“Repent and believe in the Good News!” Haven’t we heard this before? Yes. Over and over again throughout our lives together as Christians we hear Jesus telling us to repent and believe in the good news. We hear it so much that the words become like wallpaper and background noise to a faith that seems increasingly divorced from the real world. Even those outside the church seem so familiar with these words that “repent and believe the good news” has become like a sound loop repeating empty phrases as though the church were a bar that some people enjoyed at least once a week (or twice a year).
Added to this general disconnect are special seasons with funny names and practices like Advent and Lent that don’t even make sense to many of us who practice the faith together. A friend of mine from seminary, the Rev. Jim Moss, recently raised the question of what Jesus might have thought about our decent and orderly liturgical practices.
He said, “I don't think Jesus would have cared much for our Christian seasons - especially for Lent. I think he would have challenged us to the same level of devotion to faith and justice every day of the year. I think we are attracted to these seasons because we fail in that call to everyday devotion, and these special times help in some small way to point us in the right direction for at least a few weeks…I say this not to condemn the practice of Lent, but to remind us that we need Lent so deeply because we fail to be Christ-like throughout the year. It is a time that draws us into deep confession and humility, not into practices whereby we can "prove" our faithfulness - either to ourselves or to others.”
I think that Jim speaks not only to the hope of Christian practices but also to our anxiety. Christianity is more heavily criticized today than it may have ever been in our culture. Atheists have become almost evangelical. Post Modernism has brought about a deep feeling of relativism and individualized ethic that is based on a person’s perspective. And doctrinal religion is increasingly seen as limiting and anxiety causing. Some studies have even indicated that families raised with no religion at all are less anxious and more hopeful about the future. Do you know why? Some say that it’s because they don’t worry about heaven or hell. They focus on the opportunity to experience as much goodness as they can in the days that they have.
And when we hear that some people are happy without us, many of us in the church pews start to get anxious about numbers. How many people were in worship? How many bulletins are we printing? How many families, children, youth, LGBQ, and racial/ethnic groups come to our church? How many of each group came to which programs, and how much money is coming in? Can you tell that we just did our annual statistical report? We did. And those numbers matter, but they do not define us.
Here are some numbers that do. Are you ready? The numbers I want you to think about today are: 8, 2,000, 21, and 1. Eight – that’s how many were saved from the flood. Two thousand – that’s about the number of years since Jesus announced the nearness of God’s Kingdom and salvation for everyone (the righteous and the unrighteous). Twenty-one, that is the number of Coptic Christians that the Coptic Orthodox Church has received as martyrs after their brutal and public execution this week. One – this could be anyone, but it especially stands for the mother of one of the martyred Christians who spoke the name of Jesus even as he died.
These numbers matter. There were only eight people and an ark of animals that survived the cruel and drastic destruction of the flood. Whether we assume this event to be historical or understand it metaphorically – God is a harsh and terrible actor in the drama of that story. And the outcome is so drastic that it even changes God. The Rain Bow – a weapon of mass destruction – is placed in the clouds to show that it will not be used again. Suddenly a symbol of destruction became a symbol of hope, and the flood that might have destroyed the world became instead its baptism.
Likewise, the waters of baptism have become a way to share in the dying and rising of Jesus. 1 Peter says that baptism “now saves you…as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” As Reformed Christians, we understand that it is not the act of baptizing that saves a person, but it is through baptism that we acknowledge what God has done for us. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
And we believe that baptism seals us in the covenant of grace because two thousand years ago a man named Jesus was baptized to show his obedience to the call for repentance. His life was immediately redirected by the Spirit of God, and this opened the door for temptation. Yet his communion was with creation. He was with the wild beasts and the angels, and he returned to tell everyone that the Kingdom of God has come near!
And through his death and resurrection everyone has access to the love of God – the righteous and the unrighteous – even those spirits who were formerly in prison. But what about those who are presently in prison? Did you know that some statistics show that the highest concentration of Christians in any social institution outside of the church is the prison system? And what of those imprisoned economically or socially – are we willing to let those numbers define us? I do not mean to say that we need to take on the burden and anxiety of every social ill. I mean that if our concept of the Kingdom of God is limited to getting into heaven, then we will miss out on the experience of God’s presence here and now!
And we need to know that God is with us, because life is hard. We need to know that redemption is for us and that it will result in the future restoration of all of God’s creation, because it is no longer God that creates the floods – it is us. In the midst of our creativity and our infirmity we need to know that something or someone beyond our limitations can create in us a good conscience.
We need a good conscience when we see twenty-one Christian men spread the word of Jesus with their last breathe. We need a good conscience in order to be in constant prayer for victims of senseless violence. We also need to be in constant prayer for those who speak out against violence in the name of God, and we even need to be in prayer for those who commit violence in the name of any faith, or God, or religion. We need to be one. In some cases we need to be the one.
We need to be the one who acts in the name of God and demonstrates the heart of God – especially when things are at their worst. Personally, I can think of little that could be worse than being the parent or the brother of one of those twenty-one martyrs. And yet, when interviewed, Beshir Kamel even thanked his brother’s killers for strengthening his faith by showing them speaking the name of Jesus. He said that he was proud of Bishoy and Samuel for their martyrdom. But then, when asked what he thought his mother might say to an Islamic State militant, he said, “My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.”
These are the words of a woman with a good conscience. These are the words of a woman who is assured that the mercy of God is for everyone. It is here, in this uncomfortable place where grace and mercy become a jagged pill that we cannot seem to swallow, that the idea that salvation is for everyone can only be understood from a larger perspective. Like a magic eye picture that moves from flat, blurry static to sharp images of depth and detail, our understanding of suffering and salvation and a God who is yet active and present can only become clear when we include everyone in the picture.
If we can let go of the worry over heaven and hell and focus on the opportunity to participate in the good that we can do today, the world might just be a different place. I’m not talking about some naive, flower peddling, love fest. I’m talking about a world where we begin to see ourselves as one. Each of us can be the one who speaks truth and offers redemption to someone else. Each of us can recognize that we are all united as one human race. Each of us can let go of the doubts, fears, and burdens that separate us from God and from others. Each of us can appeal to God for a good conscience that reflects the love of God in all that we do. And each of us will probably see someone who we do not expect to see in the Kingdom that is both present and yet to come!
Regardless of what we expect, let us appeal to God for a good conscience during this season of Lent, and may our actions demonstrate the redemption and restoration that God has in mind for all of creation. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!