Sermon: God Has Been at Work
The ashes have been washed off of our heads by now, but the mark they were meant to leave on our hearts hopefully remains. We have begun with seriousness the solemn fast of Lent, this time of intensification of our spiritual lives in which we draw closer to the Lord. On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that the outward sign of repentance we performed by our symbolic initiation into the order of the penitents was meant not just as a gesture of our awareness of our sinfulness, but an expression of our desire to do something about it through growth in human virtue and holiness.
On this first Sunday of Lent, Holy Mother Church desires that we undertake this Lenten journey of repentance with a very important awareness: Before we begin to do something about our sinfulness, God has already been doing something about it.
We hear today the story of Noah and his ark, familiar to all of us, but perhaps we have not considered its deeper meaning. The destruction of the whole earth except for those saved in the ark is a lesson about the intrinsic destructiveness of sin. The book of Genesis relates this in terms of God’s anger and later changing His mind. God tells Noah that the rainbow will be a reminder to Him – that is, to God – of the covenant He has made with Noah never again to destroy the earth by a flood. But does God need to be reminded of what He has done? Similarly, we plead with the Lord in the Responsorial Psalm today, “Remember that your compassion, O LORD, and your love are from of old. In your kindness remember me, because of your goodness, O LORD.” Does God need us to remind Him that He is compassionate, loving, and good? Surely not.
So why does the Bible speak this way? Many people would criticize the Old Testament for the way it presents God in too human of a manner. In the Old Testament, God gets mad, changes His mind, and punishes at times relentlessly. In the early days of the Church, Christians struggled to figure out how the image of God in the Old Testament related to what they had learned from Jesus. A heresy called Marcionism held that the God of the Old Testament was wicked and that the Old Testament was not really inspired Scripture. While the Church rejected Marcionism early on, a version of it is frequently expressed by Christians who say that the Old Testament God is incomplete, or that He has been “overcome” by Jesus, or that this portrayal is the result of human misunderstandings about the nature of God – all views that undermine the Catholic doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scriptures.
Christian orthodoxy – or right teaching – has always held that the Old Testament is truly inspired Scripture no less than the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ. So what is really happening when the Old Testament says that God is angry, wrathful, and vengeful, or needs us to remind Him of His better qualities?
St. Augustine proposes a much better resolution to this problem than Marcion did: The human presentation of God in the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of the Incarnation. God presented Himself in a human fashion to the Jewish people, our ancestors in the Faith, because He was preparing from the very beginning of history to do something about our human sinfulness by becoming man in the person of Jesus Christ. Through all of history, God was preparing His people to recognize Him in the person of His Son.
Just as God went looking for the one righteous man and his family, Noah, amidst the wickedness of the human race, St. Peter tells us how Christ went looking for the just in the most surprising of places. In the Apostles’ Creed, we profess the faith of the Church that after His death on the Cross, Christ “descended into hell.” St. Peter writes that He, “went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah.”
There is an important lesson here for all of us. God has not been content to leave us on our own. He has gone looking for us. Even from the beginning of history, God has been working – He has been preparing a plan to do something about our sins. He has not been merely preparing our punishment or plotting revenge, but rather has been preparing to take upon Himself the punishment due to our sins and to do so in such a way that reveals the depths of His love and goodness.
Another solution to the problem of how the seemingly angry and vengeful God of the Old Testament squares with the love and mercy of Jesus is the solution proposed by John Calvin, one of the original Protestant “reformers.” Calvin taught – and this is the teaching in many Protestant churches – that Jesus takes on the just wrath of the Father. For Calvinists – and again, this includes most Protestants in our own day – God the Father is the angry God of the Old Testament, but Jesus stands between us and God’s just anger to take the punishments we deserved.
The problem here is that since Jesus and the Father are one, it just can’t be the case that the Father pours out His wrath upon the Son. Rather, the Crucifixion and death of Jesus are about showing us the depths of God’s love – the degree to which He has gone in search for us. He “waited patiently in the days of Noah” for the reform of sinful humanity, and He waits patiently now for us. But He does not merely wait. As we heard in the Psalm today: “he shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice.”
Understanding this – that God has come looking for us in the person of Jesus, just as He went looking for Noah – helps us to understand the short but powerful passage from St. Mark’s Gospel we heard today. “This is the time of fulfillment,” Christ tells us. “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus announced to the people of His day that everything that God had been preparing for centuries and centuries was finally ready. He was ready to reveal the full depths of His love and bring back those who had gone astray.
“The time of fulfillment,” though, is not just the day upon which Christ proclaimed those words. It is now as well. This is the time when God wants to bring to fulfillment the work He has been doing in your life. He has waited patiently for you, just as He patiently waited for Noah. He has prepared all of human history not just for the events of His Son’s demonstration of God’s love, but for you to accept that offer of salvation through the forgiveness of your sins. Christ’s words are directed to you today, “This is the time of fulfillment.”
In Noah and his family, God gave the world a second chance. In Jesus, though, He did something even greater. Through Baptism, we not only have a second chance, but we have become a new kind of creation. On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are meant to do something about our sinfulness but making us into a new kind of person – a saint. The reality, we see today, is that God has already done the heavy lifting. We have already been made a new creation. What remains for us is to become more fully what we already are.
Lent is a time of sacrifice, dedication, and perseverance, but it is also a time of great hope. We experience the urgency of Christ’s call: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” But we must not be misled to believe that the most important part of this time is our own effort. Rather, we undertake this time of Lent knowing that God is already at work.
Here is just one practical consequence of this reality: All of us, hopefully, have chosen different ways that we will live prayer, fasting, and almsgiving this Lent. But God has also prepared the way that He desires to encounter us during this time. If we are so focused on our own plans – even plans to do really excellent things – we could miss out on the Lent that God wants us to have by focusing too much on the Lent that we want to have. (And you could apply that to the rest of your life as well.) If we are fasting from food but being irritable towards our family, then what is the point? Growth in charity is the sign of true spiritual progress.
God, then, has prepared this Lent for us. He has been hard at work, preparing the ways that we will grow closer to Him. We ask Him today to bless our efforts and direct them towards His good purposes. We ask Him to remind us that we are not attempting to earn His love, but to experience in our own bodies the suffering by which He revealed His love to us. And we ask Him to help us respond to His urgent call, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
I Sunday of Lent, A.D. MMXXI
Image: Edward Hicks. Noah's Ark. 1846. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Hicks,_American_-_Noah%27s_Ark_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg