Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
April 3, 2011
I hope you noticed that this morning was just a bit different from the other Sundays in Lent. If we had a set of rose coloured vestments, we would see the color pink instead of the usual purple that we’ve seen since Septuagesima Sunday. Violets appeared upon the altar as flowers are appropriate for this Sunday past the mid-point of our Lenten fast. There is also a somewhat unfamiliar and strange sounding word at the top of your bulletins to designate this as Laetare Sunday. Much like Gaudete Sunday, which is the third Sunday in Advent, this is a slight relaxation of the otherwise penitential nature of this season. The word Laetare comes from the first word in the Introit of the Mass that we said before the service began and it literally means – to rejoice.
I hope this raises a few questions in your mind. Why are we to rejoice during this Season of Lent? What is the connection to Jerusalem and this rejoicing? How does all of this square with the lessons that we’ve just heard?
Why are we to rejoice during this Season of Lent?
To a certain degree that sounds contradictory. If we are to be penitential, and be more intentional during this time of year to prayer, alms giving, and fasting, where does joy fit into the equation? At second glance though, these should be times of great joy that we should not simply bear for these forty days only to rejoice even more come Easter Sunday when we dispense with all of this penitence until this time next year. If that is the way that we approach each Lent, I believe we’ve missed the point of why we do so in the first place.
All three of those disciplines are intended to draw us closer to God. If we are more intentional during Lent to pray the Daily Office, either corporately or privately, or get up 20 minutes earlier each day to read Scripture or pray, or try to pray before we speak in the midst of a trial or struggle, or give more of our time, treasure, or talents for the furthering of God’s kingdom, why would we ever seek to dispense with that come the end of April. At the end of Lent we should begin to see the fruits of this work, and seek to cultivate it more and more. It should also lead us to a more joyous celebration of our Lord’s resurrection for we know that it was only through his grace and mercy that we were able to complete these efforts to draw closer to Almighty God.
What is the connection to Jerusalem and this rejoicing?
In order to try to answer this question, and its compliment, what about the lessons we just heard, we need a bit of background information, especially to understand the Epistle lesson from Galatians.
Many folks over the years have raised their eyebrows to this particular account of St. Paul as he is instructing the Church in Galatia. What on earth is this business about Sarah and Hagar?
We need to go back and understand the story from Genesis before we can understand what St. Paul is getting at here.
God established his covenant with Abraham. He told him one night to look up into the heavens and try to count the stars, which of course he could not do, and God said that his own son would be his heir, even though he was childless at the time.
At the end of the passage in which God told Abram that He was making a Covenant with him and his offspring, Scripture says that Abram believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Keep that phrase in mind, that Abram’s faith was counted to him as righteousness.
As always seems to happen throughout the Bible, mankind can’t stand trusting God and his timing, so Sarai approaches her husband Abram, and tells him that since she was barren and could not have any children that he should marry her Egyptian slave Hagar and continue his lineage through her. Abram agrees, and Hagar becomes pregnant with Ishmael.
We then encounter the ancient Hebrew rendition of Desperate Housewives or Jersey Shore, and Sarai becomes jealous of Hagar because she is carrying the child that she should rightfully be carrying. She told her husband that Hagar had looked at her with contempt and Sarai is enraged that there is now this division between amongst them. Therefore, Abram gives Sarai permission to send her away, but the LORD intervenes and tells Hagar to return to her mistress and submit to her. She does so, and Ishmael is born. In thinking about our Epistle, here is the first link in the story.
Thirteen years later when Abram is ninety-nine years old, God appears to him again and reiterates the covenant made with him earlier. As a sign of the covenant, God changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah, and institutes circumcision as the mark of the covenant.
One year later God visits Sarah and blesses her, and she conceives a son to Abraham and thus the Covenant is established through Abraham’s legitimate heir Isaac.
As you would expect Season #2 of Desperate Housewives – Hebrew edition must take place, and Sarah becomes jealous again of Hagar and Ishmael, and orders Abraham to send them away. Abraham does not want to send them away on account of the fact that Ishmael is his son, but God intercedes and tells Abraham to send them away because His Covenant will not come through the heir of the Egyptian slave girl, but through the legitimate heir of Sarah, the Hebrew free woman. In thinking about our Epistle, here is the next link in the story that will help us answer the question what is the link between Jerusalem, rejoicing and Lent.
I know that seemed like allot of background to the Epistle, but with that in mind I think it helps us understand what St. Paul was up to in dealing with the Galatian Church and allegorizing these two women and their children.
The overall message of the Epistle itself is a condemnation of those that have infiltrated this group of believers and has begun to perpetuate the notion that the only way that someone could become a real, true, official, legitimate Christian was to submit to circumcision and become a complete Levitical law-abiding Jew first. Haven’t we heard all of this before? This was a group of people who were putting unnecessary barriers in front of those wishing to coming to faith in Jesus Christ. The Pharisees before them were doing the exact same things. They were setting up all types of hoops in front of those who came to the Temple to worship God, and thus Jesus comes into the Temple with a whip of cords and condemns their actions for what they were. He cleanses the temple of slavery in order to make room for a Temple of freedom.
St. Paul takes the imagery of two women, Hagar and Sarah, and speaks about the incompatibility of seeking justification through the Law and not through Grace. He says the one woman represents slavery and bondage, born after the flesh. In thinking back to the story of Genesis, Sarai insists that Abram go about things their way, and raise up children with Hagar, after the flesh. Neither of them is willing to wait on God to work in His own time.
When they trust God, even though they both laugh at God in the process, a son is born to Sarah in her old age, a child born through the true promise. Isaac, whose name speaks of laughter, is the true heir and one through whom the Covenant will come to fruition.
Hagar represents the Jerusalem of the Pharisees - tied to the keeping of the Law, with circumcision as the marker of their identity. This cannot ultimately save because the Law constantly shows us not where we succeed but where we fall short. Sarah is represents the heavenly Jerusalem, our true Mother, that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, and our faith in Him.
Paul tells the Galatians and us as well that we cannot place our trust in the rote keeping of the Law and Commandments to justify ourselves before God. We will be forever reminded of how we don’t measure up.
We rejoice in the fact that God has made us sons and heirs of the promise that comes through the new Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem. We are no longer slaves to the old Jerusalem that comes from asking God to weigh our merits, which never works.
We have a mother that wishes to nurture us, comfort us, gather us as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing. Holy Mother Church is that place that place of repose where we come to have our wounds bound up, where we come to seek nourishment and comfort, where we are free to bear our souls.
May we continue to seek our home in the heavenly Jerusalem where our faith in Christ is reckoned to us as righteousness because this is the only source of our justification. As it was reckoned to Abraham as faithfulness, so too does our justification come from the imputed righteousness of Christ that comes through our faith in him. This, and only this, will continue to lead us along the path of sanctification, which is the keeping of the law not out of being slaves to the law, but out of love for the promise that is given to all those who love and serve the LORD – out of love for the one who first loved us, and gave himself for us an offering and sacrifice to Almighty God, His heavenly Father.