Monday, February 26, 2007

Lent 1 Sermon-- "A Pregnant Pause"

Jeremiah 18:1-6
John 3: 1-8

Let me begin this morning by simply thanking you. Thank you for being who you are in this community. Thank you for embracing our family and shaping my ministry. I want to share with you today some of our journey to and through ministry in part because you are part of that journey. But I also want to tell you how you have shaped my ministry because this is one of the essential themes of Lent—for us to examine and understand how we have been shaped and molded in faith.
There is a passage of scripture in Jeremiah where he visits a potter’s house. The potter is busy at the wheel, and at some point the clay is distorted, so the potter simply moves his hands and keeps spinning the wheel until the clay has resumed the shape that he wants it to be in. Jeremiah hears the voice of God saying, “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does? Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” You’ve heard this scripture recently in this church, but it spoke to me again this week—so you get it again, okay?
Lent is a season of introspection, of attentiveness to prayer and discipline. It can be a time of great re-molding. In our church tradition, it is the time when we seek to mirror the time that Christ spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying. It is a time to come to terms with who we are, and what has made us what we are.
One of the events that I experienced while youth minister a few years ago that really contributed to my sense of “who I am” happened on a trip we took with the youth to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. We had spent the whole day there. Lara and I and some parents had taken a group Jr. and Sr. High youth as a reward trip for having the most consistent attendance at Sunday school. We had spent the day riding roller coasters…but the real roller coaster was waiting for us on the highways of Kansas. I was driving a van with a shell top, so don’t have to crouch down to get to the back seats.
Unfortunately, I’d always noticed the shell on the van caught the wind like a sail, and it was unsettling to drive if there was any wind at all. Heading west on the interstate in Kansas, I began to notice the sky in front of us was dark, and the wind that I dreaded was picking up. 18 wheelers were careening in their lanes, trying to stay within their bounds, and many cars were beginning to pull over as sheets of rain began to pummel my windshield.
I glanced from my white knuckles to the rearview, amazed to see my youth laughing and carrying on and flirting with each other, oblivious to the torments that I saw ahead of me. On the radio, I heard the distinctive beeps that proceeded a weather alert. It was a tornado warning—but I had no Kansas map, and the locations of touchdowns meant nothing to me.
In the middle of Kansas, there aren’t many places to seek shelter in a storm, but I found a gas station and pulled in to see. I remember the big plastic garbage cans at the gas station flying around the parking lot as I ran back to the van. I knew the ramshackle old gas station wouldn’t do anything to shelter us from the approaching storm, and the kid’s parents would already be waiting an hour or two past our estimated time of arrival because the hard rain had slowed our travel down significantly.
We were pretty close to being able to make it to our highway going south before the tornados made it to us. My prayer was more a demand than a petition. “These are your children God, and I’m the only one you’ve got to get them home safely. Now I need you to show me that you’re with me!” I pulled out of the gas station, back onto the interstate and toward our southbound highway. Not 5 minutes after I’d said the prayer, a lightning bolt crashed into a tree out in a pasture 100 yards outside my driver’s window. The tree exploded into flames, and my hair stood up on my arms.
A resounding “coooooool” was mixed with shrieks of fear voiced by the teenagers in the seats behind me. It was like I had not been riding in the van all along, my mind had been racing with possibilities of all the things that could go wrong. After I witnessed my own “burning bush” though, I had a new sense of confidence in God’s presence. The rain didn’t let up, the wind still rocked the van, the wet road continued to slow us down, but now my grip on the wheel relaxed, the blood rushed back into my knuckles, and I was able to feel the road better because I had loosened up enough to actually feel it.
We made it home safely. The sign of God’s presence that I had prayed for was actually presented to me in an unmistakable way. Though God had been answering prayers in a more subtle way for me for my whole life, this particular instance gave me a renewed sense of purpose and promise as a steward of God’s church.
If I am a chunk of clay being molded by God, then this experience is part of my spinning wheel. This is one of those things that contributed to who I am. God used this experience to mold me into the form that He has in mind. Lent comes from an Old English word “Lencten” which means “Spring.” Spring is a time of new growth, a time of taking shape, of coming into bloom. It is a time of preparation.
We observe Lent for 40 days for the most part because it was the early church’s custom to observe a total fast for 40 hours proceeding Easter morning. On the morning of Easter, new initiates into the faith were baptized and were allowed to take the sacrament of communion for the first time. The whole community of faith would participate in the 40 hour fast to prepare for this event. The number 40 carries great significance in the scriptures—The Israelites are in the wilderness for 40 years, the flood in Genesis begins with a period of rain for forty days and nights. Elijah sits on Mt. Horeb waiting for the voice of God for forty days and nights. Moses spends forty days on Mt. Sinai with God, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness preparing for his ministry.
Now, why 40? Did the Hebrew people consider it a holy number? Did God just like to do things in 3’s 7’s 12’s and 40’s? I’ve heard a compelling reason that the number 40 is Biblical literature. We hear the number so often because it is also the number of weeks that a baby is in gestation in her mother’s womb. Forty weeks is the amount of time that women are pregnant. It takes 40 weeks to shape us into who we are—and at the far end of 40 weeks, we are born!
This puts a new perspective on the stories in the Bible that feature the number 40. The Israelites were indeed re-born at the end of their journey in the Promised Land. They were a new people, they were no longer slaves, but free. Noah saw the whole world re-born through the floodwaters, which themselves are reminiscent of birth. Elijah, Jonah, Moses—all needed to go through a gestational period before they went on with their mission.
Jesus emerges from his forty days in the wilderness proclaiming, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news!” Lent is indeed a time of Spring. It is the pregnant pause before the exclamation of the empty tomb. It is strange for me to begin thinking of Lent in this way—I have always thought of it as a somber time, a frame of darkness that accentuates the unbelievable light of Easter.
Viewing Lent as the gestational period for our new birth in Easter brings a new meaning to the season for me—it recasts the agony of Good Friday as the birthpangs of Easter. It re-molds the sorrowful Last supper as that reluctant sadness women sometimes feel at the end of pregnancy, knowing that soon they will give up the intimate bond of carrying their child within them.
And so I invite you to view these 40 days with me as a period of gestation, when we focus on the fact that we are “wonderfully made” and the things that go into making us who we are. I shared with you one story of how my ministry in the church shaped me and my calling—the truth is that my calling is like a string of Christmas lights—moments throughout my life all connected along a tangled and luminescent string, that together shed light on my decision to enter ordained ministry. This church is responsible for a number of those Christmas lights.
What are some of yours? In what ways has God shed light on your purpose in life? Sometimes our understanding God’s activity of shaping us takes continued and disciplined focus. This is why I would encourage you to use the Lenten season as one of insight and meditation and prayer. You may find a spiritual practice that involves “giving up” some kind of creature comfort. Perhaps you have given up chocolate or soda. If you have decided to take this course, you may remind yourself of God’s presence and activity and shaping presence in your life every time you have a hankering for a coke or a kit-kat.
But perhaps you have never been that successful at making this kind of practice stick. If not, why not trying to add something to your life. A couple weeks ago, we received a letter from a lady at the Bartlesville church asking us to write a letter for a woman that would support her during her Emmaus walk.
I so enjoyed writing a letter and having the opportunity to write the letter to her that I thought—why don’t I just do this? Why do I need a “reason” to write a letter to someone letting them know what they’ve contributed to my walk with Christ? Well, perhaps this could be a Lenten discipline! Simply putting a pen to paper once a day and writing to someone we want to thank or acknowledge.
I left instructions for you on our church website on the practice of Lectio Divina—which is “Divine Reading,” a monastic practice of intentionally reading a passage of scripture and then re-reading and re-reading until a particular word or phrase jumps out and grabs us, and then sitting with that word in silence and contemplating why it is that God would have us hear that particular word or phrase. It can be a very powerful practice.
Perhaps you are attracted to the labyrinth—I’ve also posted an online Labyrinth on our church website that you can utilize as a devotional tool. Lent is a journey toward the center, and a Labyrinth can be very helpful for those of us who find it difficult to find silence and solace in our busy heads. I’ll never forget the time that I walked the labyrinth with the youth I mentioned before, and an 8th grader came up to me after he walked and said with wonder and gratitude, “For the first time in my life, my mind was quiet.”
Lent can be a Springtime for our souls. It can be a gestational period when we are formed and molded into the people whom God would have us be. God carries us in the womb of life, hoping for that day when we experience the second birth—the Spiritual birth when we open our eyes to the world around us and see God’s handiwork, when we look at the people next to us in the pew or the people who annoy us at work and we see brothers and sisters. When we look at ourselves in the mirror and see purpose and potential and promise.
This is the Lenten journey—a period of gestation as we await the new birth of humanity at the empty tomb.

No comments:

Post a Comment