Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
February 26, 2012
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The Christian calendar is big on preparation. It has two fairly long seasons of preparation in it. The first is Advent. Advent, of course, is the season of preparation for receiving Jesus Christ at his birth on Christmas. The second season of preparation in the Christian calendar is Lent, the season we now enter. It is the season of preparation for the commemorative days of Holy Week—Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday—and the joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. This second season of preparation is longer than the first, six Sundays (counting Palm Sunday, which is technically the sixth Sunday of Lent) rather than the four Sundays of Advent. Nonetheless, both Advent and Lent are seasons of preparation for our commemorative marking of major events in the life of Jesus Christ, first his birth and then his death and resurrection. The Christian calendar does indeed spend a lot of time on preparation before it gets to actual commemoration and celebration.
Which leads me to ask, and which perhaps leads you to ask, why all this preparation? Why does the Christian tradition think that we need so much time to prepare to welcome Jesus into the world, see him out of it, and welcome him back? I mean, we spend a lot of time preparing to do things that are difficult, right? When my late wife Francie and I were going to spend a year in the Soviet Union with a toddler we spent a lot of time preparing. We bought clothes for a Russian winter. We planned what house wares we could take with us, what we might be able to acquire in Moscow, and what we would have to do without. We stocked up on sundries we wouldn’t be able to get over there. We bought clothes in different sizes for our son Matt, who was going to turn two while we were there. I acquired all the supplies I would need, ink, note cards, etc. to do the research that was why we were going to Russia in the first place. Spending a year in the Soviet Union was going to be hard. We knew that, so we did a lot of preparation. We spend a lot of time preparing for other difficult things. Lawyers spend three years in law school preparing to pass the Bar exam. New parents outfit a nursery with new furniture, new supplies, new clothes, and maybe a new paint job when they’re preparing for the difficult job of raising their first child. I’m sure you can think of other examples of preparation that we do to get ready to do something big, something difficult.
But in the church calendar we’re not talking about anything like that, are we? We’re talking about celebrating Christmas. Christmas is fun. It is the season of peace and goodwill. It’s about family and presents and big dinners. It’s not hard, is it? True, Good Friday isn’t much fun, which is why so many of us skip it altogether. But Palm Sunday is a blast. Trumpet fanfares, shouts of Hosanna, children bearing palm fronds. Maundy Thursday has some sad overtones to it, but it’s really just a family holiday meal, isn’t it? And of course Easter. Easter is the happiest day of the Christian year. He is risen!, the minister shouts; and we shout back He is risen indeed! There’s nothing hard about that! That’s a blast! Why do we have to prepare so long for that?
Well, here’s why I at least think the Christian calendar has so much prep time in it. We have to do all that preparation because those celebrations of the Christian year are not ends in themselves. They are not really what we’re preparing for. Those celebrations are means to an end. They are means to the end of being disciples of Jesus Christ. What all that preparation in the Christian calendar is preparing us for is not merely to celebrate or at least commemorate Jesus but to follow him. Jesus said to his first disciples “Follow me,” and Jesus says “Follow me” to us too. That’s what Advent and Lent are really preparing us to do.
But wait a minute, you may be saying. You just said that we spend a lot of time preparing to do things that are hard and that we need all that preparation if we are going to follow Jesus; but following Jesus isn’t hard, is it?. It’s easy. All we have to follow Jesus is to believe in him so we’ll get to go to heaven when we die, right? That’s what following Jesus means, right? And that’s not hard. All we have to do is accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior and we’re good, right?
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to those of you who know me to hear me say no. Wrong. Following Jesus is anything but easy. Look at our reading from Psalm 25. Even in ancient Israel the people knew that following the will of God takes preparation. And look at our reading from Mark. It took Jesus himself forty days in the wilderness to get ready to do what he knew he had to do. We all know what being Jesus led to. Resurrection yes, but first a shameful and miserable death on a cross. The Christian tradition says that most of Jesus’ first disciples ended up as martyrs too. The foundational stories of the Christian faith ought to clue us in to the fact that following Jesus is not easy.
Why not? Why isn’t following Jesus easy? Well, following Jesus isn’t easy because Jesus taught and lived a way of life that was radically countercultural in his day and that is still radically countercultural in ours. For all the chest thumping that goes on about the United States being a Christian nation, it really is undeniable that the ways of the world in our place and time are as far, or at least nearly as far, from the ways of God as the ways of the world were in Jesus’ time. Jesus taught and lived the Kingdom of God in the midst of the Kingdom of the World, which in his time was the Roman Empire and in our time is the United States of America. When Jesus said enter the Kingdom of God he didn’t mean go to heaven. He meant spurn the ways of the world’s kingdoms and live the ways of God. When the first Christians said Jesus Christ is Lord they mean “and Caesar isn’t.” When Jesus said “my kingdom is not from this world” and the first Christians responded with their “Jesus Christ is Lord” they meant that their allegiance, their loyalty, was not to the Roman Empire but to the Kingdom of God, to the ways of God, to the ways of peace and justice rather than to the ways of violence and oppression.
Trying to live in the world with your allegiance to the Kingdom of God rather than to the kingdoms of the world isn’t easy. In fact, it is immensely difficult. Very few people have ever done it completely, other than Jesus Christ of course. The world ensnares us in so many ways. We are constantly bombarded by the world’s messages, messages of the redemptive effect of violence, of consumerism, of selfishness and greed as values rather than sins. Empires tell their people that their allegiance must be to them above all else. The Monroe Kiwanis Club to which I belong doesn’t begin its weekly meetings with a pledge of allegiance to God but with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. So do a great many other organizations, including our schools. It is impossible to avoid the messages that the empire of the world hurls at us every day in myriad ways saying your duty is to follow us, not this Jesus guy.
Yet it is undeniable that Jesus Christ calls us to resist those messages, calls us to a different way of live, to a different allegiance. Robin Myers in his new book The Underground Church, which by the way is a much better book than his last one that some of us have read, uses a striking image for what Jesus Christ calls his followers to do. He says that we are called to do nothing less than to corrupt the corruption of empire. Put perhaps more directly, our call is to negate the negation that is empire. Empire negates the ways of God. When we negate the ways of empire we affirm the ways of God. That is our call as Christians. And the empire doesn’t like it. The empire fights back. That’s why following Jesus is hard. That’s why we need so much time to prepare. Following Jesus—I mean really following Jesus and not just saying we believe in him—is not for the faint of heart. It is dangerous.
Does that shock you? Do you find that strange or wrong? If so I’m not surprised. The mainline Protestant churches like ours and a lot of others have done a really lousy job of telling people what it really means to follow Jesus. I think that’s a major reason why those churches are in so much trouble today. We haven’t demanded anything of people. We haven’t challenged people. We’ve fed them spiritual Pablum rather than the full grain bread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, tough to chew crusts and all. Well, it’s time we grew up and graduated to adult spiritual food, food that comforts and sustains us to be sure but that at the same time challenges us to be true disciples of Jesus Christ corrupting the corruption of empire in the world.
Now, I don’t expect any of you or myself to go out and do something that will literally get us killed, although a great many saints of the tradition have done just that. I do expect you and me to spend time this Lent considering just what it means for us really to follow Jesus. I do expect you and me to spend time in prayer seeking God’s guidance and strength as we prepare to follow Jesus. That’s really what Lent is all about. Will you join me in that work of preparation, in that work of discernment, in that struggle? I hope so. Amen.