Transcription of the sermon preached
By The Very Reverend William Carl Thomas
The First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2012
At Saint Matthews Episcopal Church, Charleston West Virginia
Click here to listen to the sermon.
I have to wonder, I have to wonder about what it must have been like to be in that ark. Noah, the eight are there, they’ve gathered all the creatures, and they’re in the ark following God’s commandment, and they’re on the water. I just have wonder. I mean, I’ve been in a rather flat-bottomed big boat, a ferry that took me and my family across from Long Island to Connecticut in rather turbulent weather. And the ship went up and down, and up and down: It was not a pleasant time. So for all the jokes we might have about Noah and his family caring for the animals in there, I’m imagining the reality of floating on that water, water that is most likely not placid but filled with the tempest of a storm. And I would wonder and I would speculate that perhaps by about the, oh the twentieth day or the twenty-fifth day it got a little old. And they may moved from the joy of God contacting them and giving them a blessed opportunity to, well, finding a little bit of hurt, and fear, and anger: maybe even despair.
So they’re there, and then, then of course, forty days, the raven is sent out, then the dove, and the dove comes back, then the dove is sent out seven days later, and the dove returns with a blade of grass or something green. And they know their journey is at the end. So I’m sure some big smiles came on their faces at that time: they were filled with joy. It’s as if joy overcame their despair.
We have a passage of scripture for us in the gospel text, which seems, seems very familiar. Actually a part of it was read to us on the First Sunday after the Epiphany; when Jesus comes forward for the baptism in the Jordan River. And if you recall, as he comes up out of the water, God says, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And we hear that today opening up our gospel. And I have to wonder, and I have to kind of imagine, what must it have been like for Jesus to come up out of the water and hear this voice coming down. I have this sense, that just maybe, just maybe, his body, his human body, got all tingly, as if he felt gold glittering down on top of him. And just how would you portray it in a movie? It would be just a glorious a sense of peace and wonder and joy.
And then as the scripture tells us, forty days, he goes out into the desert to be tempted in every way as we are, for Jesus is fully human. And I have to wonder, I can speculate that maybe as he is being tempted, the human part of him is being pulled, perhaps, in a direction away from God: But he has that moment when the father’s, God’s love, so showered upon him, that he could remember that joy.
Now remember, Jesus is fully God and fully man. We’re somewhat fortunate in the way the canons were set-up that we only have four accounts, not five. If the gospel according to Thomas had wound up in there, we would have had a lot of stories of Jesus as a little boy. The only thing we actually have in scripture of Jesus, as a younger one besides his birth, is when he decides to be on the edge of being a teenager. And he decides to stay in the temple when the caravan leaves, and worries his mother and his father. He sounds a little bit mouthy when he says I was supposed to be his Father’s house. But then he became totally obedient. I’m trying to remind you just how hard it must have been to balance fully God and fully man. I can almost imagine, as if I was writing a part of the gospel of Thomas now, so this is made up, Mary talking to Jesus as a little boy, and saying to him, “I don’t care if you’re the Son of God, go clean your room.” I’m sure we can relate to that.
Archbishop Cranmer, in the 1500’s, wrote The Great Litany, which we prayed to begin our Lenten worship on this, the First Sunday in Lent. It’s almost as if Archbishop Cranmer wanted each and every one of us to don a hair shirt, or taking a whip to the back. Because by the time we were done praying it was a pretty long list of the things we do to pull ourselves away from God. We’re entering into 40 days, perhaps, of pondering those things, those temptations.
I’m going to offer you this: in a few minutes we will pray the Eucharistic prayer. We’ll prayer Eucharistic Prayer A today, and I have choice of two prefaces. The first one goes like this: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord; who was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin. By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.” The operative word is “grace.” The second one continues to point us to where Lent leads: “You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by your Word and Sacraments, they may come to the fullness of grace which you have prepared for those who love you.” Again, the operative word is “grace.” And then found beneath that is when we enter fully into that grace: we find joy. We find joy in the life that we live. We acknowledge how hard it is for us to be us. It gives us a sense of what Jesus might have been struggling with in his forty days in the desert.
When during a marriage liturgy and we pray these words over the couple: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.” And the other prayer that we would pray would be: “Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.”
Think about these as if it’s in the relationship we have with Christ which is truly the foundation of how these prayers are offered in a wedding service: To guide the couple forward. Give us wisdom, O Lord, and a devotion to you that you may help us order our lives; that your strength, your grace, may be the counselor we need in perplexity, the comfort we need in sorrow, and may we always recognize you as a companion in our joy. May we know that you are with us, so that your relationship with us allows for unity to overcome estrangement; forgiveness, your forgiveness, heal our guilt; and that we always know that in you joy will conquer despair.
You see, when we pray a set of prayers like The Great Litany, or the Litany of Penitence from Ash Wednesday, or a snippet of psalm 51 “Create in a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” We can put on that hair shirt to such a degree that we forget that God bids God’s faithful people to prepare with joy for the Paschal feast.
I printed a small reflection in your bulletin; you might take home. I’m going to read two or three pieces from it. It’s called this, this may guide you to have this proper balance:
Lent is a time for fasting and feasting.
Fast from judging others: Feast on Christ dwelling in them.
Fast from words that pollute: Feast on speech that purifies.
Fast from discontent: Feast on gratitude.
Fast from self-concern: Feast on compassion.
Fast from worry: Feast on faith.
You bid your faithful cleanse their hearts. Indeed, we are about that work during Lent. And we are also about the work of preparing with joy for the Paschal feast. My hope and prayer as you go through your devout and holy Lent, you hear God’s love in the same strong words that God said over Jesus, “This is my son, you are my children, the beloved, truly, for all you are and for all you do, I am well pleased with you.”
All these words I offer in the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.