days were a gift. Often, I think, we enter Lent as if it were not a gift but a demand: God’s call for visible signs of repentance through self-denial and prayer. Now, perhaps this is what we need to hear. But there’s still a part of me that resists being treated like a Ninevite unbeliever. It’s the same part that recoils at old Pietistic hymns that put me under a Ninevite deadline.
Delay not, delay not! The Spirit of Grace,
Long grieved and resisted, may take His sad flight
And leave thee in darkness to finish thy race,
To sink in the gloom of eternity’s night. (TLH 278:3)
Those words are in TLH! But is this what Lenten time is for?
St Paul’s words in our text break through such fogginess like a bright torch. Though the Corinthians were sinners in need of repentance, though their congregation was riddled with division and hatred, he still speaks to them as children of God. He recalls them to the grace that was first preached to them in Christ, which they believed, into which they were baptised:
We entreat you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God. He has made Him-who-knew-not-sin to be sin for our sake, in order that we might become God’s righteousness in Him. So working together with Him, we also appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
And then Paul simply says, “now”: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” If we’re thinking in the way of deadlines, this is bad news. Now? I thought I had 40 days! Give me more time!
But that’s not Paul’s message at all. Paul looks back to the days of prophecy, to the time of waiting, when Israel sat in exile for their sins, and Isaiah told them to be patient until the day of salvation. But Paul doesn’t simply repeat that call. Instead, he takes up that hopeful prophecy, and drawing on our Lord’s own words in Capernaum, he claims that in Christ it has now come true. No more waiting. For, “now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” I think Paul realises what a hard message this is, when all our senses seem to contradict it. It doesn’t look like God has redeemed or renewed the world, with all its violence and death. It doesn’t look like Christ has redeemed me and you, at least not entirely. Because our lives are still full of struggle and depression and weakness and illness and tragedy. There are sometimes faint glimmers of goodness and faithfulness and kindness and selflessness and love. But they’re unreliable enough to cast grave doubt on the reality of our new life in Christ.
Nevertheless—that great nevertheless of faith—Paul appeals to the promises of God. No matter what it looks like or feels like, “now is the day of salvation.” Not just “once in a while”. Not “in a little while”, but now. And so it’s a holy word, that “now”, for it proclaims that today has been redeemed for us by Christ. I suppose that “holy time” is the thought I’ve been grasping at with this sermon. It’s an idea that’s either unfamiliar to us or misunderstood. For time isn’t holy by our making it so. Sunday doesn’t become holy because we stay home from work or even go to church, any more than the Sabbath was once made holy by keeping it. Rather these days are holy because they’re God’s gift to His people. The Sabbath was holy because God first rested on it and made it His own, and then gave His Word and promises to His people on that day. And Sunday is only “holy” because of what God did and continues to do on it. On the first day He began to create the world, and on it He recreated it by raising Christ from the dead. Week in and week out, He now uses Sunday to remake us, to give us the Word and the Bread of Life.
So what of these forty days we’re now embarking on? I must confess that they almost always catch me unprepared. I’m never quite ready to “do Lent”. But I always find that I grow into it. For it isn’t a marathon to run, or a weight to be carried, that grows ever more wearisome with each step. It’s rather forty holy days, and if one holy day is a gift, then forty are a cornucopia. It’s a time when God is at work for us and in us, and we have the great freedom and joy to watch Him work. Forty days gives us time to savour the feast, to digest and absorb its nourishment, to contemplate the greatness of Christ’s achievement from Jordan to Golgotha, for those days and deeds to have their way with us and form us into His likeness. Paul once encouraged the Ephesians to “redeem the time, for the days are evil” (5:16). That’s what we’re doing, if we’re doing anything. In the name of Christ we lay claim to these days, for He has redeemed the world for us, with all its time and all its treasures. These days may well inspire us to deny ourselves some selfish pleasures. But it’s the selfless giving of Christ to us that makes it what it is. And we may rightly thank God that He gives Himself to us already now. Amen