Invocavit, the First Sunday in Lent March 4, 2001
140, 318, 334, 354
This is what the Lord says: “When men fall down, do they not get up? When a man turns away, does he not return? Why then have these people turned away? Why does Jerusalem always turn away? They cling to deceit; they refuse to return. I have listened attentively, but they do not say what is right. No one repents of his wickedness, saying, “What have I done?” Each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle. Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons, and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration. But my people do not know the judgment of the Lord. How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? The wise will be put to shame: they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what kind of wisdom do they have? Here ends our text.
In Christ Jesus, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
“Jesus is the reason for the season!” Do you remember that phrase?—It’s been barely a month and a half now since those words were all over the place, from bumper stickers to gift wrapping. That little motto was supposed to remind people what the Christmas season was really all about; not about toys and trees and tinsel, but about the coming of the God-Man to earth. And still, there were obviously a lot of people who didn’t get the message—who missed the real meaning of Christmas.
That already seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? Now we’re standing on the threshold of a whole new season of the church year—the season of Lent. For a lot of people, Lent has no meaning at all—unless it’s because fish goes on sale at the grocery store. For us Christians, though, Lent is a time that’s filled with meaning. It’s a time of repentance—when we need to look our sin full in the face. And it’s also a time of redemption—when we meditate on the awful suffering Jesus endured to free us from our sin. But repentance comes first. This morning, our text offers us the bad example of the Old Testament people of Judah. They missed the message of God’s grace, because they refused to repent. As we step into the important season of Lent, the Holy Spirit wants us to avoid making their mistake. That’s why our theme today is:
Actually, the season of Lent officially began four days ago, on Ash Wednesday. It’s called Ash Wednesday, because ashes are a symbol of repentance, of a godly sorrow over sin. Right down to this day, you’ll sometimes see people wearing a spot of gray ashes on their foreheads on that first day of Lent.
In Old Testament times, people would show extreme sorrow over their sins by dressing themselves in rough burlap, and by scattering dust and ashes over themselves. But at the time of the prophet Jeremiah, no one in the land of Judah was doing anything like that. No one was “repenting in sackcloth and ashes,” even though they had a lot to repent of! Again and again, the people of Judah had turned away from worshipping the true God, and had served the false gods of the Canaanites, Baal and Ashteroth. Again and again, God offered them the chance to repent and be forgiven: “‘Return, backsliding Israel,’ says the Lord, ‘And I will not cause My anger to fall on you; For I am merciful,’ says the Lord, ‘and I will not remain angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord your God.’” Jer 3:12-13.
-But again and again, Judah missed their chance to repent. It just didn’t make sense! “When a person falls down, doesn’t he naturally get up again?” God asked. “When a person turns away, doesn’t he eventually turn back?” But not the people of Jerusalem—they held on tight to their sin; they stubbornly refused to turn back to God. “I have listened attentively, but they do not say what is right. No one repents of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle.”
On this first Sunday in Lent, the Almighty God is again listening attentively—only today, He’s listening to you. He’s listening for the sounds of repentance. He’s hoping to hear from your lips the whispered question, “What have I done?” “O Lord, how many sinful thoughts have passed through my mind! How many angry and hateful words have passed over my lips! How many times I’ve hidden my sinful deeds in darkness, thinking that no one would know! How often I’ve ignored You, my God, and put Your service far down on my list of priorities!” Today the Lord is holding out to you the lifeline of His mercy—loosen your grip on sin and grab hold! Don’t miss the chance to repent!
You know, one thing I’d never seen before I moved to my first parish in South Dakota was a crane. Have you ever seen wild cranes? The first time I heard the clacking, clattering sound of a flock of cranes overhead, I had no idea what they were. In time, of course, I learned that the call of the cranes flying south was a sure sign that winter was on its way. The signs of the changing seasons are easy to read. We know exactly what’s coming. The signs of God’s coming judgement on Judah should have been just as easy to read. Somehow, though, the people of Judah missed the signs of the times. In our text, the Lord says, “Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons, and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration. But my people do not know the judgment of the Lord.”
The prophets of the Lord kept warning the people of Judah to throw away their idols, to repent, and turn back to Jehovah. In the clearest possible language, they told the people what would happen if they didn’t: the whole nation would be conquered by the Babylonians. They’d be carried away captive—lock, stock and barrel—into Babylonia. But the people chose to ignore the signs of God’s coming judgment, and carry on in their sin. In the year 587 BC, the Lord finally ran out of patience. King Nebuchadnezzar swept down from the north and captured Jerusalem.
During this season of Lent, the Lord wants us to recognize the signs of the times. Lent is one time when it’s impossible to be fuzzy about sin. When you see the crown of thorns being pressed into Jesus’ head, it’s impossible to say, “Oh, my sins aren’t that serious—“ When you see the nails being driven through the flesh of His hands and feet—at that point, it’s no longer possible to say, “Oh, my sins aren’t so terrible—“ “The wages of sin is death,” and the proof is Christ on the cross. Let’s not forget that it’s our sins that put Him there. This Lenten season, let’s make sure we don’t miss the signs of the times! One favorite Lenten hymn reminds us:
Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed,
See who bears the awful load;
’Tis the WORD, the LORD’S ANOINTED,
Son of Man and Son of God. LH 153:3
Finally, the Lord attacks another problem with the people of Judah—their false sense of security. “How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,’ when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? The wise will be put to shame: they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what kind of wisdom do they have?”
Oh, the Jews were proud of their religion, alright! Weren’t they the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Didn’t they have the Temple of the Lord right there in Jerusalem? Didn’t they have the law of the Lord written down in the Holy Scriptures? Yes, they had all the outward trappings of religion, but they didn’t have it where it counts—in the heart! Yes, they had God’s Word, but—led by their lying religious leaders—they had missed the central character of Scripture: the Messiah, the coming Savior from sin. The scribes and Pharisees still had that problem when Jesus said to them, “You do not have the Father’s word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” Jn 5:38-40. By concentrating on the letter of the law and not the spirit, by focusing on the outward forms of religion and ignoring the religion of the heart, the Jews missed the truth of God’s Word.
My Christian friends, we will not make that mistake! During this Lenten season, we will not miss the central truth of God’s Word—and that truth is Christ. What does God want from us? Does He demand a certain number of good works in exchange for forgiveness? No. Does He require that we put a certain amount of money in the collection plate? No. He simply bids us come to the cross. He graciously invites us to bring all our sins, confess them, and lay them on our Savior. That’s the only thing God requires. King David says, “O Lord…You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise.” Ps 51:16-17.
Peace through Christ—that’s the meaning of Lent. What a blessed comfort it is to be able to say, “He died for me.” How much easier it is to follow the anguished footsteps of our Lord when we know what that anguish bought us: absolute freedom from the punishment of sin. When you walk out those doors this morning, I hope that truth really hits home. I hope you feel the weight of sin lifted from your shoulders, because that’s what Jesus died to give you. And that’s why our Savior could say, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matt 11:28-29. Because of the cross, you can start enjoying that rest right now—and you can enjoy it in perfect happiness in eternity!
“Jesus is the reason for the season.”—It’s true of the Christmas season, but it’s especially true of the season we’re in right now—the Lenten season. Make this a particularly meaningful time of year for you and your family. This year, don’t miss the chance to repent, don’t miss the signs of the times, and don’t miss the central truth of God’s Word: “Christ the Lord died for ME!” In His name, AMEN.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.