Preaching During Lent

As I survey the Gospel texts assigned for Lent during Year C, I see them raising questions about life and what it means to live and flourish in the space carved out by God’s grace.

I am not surprised that what I see has to do with living. I am biased. I have little patience for Lenten practices, liturgies, and especially sermons that do not lead me beyond passive introspection or that consist chiefly of macabre reflections. Lenten preaching should take life as seriously as it takes death. I want Lent to address my humanity as much as (if not more than) my mortality.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we downplay the precariousness of human existence in a cavalier way; I am asking that we find beauty and hope in the divine grace that manifests itself precisely in the midst of that precariousness.

I am not suggesting that we soft-pedal the depravity and alienation that comes with being human; I am asking that we lift up our fleeting and corrupted lives as nevertheless precisely the place where God meets and blesses us. This is about more than God condescending to affirm the value of sin-wracked humanity. It is about our embracing the nature of humanity and the nature of God, made clear through God’s essential partnership with humanity, as revealed in Jesus Christ.1

Suggestions for Taking Life Seriously This Lent

Too often, Lent looks like a seven-week-long observance of Ash Wednesday. Contrary to many pastors’ assumptions, people do not need reminders of their fallibility, mortality, and frailties every Sunday. Most of the population lives with those reminders on a daily basis.

Our humanness means more than our finitude. It means being corporeal, or being embodied. The Lenten Gospel readings reveal that Jesus Christ promises to meet people there, in their embodied existence. God meets us through that existence.

Our embodied life shows us to be creatures made to relate, to interact with a world outside of ourselves–experiencing longing, joining, bleeding, and desiring. We have the capacity to be flooded with ecstasy, pain, and everything in between. These are means through which we hear and live the gospel.

Help me experience the strange fusion of love and anguish that erupts when Mary of Bethany proclaims Jesus’ death by caressing his feet with nearly a pint of fragrance in John 12 (Lent 5). Magnify the grace that makes it even possible to turn to God in a hostile world where tyrants butcher religious pilgrims and “gratuitous” evil takes our breath away, as in Luke 13 (Lent 3).

Teach me that what I do with my body matters, that pleasure and agony, yearning and fulfillment can teach me something about the God who made me and welcomes me. Help me move away from corrosive self-regard and a cautious, judgmental disposition so I can celebrate a God who recklessly reinstates a prodigal in Luke 15 (Lent 4). Teach me to desire what God desires for me and to renounce the easy temptation to put confidence in violent solutions, so that I might not be led to imitate the presumption of Herod Antipas in Luke 13 (Lent 2) and the reckless use of power that he and other leaders perpetrate in Luke’s Passion narrative (Passion Sunday).

Give me the theological material to grapple with questions that matter for how I choose to live each day: What does it mean for me to be who I am? What does it mean that I am who I am? Just as Jesus contends against false depictions of his identity in Luke 3 (Lent 1), help me discern an agenda for daily living that corresponds to God’s will for me as God’s child.

Connect me to the visceral realities through which the gospel grasps me. The props and settings of the Gospel texts call upon our sensory perceptions. The stories have scents in the air: the unique smell that desert vegetation gives to an arid wilderness (Luke 3), the whiff of adrenaline and memories of ashes blowing in the wind when Jesus laments over Jerusalem (Luke 13), the manure that provides a sharp and steady reminder of the effort undertaken to make the fig tree fruitful (Luke 13), the roasting calf mingled with the sweaty odor emanating from a hardworking older brother (Luke 15), and the perfume that decorates Jesus even as it turns him into a corpse (John 12).

These texts also appeal to human feelings. Uncertainty and confidence, rejection and desire, worry and expectancy, restoration and resentment, wild abandon and deep loss–all these help make the story of Jesus not just about a man who died 2000 years ago; it is also the story of us. The divine Jesus Christ was and is a human being, encountered then and now by human beings within the fullness of their lives and humanity.

How Does All This Connect to Lent?

So you don’t think I have lost the little liturgical sense I might have once had, let me offer two reasons why this focus is appropriate for Lent. One: it’s biblical. Two: it’s corrective.

First, it’s biblical. Yes, Jesus sets his face to travel to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). But his way there is not a funeral procession directly to the hill called The Skull. Among other things, his journey offers a demonstration of the kind of life the gospel offers. It is a manifestation of how God’s visitation can be perceived and what visitation means for the lives of God’s people.

Lenten preaching most helpfully directs us to consider the cross of Christ when sermons bring connections among Jesus’ life, ministry, and death into clearer view. People often fail to appreciate the fact that Jesus dies as a result of the life he leads. In the Gospels, the nature of his ministry informs the nature of his execution; and vice versa.

The Gospel texts in Year C show us a Jesus who resists demonic articulations about privilege, who shows no fear in the face of imperial muscle, who calls all people to repentance, who depicts God’s love as scandalously soft on scoundrels, and who refuses to respect the boundary that divides dead from living. All the offense, all the boundary-breaking–it is no wonder the authorities kill him in the end (with temporary support from the people of Jerusalem, according to Luke). The gospel he preaches and embodies through the kind of life he leads–and through the kind of execution he suffers–is remarkably earthy. It connects to fear and hope, to frailty and beauty, to our daily drudgeries and our glimpses of transcendence within the ordinary pieces of our existence.

Second, it’s corrective. The history of Christian proclamation and practice fosters misperceptions about the gospel. Too often Lenten observances reinforce false notions that Christianity is unconcerned with this life and oriented only toward a future, otherworldly existence. This year’s Lenten texts invite us to understand and express our faith otherwise.

It’s Still about Jesus

We will make a mess of Lent whenever we make it just about ourselves and our futures, focusing on self-mortification, self-improvement, and self-awareness. It is also wrong to make it all about education, discipleship, and churchgoing.

Lent, like every Christian season, is first and foremost about Jesus. After all, at least in the lectionary’s eyes, it always begins with his temptation and concludes with his Passion. Likewise, our preaching is first and foremost about Jesus.

But Jesus does not come to us as a disembodied other. To say “Jesus is Lord” is not to confess allegiance to a wholly self-sufficient and distant Deity. In Karl Barth’s words, God’s deity “encloses humanity in itself.”2  Jesus meets us in humanity. He reveals humanity. He makes human existence the location for experiencing the gospel, even when that existence is dreadful. Nevertheless, in our terrific human lives we find the means to encounter him still and to connect our imperfect selves to the fullness of his grace.

Preachers, help us find this in our living, not just in our anticipation of dying.

1In his great essay “The Humanity of God,” Karl Barth explains that Jesus does not just serve as mediator and reconciler between God and humanity; he also reveals what both of these are. See the essay in the little book with the same title (still in print by Westminster John Knox Press), pages 37-65.

2Barth, “Humanity,” 50 (emphasis original).