[Joel 2:12-19 / 2 Peter 1:2-11 / Matthew 6:16-21]
What, after all, do we need Lent for? Why the bother every year? An honest hearing of today's readings can give us an answer.
"Yet even now, declares the Lord, return to me!… Return to the Lord, your God." Do you need a return? Have you wandered away from Him who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? Have you settled down in this world as though it were your home and forgotten about the home that Your Savior obtained for you in heaven? Do you live your life in the glad victory of Christ over death and over all sin? Do you need a return? Do you need Lent?
Why Lent? In today's Epistle, St. Peter reminds you that by God's precious promises you have become partakers of the divine nature - the veritable children of God - and that you have escaped the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. He then gives you an assignment: "make every effort then" - and effort means nothing less than sweat, work, struggle - to supplement your faith with virtue and virtue with knowledge and knowledge with - oh, ouch - self-control, and self-control with steadfastness (or steadiness) and steadfastness with brotherly affection and brotherly affection with love. He tells you that IF these qualities are yours - and here's the kicker - and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just hold it there: that means it is quite possible to be ineffective and unfruitful in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. And there's more: whoever lacks these qualities, the apostle says, is so nearsighted (which means he's not seeing the bigger picture, the distance!) as to be blind, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. So the Apostle urges us to make our calling and our election sure by putting these qualities INTO PRACTICE. And then the sweetest sentence of them all: for in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Do you get that last bit? He's not saying that these qualities are your ticket into the kingdom. Your Lord's forgiveness alone is that! He's saying that these qualities are the qualities OF the Kingdom! You want heaven? THIS is heaven. Heaven on earth. The more we live these qualities, they more our life right here and now is made heavenly. So ask yourself honestly if these qualities in ever increasing measure characterize YOUR life? Are you constantly growing in faith, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, brotherly affection and love? Are you? Or have you forgotten what Christ cleansed you for? Not to go on doing your own thing, but to do the will of God! Do you need a return? Do you need Lent?
And then there's the Gospel for the day. Jesus speaks of fasting - and He assumes you will do it. "WHEN you fast," says He. Don't tell me you don't want to do. What you want in this case is irrelevant. Him whom you call Lord assumes you will do so and as with everything else He warns you against doing it as a show for other people rather than making the true return in our heart to our Father. He shows that it's all a matter of the heart when He urges us to lay up our treasures in heaven, since where our treasure is, that's where our heart is also. What we treasure, that shows what we've given our heart to, what we love. What do you treasure? Food? Are you a belly-server? What do you spend your time on? What do you give your energy toward? What is it that when you acquire it, it fills your heart with joy? Is it God? His Word? His promises to you? Do you need a return? Do you need Lent?
I know I do. Every time this time of year rolls around and I take the hard look at my life that I prefer to avoid, I find a huge sigh of relief that Lent has arrived and that it is time to return. I know that I need to return more than just at Lent. You too. But Lent reminds me of what ALL time is for; this earthly pilgrimage that has no guarantees for any of us, it is all, while we have it, time for grace, time for repentance, time for return.
O people loved by God! We have a heavenly Father standing waiting for us. His arms are open. His embrace is life-giving. His love is never-ending. He has sent His Son to us, given Him to us, to BE our Way home. He laid on Him all our sin, all our turning away, that He might bear our sins to death and set us free from them, freeing us to come home, children cleansed, forgiven, and loved. He has poured His Spirit out upon us, so that we can know that we have a Father, and a home, and a welcome that will not end. Let us not break His heart by turning from Him, from that welcome and warmth and give our hearts instead to anything else.
Return is the cry of Lent. Return to the Lord our God. We need such a return. And as often as we turn to Him, we find that He has never changed. That He is always the same. Waiting for us. Loving us. Oh, don't mistake me. His opposition to sin doesn't change either. There will never be the time that He lets you cuddle your sins, and try to sneak them with you into the Kingdom. YOU He welcomes; the sins, He does not. You can't smuggle them in. Lent is the time of grace to drop them, to let them go at the door, and turn instead to your one true and only Good, to your God who waits for you with open arms.
Already tonight He comes to you again, giving to You His sacrifice: the body and blood that were for you on Golgotha's tree. He reaches this gift to you to forgive you, to cleanse you, to heal you. In it, He calls to you: "leave all the rest behind, child, and come home. I'm waiting. I love you, and my love is the only thing you need. Promise." Amen.