By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of 40 days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those few who were able to attend the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy address concerning the origins of Lent. For those here today who missed that, I will read just a brief excerpt: “This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith 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.”
This explains why all three of today’s Bible readings deal in some way or other with the sacrament of Baptism. The first reading from Genesis gives us God’s covenant with the remnants of humankind, those who were saved from the Great Flood. As you may recall, God was disgusted with the sinfulness of his people, and he decided to “reboot the system.” He drowned all the creatures on Earth, with the exception of eight members of one family and the animals that they had collected into the ark. God then made a covenant with those eight survivors, and with their descendants, never to do such a thing again.
Now, if we take the story literally, it is horrific. Millions of people must have been drowned. But our ancestors in the faith, including St. Peter, sought a deeper, more spiritual meaning in this tale of mass destruction. And they accomplished this by reading the story of the Flood as a kind of allegory. The waters of the Flood were understood as symbolic of the waters of Baptism. In their understanding, the drowning of the Earth’s many sinners symbolically represented the drowning of our sins in the holy font. Noah’s ark of wood was understood as a symbol of either the wooden Cross of Christ or his salvific Church. Lastly, the covenant of the rainbow that we heard about in the first reading was seen as a prefigurement of the baptismal covenant.
The Gospel reading is also thoroughly baptismal in content. It is St. Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. We heard the first part of this story on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Today, we get the rest of the story. Today, we hear what happens right after the great epiphany when the heavens opened up and God’s voice resounded from on high. Today, we discover that the sequel to Jesus’ baptism was 40 days of temptation and testing at the hands of Satan.
Forty days in the wilderness sounds unpleasant. But I think Jesus had it easy! He only had to deal with 40 days of temptation after his baptism. We, on the other hand, can expect to experience a whole lifetime of temptation after ours. And unlike Jesus, we are not without sin; we will eventually fail the test. What then? Well, we repent. We say we’re sorry to God. We say we’re sorry to whomever we have wronged. We attempt to make amends. And then we do our very best to turn away from sin, to change our way of thinking. And when we inevitably fail the test yet again and give into temptation, we repeat the cycle of repentance all over again. It’s kind of like the instructions on the back of a bottle of shampoo. If you take them literally, you will wash, rinse, and repeat; wash, rinse, and repeat; wash, rinse, and repeat ad infinitum.
Now, if we had no help, we would be stuck in a sad situation. It is not really possible to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” as the old saying goes. What we really need when we have fallen down is a helping hand. And fortunately for us, we have it. Quite simply, Jesus is our helping hand. When we fall, we can reach out to him for help. We can reach out to him by picking up a Bible and meditating on his words and deeds. We can reach out to him through private and public prayer. And of course, we can reach out to him through the sacraments of the Church.
The first and primary sacrament of the Church is Baptism. With this sacrament comes the forgiveness of all sin, along with the strengthening grace of the Holy Spirit. But we can be baptized only once in our lifetime. So the Church offers two other sacramental rites to deal with the thorny issue of sin after Baptism: Holy Eucharist and the Reconciliation of a Penitent (more commonly called “Confession”). In each of these rites, as in Baptism, we are forgiven our sins. In each of these rites, as in Baptism, we are strengthened by the Holy Spirit. In each of these rites, as in Baptism, Jesus reaches out and picks us up off the floor, when (metaphorically speaking) we have fallen and we can’t get up.
Now, most of this congregation regularly and faithfully participates in the Eucharist. But sacramental Confession is not a custom of this parish. I haven’t heard a single Confession the whole time I’ve been here. And to be fair, in the Anglican tradition, Confession is never compulsory. Many, if not most, Episcopalians take the view that, if one’s sins are forgiven through the Eucharist, it is unnecessary to go through the unseemly and embarrassing process of confessing one’s peccadilloes to the rector. Well, there are, in fact, two reasons you might want to do this. The first is if you need the advice and counsel of a priest. The second is if you find that you need reassurance that God really does forgive you.
As I mentioned at the start of this sermon, Lent was from early on a time when notorious sinners repented their sins publicly and were received back into the Church. None of you, to my knowledge, is a notorious sinner. And we don’t do public Confessions anymore. Even so, Lent is an appropriate time for each of us to take stock of our sins and to seek release from them. So, if you would appreciate some counsel about some besetting sin in your life, or if you find that you are struggling with accepting God’s mercy, then I would be happy to hear your Confession, give you what advice I can, and do my best to convince you of the good news of God’s forgiveness. For just as God has sworn never again to wash away humankind from off the face of the Earth, so has he sworn to forgive the truly repentant again, and again, and again. In closing, I say to you what Jesus said some 2000 years ago in Galilee: “Repent, and believe in the good news.”
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.