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First Sunday in Lent - February 26, 2023

In the name of God who created us, God who redeemed us, and God who sustains us. Amen +

So, here we are, four days into Lent, 2023 (remember Sundays are feast days and don’t count in the 40 days of Lent.) It was just this past Wednesday, four days ago, that in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we were invited “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 40 days of Lent are set aside as a particular time of reflection on our sins, the ways that we separate ourselves from God, and from one another. Like many of you, I gave thought to both what I wanted to give up for Lent and what I wanted to take on for a Lenten discipline and began in earnest on Ash Wednesday.

I’m not asking anyone else here to out themselves with a show of hands, but am I the only one who has already given into the Lenten discipline I was giving up or have already missed a day of the discipline I was taking on during this season?! (holding up my hand) I don’t know about you, but one of MY many temptations is to just say to heck with whatever I was going to give up or take on this season since I can’t seem to make it four days, right?

It's like, I’m a character in the familiar story of Adam and Eve and understood what I wasn’t supposed to do or what I was supposed to do, but let just a little temptation come my way, and I’m already off the rails… and with much less consequence to me than to Adam and Eve!

And we hear the gospel story from Matthew today, as it describes how Christ, following his baptism, was led into the desert by the Spirit – to be tempted by the devil. Jesus knew it and the Spirit knew it - to be tempted by the devil, and Jesus went willingly. It’s impossible to imagine how starved, exhausted, and lonely Jesus must have felt after 40 days and nights fasting in isolation. The Tempter, in the cruelest way possible, entices Jesus with food, with the care and company of angels, with great earthly powers. Jesus is spent, he has no words, no resistance, no strength of his own, he simply relies on God and what he has been taught by answering the Tempter with simple straight-forward quotes from scripture and does not give in to the temptations.

Jesus is able to respond in this way after 40 days, and I can’t seem to make it through FOUR? If I’m not careful, I can enter a cycle of guilt and shame, throw my hands up in despair, and beat myself up for being weak and without enough strength or faith to maintain my Lenten discipline, and abandon it all together…. and thereby abandon any chance of growing closer to God and learning more about who I am as a creature of God made in God’s image over these remaining 36 days. That separation from God is by its very nature the essence of sin. See the bind I’ve put myself in?

Ironically, I offer to you that the “good news” in today’s lectionary readings might just be found in Psalm 32 appointed for today. This psalm feels a bit like a diversion from the somber solemnity of Lent starting with verses 1 and 2, “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! (exclamation point) Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile!” (exclamation point) The NRSV of scripture gives the title of this psalm “The Joy of Forgiveness,” “The Joy of Fogiveness,” which sounds very counter-intuitive to the whole Lenten observation. What a beautiful and hopeful message at the beginning of Lent, as if to foreshadow that the gift of self-examination and repentance throughout the Lenten season itself, at the end of Lent – on Easter Sunday! The Joy of Forgiveness.

The psalm first describes the painful physical and emotional toll on the psalmist:

3 While I held my tongue, (or did not confess my sin) my bones withered away, * (my sin affected me physically, in other words, I was sick to the bone) because of my groaning all day long.

4 For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; * (the psychological and spiritual effects of unacknowledged sins) my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer. (the fundamental cause of all this suffering is his silence and refusal to acknowledge and confess his sins)

The psalmist continues:

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, * and did not conceal my guilt.

6 I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." * Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

While the psalmist does not give details about his sin, he is relieved of his afflictions as a result of his confession, and ultimately receives forgiveness from God. While these verses are brief, we cannot minimize the fact that thorough examination of ourselves and true repentance require of us to often accept painful facts about ourselves and how we have not loved God with our whole heart and not loved our neighbors as ourselves, acknowledging how we allowed our ego to separate us from both God and neighbor, and only then can we obtain that ultimate relief…. And forgiveness…. And the Joy of Forgiveness.

The remainder of this psalm is instructive for those in community with the psalmist who join him in celebration and learn from the experience the he has gone through, which I think speaks to the fact that we do not go through this alone. We enter this process such as this as a community such as St. Andrew’s.:

7 Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; * when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them. (call out in times of trouble, don’t allow your transgressions make you as sick as I was, he says, call out… call out)

8 (He says to God in this most tender and beautiful way) You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; * you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

9 (It’s as if God is responding:) "I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; * I will guide you with my eye. (that is so beautiful, “I will guide you with my eye…”)

10 Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; * who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you." (in other words, don’t be an ass… I mean, don’t be like an ass! give up your stubborn resistance, stop being so stubborn)

11 Great are the tribulations of the wicked; * but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.

12 Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; * shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

Which points us back to those first two verses, “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! (exclamation point) Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile!” (exclamation point)

I believe the psalmist is quite aware that, in spite of all he has been through, he will sin again and continue to need to go through this process over and over throughout his life, as will we. For those of us who may have strayed from our intentions for Lent, or perhaps have not yet accepted the invitation to the observance of a Holy Lent, the psalmist of Psalm 32 has offered us a roadmap to get back on track, as well as for those of us to begin observing Lent, starting tomorrow on day 5, maybe starting again on day 6. Perhaps you might join me in adding a daily meditation of Psalm 32 as a Lenten discipline for these remaining 36 days. My prayer for each of us is that at the end of this Lenten season, we ALL experience the glorious Joy of Forgiveness on Easter Sunday.


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