In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
When we enter penitential seasons in the Church Year and our mind turns to repentance and sorrow over sin, we often become misguided and put all of the emphasis on ourselves. We get caught up in what we’re doing, be it Advent preparations of heart and mind for the coming King, or repentance and self-denial in the Lenten fast. We think a lot about ourselves and what we have to do. We forget what the Catechism teaches about confession, that it has two parts: “First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the Pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”
The focus, especially in Lent, is not on us at all. The Holy Spirit did not inspire David and others to write Psalms like we heard in the Tract because God likes to watch us grovel. He does not lead us to pray, “O Lord, deal not with us according to our sins, nor punish us according to our iniquities. O Lord, do not remember former iniquities against us; let Your tender mercies come speedily to meet us, for we have been brought very low” so that He can be moved to tears by what we have endured.
Rather, the focus of repentance is not on us at all, but on the mercy of God. If God didn’t want to be merciful, then there would be no point to confession, no point to self-examination, no point to the prayer that the Holy Spirit would cause us to do those things that are pleasing to God. We don’t do these things for ourselves, to make us feel better or to feel like we’ve somehow appeased God’s wrath by doing that, but because God wants to be merciful. If He hated us, why would He create us and give us life? If He wanted to destroy us, or be cruel to us, why does He sustain our lives? If He simply wanted to condemn us, why does He continually make available His Word and Sacraments? Our Lord’s will is to look beyond our sins and to spare us from His righteous wrath. The Lord truly loves us and wants to save us from ourselves, from our strong-willed desire to follow temptations, and from our refusal to trust Him and turn to Him at all times.
That’s why each year we hear the Lord call out to us in the Words of the Prophet Joel: “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.” That is why we dedicate ourselves for this forty-day Lenten fast, why we assemble and gather for the Lord’s Supper, and why the Lord Himself forgives you. You beg the Lord to have mercy on you, to heal you, to strengthen you, to renew your zeal for Him. And He does. That’s why the theme running through all of the Propers for Ash Wednesday is not “you’re an awful person, destined to death and damnation,” but what the Antiphon in the Introit said so beautifully: “You have mercy on all, O Lord, and abhor nothing You have made. You look past the sins of men that they may repent; You spare all because they are Yours, and You are the Lover of Souls.” Lent, just like everything else in the Christian’s life, is about divine mercy.
But the devil wants us to forget that mercy, and wants us to shove it aside. He wants us to latch onto behaviors and attitudes that make us do something for God, rather than latching onto what the Lord says He has done and what He will give you. That’s why we do and say the same things week after week, why we confess our sins and receive the Lord’s Supper each time we walk into this place. It grounds us and centers us in what gives us life—not our actions, but God’s mercy.
That’s why Lent has always focused on fasting, additional time for prayer, and other spiritual disciplines. We use these things to discipline our minds in order to set them on heavenly things. By fasting we learn that it’s not good to always give into those things our flesh craves because it wants to pull us away from God’s mercy and to its own desires. By additional time spent in the Word of God and in prayer we refocus on Our Lord and His unending love for us, which is shown most clearly in His death on the cross and His glorious resurrection from the dead. Those sure mercies of Our Lord are what see us through each temptation and affliction.
That’s what Jesus means when He says, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” He doesn’t want our Christian journey to be a self-help exploration, figuring out how to get our lives together. Rather, He wants us to realize that He is our heavenly Treasure, and He delivers Himself to us in the Font, at the Altar, and in the Words that absolve us. By His Spirit He gives us the faith to grasp these Gifts, to believe that they really are for us, and that they really do benefit us. By the Holy Spirit we are able to lay up for ourselves Treasures in heaven.
That is why we are able to sing songs of praise, even in these violet days that lie ahead. Though for a time we lay aside our alleluias and the angelic hymn of praise, we learn new songs of praise, the Psalms of the Church that give voice to our faith-felt sigh of relief. We extol the Lord because He has lifted us up. He does not let the devil or his evil angels have their way with us. We have cried out to the Lord, and from the treasures of His mercy He has healed us. He reaches out for us, pulls us into His loving embrace. He gives us His mercy, showing us that we have no reason to turn inward, to focus on what we think we have to do for God. He loves us, and we have nothing to fear. His grace and His favor are our life, and His mercy endures forever.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).