February 21st 2021 – First Sunday of Lent
Pastor Bryan Niebanck
“O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.” ~Psalm 25:2
“Are we almost there? Are we there yet? How soon until we get there?” If you have been on a road trip with kids, you may have heard questions like these before. I have seen a few car commercials with ads picturing this scene, and they now are promoting how comforting the car ride is. Not only is it comforting for the parents, but for the children as well. Cars are now installing digital devices in the backs of the front seats to keep children occupied with television, games, and all sorts of things that are meant to keep them occupied, and create a more comforting ride for all, with decreased frequencies of the question, “How much longer until we arrive?” The distractions take away from the attention given to the journey itself.
Most of the population of the world is asking the same question now: “Are we there yet? When can we take off these masks? How long must we stay away from other people? When can we feel free again to do whatever we want? We have got to be almost there…. right?” And the answer is, we think we are. We hope we are. But even as some places start to relax regulations again, because we know what works, we know that we cannot do anything else to make it move faster except ride along in the car. The truth is, we are all exhausted from the way our lives have been changed and altered in the past year, including at work, in our personal lives, and probably everywhere else too. I tried to distract myself from the attention to the length of the journey itself for a time. I told myself repeatedly what positive came from the pandemic, and it helped. But, even that is not overcoming the desire to just be together again, to see the sanctuary full and the church in action, to be able to finally travel internationally again. So, we are all drained, and ready to reach this destination.
In that spirit, we do not need a Lent that depresses us further. We need a Lent that brightens our spirits. We do not need to deny ourselves our needs and desires in order to live faithfully to Lent. Keep eating that ice cream, or drinking that soda. We need something to pick ourselves up. Actually, we need to recognize and fulfill our needs and desires even more than ever. We need God. We desire to be close to God. While that will often mean giving up practices that distract us from God, we need to learn what to replace those practices with. Otherwise, there is no point in giving something up; we will go right back to filling that hole in our lives with that same old thing. This Lent, challenge yourself to do forty acts of kindness. They may be acts of kindness for yourself or for others. Do something nice for yourself. Do something nice for another. It can be allowing yourself a day, or perhaps an hour, for yourself. It could be making a meal for someone else. It could be spending time with God to care for our deepening relationship with God, or helping another to approach God. Regardless of what it is, keep track of what you are doing, because it shows the impact that you are having which you may not even take the time to recognize on a daily basis. Tell us what you have done so far, and give witness to how recognizing this act of kindness has helped you to draw closer to God.
We recognized last week that God’s love languages are some combination between spending time together, doing acts of service, and giving words of affirmation (praise). As we journey closer to God, it is our Christian duty to make time for these things. We carry out these ways to express our love in Bible study and prayer, living the life of the church and serving others, and worshipping God. If we want to learn how to express our love for God in God’s love languages, we need to listen to Jesus! We learn to feel comforted by the Word and by our prayers. Second, we are called to learn how to serve the church so that it can grow. We recognize that God is revealed in the person of Jesus, and in what Jesus taught us to do. A third way that we listen to Jesus is by spreading the words of affirmation that Jesus gave us. Some of these things, we do not do well. The first theme that we will look at this Lent is how we realize our transgressions. How do we ask God to forgive our debts if we do not know what they are? Transgressions do not always have to be action that may be harmful; it can be inaction too. God gave each of us a gift, and we bless God and God’s kingdom when we use that gift to somehow share God’s word.
The first way to recognize a transgression is if we are tired. If you feel tired, perhaps you have been relying on your own strength for too long. God gives us the strength we need to capture our love for what we do and to rediscover why we feel called to do it. If we do not make time for God in our lives, we have not made the trip to the supermarket to buy more food. We keep trying to stretch the little food we do have, and as our meals become less and less balanced, we become progressively less energized. Going to the supermarket takes time out of our lives, but we realize that it is a necessity. In the same way, while renewing our spiritual resources takes time out of our lives, it is a necessity if we do not want to keep being progressively less energized for life. We need to spend time together with God. We need to read the Bible, we need to pray, and we need to seek God through each of them. The Bible gives encouraging stories of times where people have been exhausted from serving and just want to retreat out of the world for a while. Even Jesus fell exhausted, but he used that moment to go aside for a while and pray. From that moment, he affirmed a new vision for his call which sent him in a different direction and completely renewed his strength and sense of purpose (Mark 1:37). Each time Jesus returned from prayer, he felt renewed, with a new “power of the Spirit.” In Mark 1:12-15, Jesus prayed in the presence of temptation before he began his call, ahead of a major task. After the disciples came back from a mission and told Jesus all that they had done and seen, he told them to come away to rest, for they had had “no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:30-32). After hard work, Jesus models for us by showing us that it is important to recharge. To work through grief, Jesus also modeled turning to prayer, as he did following the death of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:13). Before making an important decision, Jesus turned to pray, as he did before he chose the twelve apostles (Luke 6:12-13). Jesus consistently models turning to prayer for renewal. If we are to listen to Jesus, we are to listen to these models. If we are tired, we need to check our prayer life. This is not saying that our faith is weak, or that our prayer life is weak, for the faith and prayers of Jesus were most certainly not weak. The fact is that we all need prayer. It is turning to God and making time for God, knowing that we rely on God’s strength to make it through. Since I have been able to make more time for prayer and spiritual reading, in the Bible and other books, I have noticed that I feel much stronger in those moments. But in the weeks where I allowed myself little time for prayer and for reading, I noticed that they were the weeks that I felt the weakest (most tired).
The second way to recognize a transgression is if we feel inadequate. Often, we may feel inadequate if we have failed at something that someone has asked us to do. And, sometimes we magnify our own failures upon ourselves so that they are greater than they really are. This distracts us from being who we are called to be, and contributes to our feeling not only of feeling exhausted, but feeling incapable of doing anything useful. We are each called to do little acts of service wherever we are, which is why I am asking all of us to think about what little acts of service that we can do and are already doing. We cannot change the world by ourselves, but when we add up the little things we all do, the world is changed. It will motivate us and help us to see that we are capable of things that work for God’s ministry. We are all participants in seeking and realizing God’s kingdom. Find something that you think you can do, and do it well. Pray about it. Write it down so that you reinforce your encouragement to yourself. Tell others about it so that they see not your boasting in yourself, but your boasting in what God can do through you. If you feel inadequate, know that God can work through you. When Paul was experiencing discouragement, as he knew there was much about him that made him feel inadequate and he prayed that the Lord would take those imperfections away, the Lord responded: ““My grace is sufficient for you, for poweris made perfect in weakness.” So, [Paul wrote] I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). I have felt inadequate when I do not know what to say to someone, or when I lose my focus on what is being said, in a moment that should require deep caring. But then I recognize that even when I have no words to say, God can still speak through my being there or through my listening or through the care that I show in both. That helps me to feel adequate again, for the service of God. We do what we can, and turn to God to do the rest.
Maybe you feel weak, and maybe you feel inadequate right now because you have tried to do something and realized that you just do not have the energy. I have felt both these feelings when I have forgotten to turn to God at the beginning of the task or at the beginning of the day. So, to this, I turn to what our scriptures say, and the model that Jesus gave. They serve as a conclusion rather than a body because God led me to speak to our first theme, transgressions. They can have so much control over us before we even realize what they are. But there is a simple response. Psalm 25:2 reminds us, “O my God, in you I trust.” 25:4 continues, “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.” The psalm writer is turning deeply to God. He is modeling a teachable spirit. The Bible teaches us what we need to know when we fall exhausted. God is still good, God is still here, and God is ready to help us, if we keep that teachable spirit and keep seeking God. We seek God to teach us when we fail, and for God’s grace to forgive us when we make mistakes and feel inadequate. Our most serious transgression is forgetting to turn back to God at our weakest moments, when God’s power shines through most. When we bow to temptation, or when we simply lose our energy, should we rest there and just get more frustrated with ourselves? No. I preach this as much to me as I do to you: turn back to God and pray to God. God sees when we turn to God, as we all do again and again from each thing that has unconsciously turned us away. It is our chance to see God’s power work among us.
Will it solve all the issues we face? No. It may not make the car ride end any sooner. But the scriptures that we turn to and the prayers that we pray will be the entertainment, or the nourishment, that we need to keep us strong along the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.
25:1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
25:2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
25:3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
25:4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
25:5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
25:6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
25:7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
25:8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
25:9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
25:10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
1:13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”