Sermon #223 St. James the Less #130 3/14/21
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Weary on the Way
I don’t know about you but I’m really enjoying the warmer weather—especially compared to what we had just a few weeks ago. My yard is getting greener every day, which means I’m gonna have to start mowing soon (which I find very therapeutic).
The warmer weather also means that I won’t have an excuse to not go running anymore. We live in a good neighborhood to run, but through the cold winter months it’s been convenient to look out of my living room window and say, “Well maybe it’ll be warmer tomorrow.”
I went on a short jog yesterday, and it’s sad to say how quickly I tired out. After not running for a long while my legs feel heavy and my lungs are just not in shape. Half a mile feels like a mile. A mile feels like five miles.
And I, like the Israelites wandering in the desert, “became impatient on the way.”
I think it is fitting as we mark the halfway point of our Lenten journey that our Old Testament reading from Numbers says, “The people became impatient on the way.”
They had spent so much time in Egypt as slaves that they had forgotten what it was like to be the people of God. They had grown used to doing what their slave masters said, that it was like retraining their minds and bodies to do what God commanded instead. And that retraining made them grow weary and the longer they walked in circles around the desert the more they became impatient on the way.
The same may be true for us during this Lent. How are you holding up through this season? Have you grown impatient along the way? Have you been able to keep up with the spiritual practices you put your mind to just a few weeks back?
Whether you’re growing weary or still going strong, this is a special Sunday. Today we wear rose vestments to commemorate the halfway point in Lent and to take a deep breath.
This is the rest station along your Lenten trip or the water station on this long run. All this personal reflection, prayer, and repentance can be pretty heavy—but it is good and holy work that is leading us toward our Heavenly Father. Today we are reminded why it is good and holy.
This is known as Laetare Sunday, which in Latin means “Rejoice.” Now it may seem odd to you that we talk about rejoicing in the midst of a penitential season, wouldn’t it be better if we continued to beat our chest and wear sackcloth?
We can get back to all of that tomorrow, but for today we are reminded that as Christians even while we confess our sins we should rejoice.
This really is Paul’s point in our reading from Ephesians this morning. He starts out by telling us about our grim situation—the human predicament that we all find ourselves in. “You were dead through the trespasses and sin in which you lived,” he said. “And we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” A good Lenten theme, no doubt.
Paul tells it like it is—which can be quite refreshing to some, but it can also be troubling to hear it put in such stark terms. Dead? I don’t feel dead. Children of wrath? I can’t really be that bad, can I?
But Paul and the other biblical writers say yes, humans left to their own devices are indeed that bad—we are in fact desperately lost without God in our lives. In this short passage, Paul knocks down our excessive pride and self-confidence and reminds us that we are marred by our sin and are in desperate need of God’s forgiveness.
As one writer put it, “The Son of God did not come to make good people better but to give life to the dead” (Rutledge 570). I think we often forget how dire our situation is without Jesus.
Though Paul begins by vividly describing our urgent situation, thankfully for all of us he doesn’t end there. Halfway through our passage, he says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
The good news is that we are not left in our sin to fend for ourselves—we aren’t hopelessly wandering in the dark. Paul reminds us that because of Jesus’ actions on the cross we have been brought from death into life.
There is a legend from Switzerland about a horseman riding on a cold, moonlit night. His destination is a town on the shore of a large lake, but he is not sure how to get there—he’s never been in this secluded part of the country before. As he rides through a beautiful snowy valley, he strains his eyes to see the town’s light in the distance, but to no avail.
He continues on, getting his horse to ride further into unknown territory. The valley finally spills out into a beautiful plain, with not a hill in sight. The wind sweeps the top of the snow so that it looks like sand. And in the distance, he finally sees the warm light of the village he’s been looking for.
It was an easy ride through the barren snowy field, and upon arrival at the village, he asks a young woman how far until he reaches the lake. She looks at him startled and points toward the field he just came from. She says, “Great God! You have ridden across the lake: The hoofs of your steed have knocked at the grave, in the gulf of death, the fathomless wave.”
The man is petrified at this news—unbeknownst to him, he was knocking at death’s door as he rode across the freshly frozen lake. He would’ve never attempted such a reckless action if he had known that it was under his feet. It is only when he is safely on the shore that he can begin to fathom the great danger he was in.
This perfectly describes what Paul says, “You were dead… But God…made us alive together with Christ.”
As broken humans, we are always crossing thin ice, in great peril, whether we know it or not, but because of God’s grace and mercy, we have been saved. Now that we are on solid ground, we can understand the danger we were in.
As one writer said, “[It’s] not the [person] who is lost, but the [person] who is saved can understand that [they are] a sinner” (Samuel Terrien).
This is the opposite of most fiery preachers who try to tell their congregation that they are sinners in need of saving. The point there is to bring about a sense of fear in order to arouse faith. It’s like yelling out to someone who’s on the ice, and they come running to shore because they are in immediate danger if they stay on the lake any longer.
Paul’s point is the opposite: rather than seeing one’s sinful state and the need for a savior as the first step towards faith, we should start with the knowledge that we have been saved and made alive in Christ, and then, we clearly know for ourselves, “Great God! I’ve ridden across the lake. I was dead but now I am alive.”
With this in mind—this way of understanding God’s saving act, “the knowledge of [our] sinful condition should come as good, even joyful knowledge” (Rutledge 173).
You see, Paul is putting God’s action first. He is reminding the Ephesians of what God has already done for them, whether they realized it or not. It is a gift, unearned and without merit—it is God’s grace that precedes any human response. Faith is then just a natural reaction to this gracious act of Jesus on the cross.
“God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, [and] made us alive together with Christ.”
And so, with this in mind we should joyfully and honestly confess our sins and offenses to God because we know at the other end of the confession is grace and mercy. In fact, God’s grace bookends our confession. In our service when we confess our sins, absolution must always follow.
We were dead, but our story doesn’t end there. We have been made alive through God’s action, through his love for us—even though we may be oblivious to his grace and mercy…or maybe we have just become blind to it because we’ve grown weary on the way.
Laetare Sunday reminds us to rejoice when we confess our sins because our God loves us. But confession is never easy. We may gladly ask for forgiveness on some things but not on other, more personal or serious matters. We hide those matters deep within us, either because we don’t want to address them, or we’re ashamed and do not feel like God would forgive us.
Partial confession may seem easier, a cleaner way of going about our faith, but we cut ourselves off from the full potential of God’s gift if we hold back and do not confess fully. And that is our loss, we continue to hold onto something that needs to be forgiven and let go of, if possible.
Megan and I were with a couple the other day and their three-year-old boy. He was so excited to show us his toys, but at one point he became frustrated because he wanted to show us more toys but was unwilling to let go of the toys in his hands. He was unwilling to let go in order to show us something new.
Confession is the same way. God’s gift is always pouring down on us, always ready to be received, but unfortunately, sometimes we’ve got our hands full of other things. Sometimes we hold onto things we’ve done, comments we’ve said, or things that have been done or said to us, and we cannot or will not receive the fullness of Jesus’ mercy and grace.
Because of Jesus, we don’t have to be stuck and unforgiven—he has given us solid ground to stand—ground for faith and even joyful repentance.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”