Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Last Saturday, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was just getting under way, some allies in the European Union were offering to give Ukraine President Zelensky safe passage to Germany. There he could be “president in exile” while Russia did whatever they were going to do—and most of us probably assumed it wouldn’t take long for Putin and his vastly superior military to quickly overcome Ukrainian resistance. Regardless, if Zelensky took up the E.U.’s offer, he himself could remain safe.
And Zelensky refused. He said, “Thank you, but the war isn’t in Germany; the war is here… in Ukraine.” In other words, “I’m called to be the president here. I’m called to be commander-in-chief here. I’m called to fulfill my purpose here. So it would be inconsistent with my calling to be anywhere other than right here, in Ukraine.” For all I know, he was signing his death warrant; I pray that he wasn’t. But to his credit, here is a man who seems perfectly willing to die—if that’s what his particular “calling” requires.
We don’t often see such vivid examples of… what’s the word…?
We don’t often see political leaders operate with that kind of integrity. It’s refreshing, isn’t it?
In refusing safe haven in Germany, Zelensky’s beliefs and convictions were in perfect harmony—perfect alignment—with his behavior. Since remaining “safe,” however sensible an impulse that is, is not part of his job description as president, he refused to leave Ukraine… even if it ends up costing him his life.
And “integrity” is actually a pretty good word to describe the kind of people we are trying to become during the 46 days of this season known as Lent.
And on this Ash Wednesday, the very first day of Lent, we begin by confessing what utter failures we are at being the people that we say we are.
In fact, every first Sunday of the month, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we put into words the kinds of failures that we are, when we recite the prayer of confession that is found on page 8 of our hymnal. It goes like this:
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
These are strong words! They might even bruise our egos, truth be told. And if there’s even a tiny part of you that says, “Yes, but I’m not that bad,” well… Lent is that time of year when you’re supposed to say, “No, I a really am that bad.”
In the gospel lesson that we read a moment ago, Jesus identifies three perfectly good religious practices—today, we might call them “Lenten disciplines”—but they’re three perfectly good religious practices that easily and often get spoiled by our motives—by what’s in our hearts. The first is serving the poor, almsgiving, or giving to the needy. The second is prayer. The third is fasting.
I know for sure that many of you will do a kind of “fasting” during Lent, which we often describe as “giving something up for Lent.” It’s more properly called “abstaining”… I grew up Southern Baptist, and we didn’t give up anything for Lent. In fact we didn’t observe Lent at all. I don’t know what Baptists do these days. But you know… when I was a kid I would hear classmates talking about what they were “giving up” for Lent, and I used to make fun of them. I would say, “I’m giving up broccoli for Lent. And that’s a Lenten discipline I intend to keep!”
Last year, someone tweeted that they were giving up their four impacted wisdom teeth for Lent, and I thought, “Ouch!”
But I get it… Broccoli and wisdom teeth don’t count. You’re supposed to give up something you don’t want to give up.
I listen to a podcast in which two Episcopal ministers talk about preaching, and one of them was talking about this traditional Ash Wednesday scripture from Matthew 6. He grew up a high-church Episcopalian, which meant he went to Ash Wednesday services like this one. And he said that there was a Pentecostal church down the street from his—and they were against Ash Wednesday services, and against people walking around with ashes on their foreheads. And they said so right on their church sign. And they even quoted today’s scripture: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
Well, this sign made an impression on this future Episcopal minister, so the next year he didn’t get ash imposed on his forehead. But, he said, it didn’t help him become more righteous—or more spiritual, or any less hypocritical. You want to know why? Because the whole day he was thinking, “Good thing I’m not a hypocrite like these Episcopalians who are getting ashes on their foreheads!” And then his church friends would ask him, “Why don’t you have ashes on your forehead?” And he’d be like, “I don’t want to make a show of my piety so that others can see me! I don’t want to do something that contradicts the teaching of Jesus.” And then—silently, in his head, he quickly added this thought: “Unlike you!”1
And so what he learned from that experience is, ashes or no ashes, Ash Wednesday or no Ash Wednesday, Lent or no Lent, he was still a hypocrite… just like all his fellow hypocrites at church.
Just like all of us! Because we all fail to be people of integrity. What we say we believe often fails to match up with our thoughts, words, and deeds.
I’ve said this before, but I wish church could be much more like Alcoholics Anonymous. I don’t happen to be an alcoholic. Fortunately for my career as a pastor, my sins are somewhat less conspicuous than that… But my sins are no less real!
But I wish church could be more like AA… because from what I hear, you begin the meeting by admitting that you’re an alcoholic. “I’m Brent, and I’m an alcoholic.” Which, from my perspective, is the same as admitting you’re a sinner, whose most destructive sin happens to be alcohol!
But we could use that same kind of refreshing honesty about ourselves. In fact let’s turn to a neighbor and say that… “I’m Brent, and I’m a sinner.”
Doesn’t it feel good to just get that out of the way up front?
In fact, listen to what a former editor and writer for Christianity Today named Mark Galli says is the best thing that we learn from our effort to “give up something for Lent”:
Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope [if by hope we mean hope in ourselves and our own righteousness]. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.2
But this writer belongs to a church like ours that observes Lent, and he gladly participates. Why does he do it? He writes:
I do it mostly to prove once again the impossibility of living up to God and the gracious necessity of being down to earth, of remembering that I am dust and weak and desperately in need of a Savior.
And recalling that I have one.
Recalling that you have a Savior…If you choose, in a few minutes, to come up and have ashes imposed on your forehead, that’s precisely what it will mean… that’s precisely what that cross on your forehead is meant to remind you of! Not, “Oh look how righteous I am! I’ve actually bothered to go to church on a Wednesday night, aren’t I something special! I am earning extra credit with God!” No, no, no… The cross on your forehead means the exact opposite. You’re saying, “I am a sinner who can do nothing to save myself. I can do nothing to earn forgiveness. I am helpless apart from God’s grace. My salvation, my forgiveness, my acceptance by God, isn’t based on anything that I can do, but solely on what Christ has done for me through his atoning death on the cross!” Period.
So if during Lent we learn nothing other than the fact that we’re helpless sinners who must throw ourselves onto God’s mercy and grace, then this season will not have been in vain.
But… I want to offer something a little more encouraging for this season.
And what I’m about to say is nearly the most Methodist thing you’ll ever hear me say: “You can change.” Did you hear that? “You can change.” And when I say that, I’m not contradicting anything I said a moment ago: We are helpless sinners apart from God’s grace. But I’m not talking to people who are “apart from God’s grace”; I’m talking to people who are ongoing recipients of God’s grace. In which case, you can become the holy person that you want to be. In fact, the Lord is calling you to become holy.” And we call this process of change—this process of becoming holier—sanctification. Through faith, by grace, over time, however slowly, the Holy Spirit changes us from within. So that, as I said at the top of the sermon, we can start to become people of integrity… We can become people whose thoughts, words, and deeds are in harmony—or are at least more perfectly aligned with the faith that we profess… than they are today
In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, his integrity has been called into question by critics in the church. “Sure, Paul says he’s an apostle, and he has authority over you, and he wants to tell you what to do, but no way… He doesn’t act like an apostle is supposed to act. For instance, he’s an unimpressive speaker; he doesn’t have the proper credentials; and he’s always getting into trouble, or causing trouble, or stirring up people, or getting thrown into jail, etc. If God really chose him to be an apostle, his life wouldn’t be such a disaster!”
In verses 4 through 10, Paul offers evidence in his defense—that despite what his critics say, his life is exactly what an apostle’s life should look like. And in these verses he lists many incredibly hard things he’s had to endure as a result of his faithfulness as an apostle: afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, dishonor, and slander. And how has he endured all this bad stuff? By gifts of grace that he’s received from God, including purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, power, and spiritual weapons. Paul hasn’t summoned these virtues on his own; he’s received them from God.
And what is the result of all this? Several things, he says, but look, for example, at verse 10: Paul says he’s “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
This reminds me of an episode in the Book of Acts chapter 16. Paul and Silas have been slandered by their enemies. The Romans arrest them, and Luke, the author, tells us that the Roman authorities had “inflicted many blows upon them,” then threw them in jail, where their feet were put in stocks. Then in verses 25 and 26, listen to what Luke records:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.
Okay, so God works a miracle… but that’s not what’s most interesting to me… What’s most interesting is what Paul and Silas were doing before the miracle, before they even knew God was going to work a miracle: “praying and singing hymns to God.”
Mere insults often make me sulk and cry and feel sorry for myself… Yet being “inflicted with many blows” and thrown into jail can’t even prevent Paul and Silas from singing!
You can’t fake the kind of joy that makes you want to sing! You just can’t.
Which is precisely what Paul means in verse 10 when he speaks of being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
What would you pay for that kind of joy… a bullet-proof kind of joy, impervious to the worst circumstances that life can throw our way? That kind of joy is priceless.
Do we dare imagine that God wants to give us that same kind of joy? The Bible says that he wants to!3 Even in the gospel lesson, when Jesus says, three times, that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” surely a part of that reward that you receive is the inward spiritual change that produces this kind of bullet-proof joy that can “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!”
That kind of joy… I want that kind of joy. I’m willing to work hard for that kind of joy. I’m willing to sacrifice a lot for that kind of joy. I may not want to give up chocolate for something like Lent—but I would give up nearly everything for the kind of joy that Paul has. Wouldn’t you?
So my challenge to you, brothers and sisters, is to do nothing over the next 46 days for Lent… Lent is nothing. Jesus Christ is everything. Do everything you possibly can for the next 46 days for one reason only: for Jesus and the kind of joy we can only find in him.