My thoughts for this, the 2nd Sunday in Lent.
Lent is about preparation.So, as we progress into the Lenten Season, perhaps we should stop and consider just exactly what we are preparing for. Are we preparing for Easter Sunday and the Resurrection?Or are we preparing for the day after Easter when we are charged with the responsibilities of continuing the ministry of Christ?
As part of that preparation, it is traditional to give something up for Lent. But do we really give something up or do we just put it aside until Easter comes and go so we can begin doing or using whatever it is that we gave up?Are we willing to give up everything and follow Christ?Are we willing to take up the Cross and follow Christ, as He asked in today’s Gospel? (Mark 8: 31 – 38)
Many of those who flocked to hear Jesus’ message left when the reality of the message came through.How many of those first followers were truly willing to give up everything they had and pick up the cross to continue the message.In the passages that follow this reading it is suggested that many gave up and went home.So how can we prepare for Easter Sunday if we are not willing to prepare for the Monday after Easter?The meaning of Lent is found, I think, not in our preparation for Easter but rather in what we will do after Easter Sunday.
It is a message that the modern church should do well to heed.It seems to me that too many churches and far too many pastors focus on getting people into church without focusing on why we have a church in the first place.Too many churches offer various activities and services that compete with similar activities and services outside church in order to bring people into the church.But in doing this, the mission of the church and the real reason for having a church has been forgotten.
The difficulty is that the church, while in the community, cannot be part of the community.In the past, churches put up walls to keep the community from coming in.In the middle ages this was important because the community outside the walls of the church was dedicated to destruction and death; the church maintained the culture and history of civilization.But after the Middle Ages, those quaint times we have come to know as the Dark Ages, the church’s walls that protected the church from outside influences kept the church from updating and growing. The church continued to protect the historical culture of civilization without realizing that the world outside its walls had changed.
That is clearly not the case in today’s society.If anything, we have allowed what’s outside the church to define what we do inside the church.Too many pastors have opted out for the softer message found in the seeker service; too many pastors have opted out for the prosperity gospel. The essence and heart of the Gospel message has been stripped away in search of a quick and easy message, one more attuned to the variances of today.
H. Richard Niebuhr once observed that the theology of liberal Protestantism was “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” It is interesting to read this comment because Niebuhr was referring to the liberal side of the faith but it is the same theology that many on the conservative side of the faith use in their preaching today. It is the essence of what are called “seeker-friendly” services.It is the very message that Joel Osteen and other modern day pastors are preaching! If you go to the Lakewood Church website and search around for the words “God” and “Jesus”, you will not find them. They just aren’t there. But the words “Joel Osteen” and “Ministries” are everywhere. There’s no sin or judgment or even kingdom — much less a Christ on a Cross — suffering. (Adapted from “One of those flashes of insight” – Reverend Mommy’s Random Thoughts – for 10 March 2006). It is almost as if they are ashamed to preach the words of Jesus (Mark 8: 38) . (When I first posted this piece it was on another blog; when I moved to WordPress, the link was apparently lost. This paragraph was quoted in http://www.extremetheology.com/2006/03/when_the_libera.html)
Instead of maintaining the way of the church, churches have quickly added trappings of the present culture, at the expense of the message.There is nothing wrong with using modern music or changing the order of the service or how or where we worship.After all, there were people who felt that the introduction of the organ and organ music was inappropriate for worship.But the message that is presented cannot be changed just because society has changed.The times are changing but the message must remain the same.
Any message that promises riches and rewards here on earth misses the point of the Gospel that Jesus preached.The message brought hope and comfort to those that needed it; if we do nothing to assist in bringing that hope and comfort then we have not been listening to the words of Jesus.No one who accepts the words of Christ in their mind or accepts the Holy Spirit in our heart can sit back and do nothing to help those in need or those who are sick or oppressed.Remember the rich young man who came to Christ seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.He went away sad because he was not willing to give up all of his material blessings to follow Christ.The promises of reward for following the Gospel are not found here on earth but in Heaven.Yet the message of many modern day churches is that one’s riches are a sign of a blessing from God.
When John Wesley began to look at the nature of his church, he found a church that favored the wealthy and the affluent.He found a church that equated poverty with sin and proclaimed that those who were poor were sinners while those who were rich were righteous.The message of the 18th century church was that God had blessed those who were rich and snubbed those who were poor.Society and the church offered no hope to the poor and the oppressed and proclaimed that it was their own misfortunes that lead them to lead lives of poverty and despair.
But the Gospel message was not meant to repress the poor and the downtrodden; it was meant to bring hope to those individuals.The Gospel message was not one that those who lead a righteous life would reap the rewards now but rather those who lead a righteous life and helped those less fortunate would see their rewards in heaven.
We tell people that they are blessed and that the rewards are theirs but that is not what God told Abram.He did acknowledge that Abram, who would become Abraham, would gain from his obedience to God but the gain would come in the form of the children Abraham would leave behind.Abraham’s ultimate reward would come, not on earth, but in Heaven. (Genesis 17: 1 – 7, 15 – 16) How can we promise anything different?
We need to remember that the Protestant Reformation began because of indulgences, the practice of selling “tickets” into heaven.It was this practice that Martin Luther rebelled against when he began what became the Lutheran church.It was a 16th century version of the prosperity gospel of today.
John Wesley saw a church that had fallen back into the trap of the law as the way.If they followed the law, as did the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time, then they could consider them successful.With the prosperity gospel message of today, we are doing the same thing.But, as Paul wrote to the Romans in today’s reading (Romans 4: 13 – 25), if we hold to the faith and we follow are faith, we will see gain the rewards.True, we may not see the rewards here on earth but, again as Paul pointed out, Abraham would not see the promise that he would be “the father of many nations”.It was his faith that guided him and it will be or should be our faith that guides us.
Are we ready to give up everything we have so that we can follow Christ?During this period of Lent, as we prepare for the Resurrection and celebration of Easter Sunday, let us also prepare for the next day, the Monday after Easter.Let us prepare to continue the message of the Gospel after the joy of Easter morning is gone.Are we willing and able to follow Christ, even if it should mean our own death?
Are ye able,” said the Master, “to be crucified with me?””Yea,” the sturdy dreamers answered, “to the death we follow thee.” Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine.Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.Thy guiding radiance above us shall be a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.
Are ye able to remember, when a thief lifts up his eyes, that his pardoned soul is worthy of a place in paradise?
Are ye able when the shadows close around you with the sod, to believe that spirit triumphs, to commend your soul to God?
Are ye able? Still the Master whispers down eternity, and heroic spirits answer, now as then in Galilee.