Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Everything” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Ash Wednesday: February 18, 2015
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I once received an email card for Lent that said the following: “I hope your forty days of shame, penitence, and self-denial go well. Happy Lent” ☺.
“What are you giving up for Lent?” People have often asked me that over the years. It was something I used to ask myself each year.
One year I gave up beer for Lent. As far as helping me feel a little smug and self-righteous and increasing the anticipation I nursed for an ice cold brew at Easter dinner, it was a success. As far as experiencing the unconditional love and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ it was completely irrelevant.
Another year I gave up caffeine for Lent—no coffee, no caffeinated soda, no chocolate, nothing with caffeine. On Easter morning I was so excited to drink coffee I literally watched the coffee brew. As I relished my mug of coffee and devoured multiple Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs on the way to the Easter services my heart began racing—not because I was excited about celebrating the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead, but because after going more than six weeks without caffeine my heart was reacting accordingly.
Noticing I was nearly bouncing off the walls that morning, an elderly lady in the pew behind me said, “That young man is full of the Holy Spirit.” Well, I was full of something, that’s for sure. As far as giving me wicked headaches for a week and making me even more unpleasant to be around early in the morning, giving up caffeine for Lent was a success. As far as experiencing the unconditional love and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ it was completely irrelevant.
Rather than giving up something for Lent some people take on something for Lent—you can fill in the blank. However, based on the gospel reading for today in which Jesus repeats that our acts of piety are to be done in secret, to be seen only by our Heavenly Father, with all due respect, if you are taking on something for Lent, I do not want to know about it ☺.
Of course there is nothing wrong with giving up or taking on something for Lent. But if those things become our focus, we completely miss the whole point—because ultimately Lent is not about what you give up or take on for God—Lent is about what God in Jesus Christ has already given up and taken on for you.
What did Jesus give up for you?
In Paul’s Letter to the Philippians we read that Jesus Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:6-8).
Jesus gave up heaven…gave up his omnipotence, gave up his omnipresence , gave up his omniscience, gave up everything for you.
Jesus gave up all his power…well, almost all of his power…he kept the power to forgive sins. When Jesus healed the paralytic he forgave his sins first, and then healed him, so that, as he told the crowd, “you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10).
In the 1998 film City of Angels an angel named Seth (played by Nicholas Cage) falls madly in love with a beautiful heart surgeon named Maggie (played by Meg Ryan). In order to be with her Seth gives up being an eternal angel and becomes a mortal human being. Soon after Seth gives up everything, Maggie dies in a tragic bicycling accident. A fellow angel named Cassiel (played by Andre Braugher) asked Seth if he had known this tragedy would happen, would he have still become human. Listen to Seth’s response: “I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her mouth, one touch of her hand, than eternity without it—one.”
Seth gave up everything for Maggie because he loved her that much.
Jesus gave up everything for you, because he loves you that much.
And what did Jesus take on for you?
He took on all that it means to be a human being, all the joy, grief, confusion, anxiety—the scraped knees, the hormonal insanity of adolescence, the awkward moments, the hilarious moments, the heartbreaking moments—all the drama you experience as a human being—all the weakness, all the temptation, all of it. Scripture assures us that in Jesus “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every way has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
And even though Jesus was without sin, he took on your sin anyway, as we read today in the epistle lesson—“For our sake (God) made (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus took on all the mean things you have ever said, the things you wish you could take back and the things you honestly do not want to take back. Jesus took on every hurtful thing you have ever done to someone else…or to yourself. Jesus took on every twisted or perverted or hateful or prejudiced thought that has ever crossed your mind. Jesus took it all upon himself.
I remember getting my first official paycheck when I was sixteen and working for a landscaping company. The paycheck had my name typed on it, and I drove home on a hot muggy summer Friday evening, tired, filthy, and sunburned in my’74 Chevy with no air conditioning—windows rolled down and my AM-only radio turned up—with my first paycheck on the seat next to me, with my name on it, feeling very good about my life.
However, Scripture tells us that the paycheck for our sin is death, a paycheck all of us have earned. But when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, he erased our name on that paycheck and put his name on it instead. As we read today in Psalm 103:10, instead of dealing with us “according to our sins,” God dealt with our sin on the cross as Jesus, who knew no sin, became our sin for us—and instead of rewarding us “according to our wickedness,” God took upon himself the reward of our wickedness, and made us righteous through Jesus Christ.
In other words, on the cross Jesus took on all your sin, all of it.
So that as we prayed in the collect for today, you could obtain from “the God of all mercy” what you need the most, “perfect remission and forgiveness” (The Book of Common Prayer 217)—so that you could experience something that is truly relevant, the unconditional love and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ—so that you could have a fresh start, a clean slate, a brand new beginning, and perhaps feel very good about your life again.
All of this is captured in the poem A Hymn to God the Father by the Anglican priest and poet John Donne (1572-1631):
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.
So this Lent, regardless of what you are planning on giving up or taking on for God, remember the good news of the gospel—that Jesus has already given up and taken on everything for you because he loves you that much.