Lent is the most somber season of the Christian year. Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we hear the gospel story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
And every year on this Sunday, we pray the prayer with which we began today: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.”
The gospel story and that prayer set the tone for the season. Like Jesus, we have to face our temptations. Unlike Jesus, we have to acknowledge our weakness in the face of temptation, our tendency to sin and failure. And, once again like Jesus, we can look to God and ministering angels for support to get us through. God truly is mighty to save.
Come Easter, we will celebrate the victory that Christ wins over sin and evil and death. Come Easter we will celebrate the grace and love of God that promise us a place in God’s kingdom.
But before we get to the Easter celebration, we have to acknowledge the ways we fall short, the ways we separate ourselves from the love of God, the ways we obscure the image of God in us and fail to live as the people God creates us to be.
That is the great challenge of Lent: to open ourselves to the fullness of God’s love by confessing and repenting the sin that stands in the way so that we can truly and authentically celebrate God’s victory and experience the fullness of God’s love.
At our Ash Wednesday service, the service that formally kicks off Lent, I invited those present to the observance of a holy Lent.
I extend that invitation again this morning.
“Dear people of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection” in Holy Week and Easter. “It became the custom of the Church to prepare for [those days] by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith” (BCP 264-265).
The invitation goes on, and I will finish it. But first, notice that last line: “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”
We all must continually renew our repentance and faith. Repentance and faith are not things we do once and then are done with. Repentance and faith are part of a way of life that is ongoing. If our faith is to remain a vital part of our lives, it needs constant renewal.
Our souls need to be fed more or less like our bodies need to be fed: regularly, often, and in a healthy way. Unfortunately, all too often we feed our souls with spiritual junk food. We feed our souls in unhealthy ways which damage the integrity of our faith. That is why we need to repent in an ongoing way as part of renewing our faith in an ongoing way.
Back to the invitation: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church” and in the name of God, “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
The invitation to the observance of a holy Lent tells us how to renew our faith. It tells us what counts as healthy nourishment for our souls.
Ultimately, of course, faith comes as a gift from God. But there are things we can do to open ourselves up to God’s gift. Self-examination and repentance. Prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Reading and meditating on God’s holy word.
The list is not intended to be exhaustive. But the traditional spiritual disciplines remain the best way of nourish and renew our faith.
The discipline I want to emphasize for the rest of this sermon is self-examination.
We are using the alternate prayer of confession during Lent. But in the more familiar prayer of confession, the one that we say most weeks, we confess that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We confess that we have sinned in thought, and word, and deed. We confess that we have sinned by what we have done and also by what we have left undone.
Since we say those words virtually every week, they can begin to just roll off the tongue, to become so familiar that they lose all meaning.
When that happens, self-examination is the best remedy. We ask the question, how have we failed to love God or our neighbor? What are our sins of thought or word or deed? What have we done? What have we failed to do?
We ask ourselves those questions, and we try to answer those questions. We answer them with as much specificity as we can manage. Only then, having consciously acknowledged our sins, can we humbly repent.
The point is not to wallow in our depravity. The point is to acknowledge the ways that we really do fail to live as the people God calls us to be. The point is to do better going forward. The point is to experience the love and forgiveness of God so that we can share God’s love and forgiveness with others.
The invitation to the observance of a holy Lent ends with one more appeal. “To make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord our maker and redeemer.”
I invite you now to observe a minute of silence for self-examination, kneeling or siting as you are able. . . .
In Christ’s name. Amen.