Pr. Eric Swensson

February 18, 2015

photo of Pr. EricWe begin Lent today with a warning from the Word of God to be real. Do not be a hypocrite. Yes, yes, we say, we all know this, so why do we begin Lent with this warning? Why not but for the fact that we are all hypocrites. We all do things to appear righteous. Being some sort of hypocrite goes with the territory, that is, being human, and last time I checked that is what we all are. There is no use pretending otherwise. As soon as one participates in a religion, or becomes a devotee of anyone or anything, one strives and in our striving is our sin. And as soon as we begin to examine ourselves and take one step forward, we are soon examining the lives of others and soon enough we are thinking “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like that!” Soon enough we make deals, we are like the older brother. Soon enough we are the people who labored all day for the same wage as those who only worked an hour. And so on and so on.

Therefore, not only do we need to get real, be warned that it is real hard. But blessed are those who attempt to get real, but in the real knowledge that we must be careful neither to do it falsely, either to appear righteous or to earn righteousness.

A Lutheran theology has always been known as paradoxical. I think we get if from Luther, who got it from Paul, who got it from Jesus. Paul said, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin.” Jesus said “Those who want to save their life must give it away.” Here is the Ash Wednesday paradox: those who strive to return to the Lord get lost. Those who want to keep the law, risk breaking the law in doing so. That is, we have a clear word from our Lord Jesus Christ that those who practice their righteousness in order to earn a reward from God lose all.

So, what should we do, sin all the more? No, but consider this: in my seminary years and early pastorate I used to begin each Lent somewhat like going to the gym, that is to say, very energetically and with great expectations. I would fast a little and pray a little bit more and hope to achieve great victory over the flesh. Each Lent I would do this. Yes, this time for sure I would keep Lent for all of Lent. Perhaps I even did a good job some past seasons. But I have to say, not that it had any lasting value except to show me my frailty.

Because I still have such struggles it seems that everyday I am beginning again, bringing little or nothing of value from the past into the present, that is, except to know I am human and whatever spiritual knowledge there is about me is there by the grace of God.

However, knowing whatever spiritual knowledge there is about me is there by the grace of God is great wisdom. The struggle of flesh against spirit is an ongoing struggle, perhaps the ongoing struggle. On considering this term, “flesh,” and how it also means worldly thinking, which includes idolatry and being tempted by false gospels, perhaps it is significant. So, I rest in grace. That is the only answer for me is the Ash Wednesday paradox.

Therefore, this Lent I will rest in the Lord, I will find my ease in teachings like this of Luther:

“The new leaven is the faith and grace of the Spirit. It does not leaven the whole lump at once but gently, and gradually, we become like this new leaven and eventually, a bread of God. This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”

This is not to say that I or anyone should enter Lent in a casual and lazy manner. I still have a healthy dose of fear and trembling. I will, as Paul says, try to run the race. I may even train. But I will try not to judge how well I or anyone else is doing.

That brings me to my last point. Resting in God is taking in His love, and included in that is the sharing of it. It has become a cliché that we should not be thinking about what to give up in Lent, rather what shall we add, but is most certainly true. Love it is. That is my prayer this Lent. God increase my faith. Give me the ability to take in Your love. Pour your Holy Spirit into my heart and soul just as Paul says in Romans 5:5, “and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

May you find Lenten rest in the love of God, my friends. God bless as all as we continue moving forward in our journey toward the cross. May we know the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ each step of the way. The only way to get real is through the love of God by the grace of God. Thanks be to God!