INVOCABIT, FEBRUARY 13, 2005
A Sermon on Psalm 91: 15a, 15c, 16a by David Zersen
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“He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
LIFTING UP THE VISION
It is the mark of leadership that a vision is held up for those who follow. Christians are leaders when they don’t get lost in the details of life or in the rituals of religion, but when they lift up Jesus, the author and fulfiller of faith. Christianity rallies people rightly when it points beyond suffering and death to the triumph of Easter.
Such thoughts are implicit in our text today as we begin together a new season of Lent, a season during which all too many Christians lose their way. The ancient tradition needs to be revisited to assure that the words we share in our texts are meaningful and that the hope which summons us does not get buried in month-long tributes to suffering and death.
The text for today’s sermon is taken from Psalm 91, selected verses. It has served for centuries as the introduction or Introit to the worship on the first Sunday in Lent. Other verses from this same psalm are used for the Gradual, a segment traditionally chanted or read between two of the readings from Scripture. This is the same segment of the Psalms which the Devil quotes in his second temptation of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson (Mt. 4:6). Both quotations from the Psalms are remarkably positive and futuristic, as is the whole Psalm. It tells of the protection that God will provide; “his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart (19:4c); with long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation (16).” Although this Psalm traditionally spoke of God’s care for his people, it also came to be applied to his Messiah, the care which would be provided the One who loves and calls upon God for the sake of his people.
How did it happen that such positive and futuristic words got lost in the Lenten tradition so much so that Christians during this season have failed to think about Easter, but instead mostly about suffering, fasting, sorrow, denial and death? It’s worth exploring this journey so that we can reorient ourselves and remember to keep our heads held high and lift up the vision, the reason why we are Christians in the first place.
Missing Out on Newness of Life
Surprisingly, Lent did not begin as a remembrance of the suffering of Jesus, but as a preparation for entering into the power of the resurrection. In the earliest centuries, when Christianity was still an underground religion, stringent requirements assured that candidates would not easily abandon the faith or turn in others to the authorities. Weeks of lectures and examinations called “scrutinies” were accompanied by physical discipline in the form of fasting. There were significant models for fasts kept by Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson, by Moses on Sinai and by Elijah at Horeb. Since all were forty days, this provided an appropriate time length for those who were preparing to be baptized and to enter into the meaning of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. The time of preparation was long, but it focused on the joyful participation in Jesus’ resurrection, the promise that death’s power was done.
After Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 313, the stringent preparation for a proscribed religious community was relaxed, but the general period of preparation was retained. Sundays, always having been weekly commemorations of the resurrection, were exempted from the Lenten observance completely. However, gradually, emphases on the suffering and death of Jesus began to creep into weekday remembrances as well as Sunday remembrances. Alleluias were not sung; the Gloria in Excelsis came to be omitted; the penitential color violet was used throughout the season.
The original intent was not to begin focusing on Jesus’ suffering and death until Palm Sunday, but in reality sermons and meditations, music and art during the Lenten season so concerned worshippers with the events of the passion that by the time Holy Week arrived people and clergy were weary of the details of the narrative which is proper to the week before Easter ( The Christian Year, Edward Horn). All this came to be true in Christian communities, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran, especially, which initially hoped during these weeks to prepare initiants to embrace the meaning of dying to sin and walking forever in newness of life.
Refocusing on Life instead of Death
Now comes our text, the words of introduction for this first Sunday in Lent, calling us to remember how Jesus, in his agony, in his suffering, will call upon God and be answered!
He will be assured, even in the face of death, long life and salvation. A good introduction to Lent, you might say, if you’ve been listening, providing that the focus is placed not on the suffering, but on the vision for life which outlasts it. If life does not last, then God’s word has no power.
This has always been Christianity’s genius and the reason why it survives again and again in the face of persecution, apologetic refutation and shear boredom. Sooner or later, all of us have to come face to face with the reality of death. It is the world’s great dead end street! Cul de Sac! Sackgasse! What do you say in the face of a Holocaust? We just remembered the 60 th Anniversary of the emancipation of Auschwitz. There are still one million people alive today who survived the concentration camps! How can religion talk about life and salvation with them? And what about the survivors of the tsunami? We think 200,000 people died after this giant wave caused by an earthquake. How can their survivors put the “G_d” word on their lips? And what about the survivors of the 100,000 people who were killed in Iraq, mostly innocent people killed by hostile fire. How do they speak meaningfully about a God who is hope, who is resurrection, something that Muslims believe in as surely as do Christians? How do you say “hope” on a dead end street!?
The Christian answer to this has always been that we look beyond suffering and tragedy and death to the message of the resurrection, to the promise that in the death and resurrection of Jesus a lasting blow was struck to all the dead ends which life can create.
There is no meaning to Jesus own suffering and death without the story of the resurrection—and that’s why Sundays in Lent must look forward to Easter! Why Invocabit or Lent I calls us to remember that God’s long life and salvation is promised not just on this side of the grave but even beyond it! Why Jesus who endures the grave and triumphs at Easter is forever the victory banner summoning us to shout “ha ha” in the face of incomprehensible evil! There is no other answer in the world, but the answer of despair and disillusionment. The Christian answer is that there has always been more to life than that which we see and hear and taste. “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)
There are many ways in which we can walk this Lenten journey together without losing our focus and becoming sidetracked in lamenting all that the suffering Jesus endured for us. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ will have to wait for Holy Week. Purple veils and mournful music should be saved as well. If we choose to fast, let it be because we celebrate a healthy body which God gives as one of his gifts. If we choose to meditate, let it be on the faith which makes us more than conquerors over all of the Devil’s darts. If we choose to celebrate, let it be because God has given our Jesus long life and salvation—along with us his heirs.
Do not be afraid to call upon God, in addiction or divorce, in worry or fear, when job loss threatens or health fails. In the month of December I visited the infamous slave castles at Cape Coast, Ghana, from which most of the slaves brought to the Americas emerged in chains. In dungeons so narrow, bodies piled so high, mingled with blood and urine and feces, packed hard now as pavement on which tourists walk, man’s inhumanity to man was writ large. As the Portuguese or Spanish worshipped upstairs, their God heard the calls of those imprisoned below. Our God hears us in the midst of trials, overwhelming disaster or boredom without end. And if you wonder if our God answers, then keep your vision focused on a life longer than you can imagine, and a salvation from evils you haven’t words to name. Our God has more solutions than you have problems, more future than you have dead ends. Call on him today. Our faith claims a God who has gone to open the future for us because he has closed the doors of the past behind us. Praise his name today.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus