This sermon was preached on February 18, 2028 by Rev. KJ Norris as part of the Lenten 2018 sermon series on Covenant. The following manuscript is not an exact transcription of the audio file, but the intent and preacher are the same.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
On Wednesday, we entered into the season of Lent. For some, Lent is marked by Fish Fry Fridays. This is a great tradition of American culture. Whole communities gather in church basements to partake in a low cost meal of fried goodness. The money raised usually goes to churches or community groups which in turn benefit us all. Plus, we get to visit with our neighbors and share in fellowship. This is a beautiful tradition of Lent.
For others, Lent means a time to give something up. Many of us grew up in families where we were expected to give up chocolate or television or something else that we enjoy during the season of Lent. This comes from the ancient practice of fasting. Monks and priests historically fasted, they refrained from eating all together or they ate less on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. I’ve been reading again from one of the early church Fathers, an African desert monk named Evagrios, one of the many Black Church Fathers we should celebrate especially during Black History month. Evagrios committed himself to the practice of regular fasting not because he thought that food was somehow bad or because he thought he could loose a few pounds before summer beach season if he ate a little less. No, he explains that fasting is much more important, it is about learning self-restraint. Through fasting Evagrios says, we learn to keep watch against sin, and we create space to really listen for the Lord to speak. Perhaps you are entering a regular practice of fasting this Lent or perhaps you have considered giving something up so you can better listen for the Lord to speak.
Lent, though, primarily is not about Fish Fries or Fasting, it is about repentance.
Repentance. That’s kind of an old-timey word that isn’t used in normal conversation. When I’m hanging out with my girl-friends on a Friday night, none of them has every asked me, hey, how’s your repentance going? Or have you gotten a chance to repent yet? Or have you seen that new repentance jar at Macy’s? It’s just not the kind of thing that comes up in regular conversation.
But for us as Christians, repentance is one of the oldest and most essential parts of our faith. Of course, it is also one part of our faith that we don’t really like to talk about. I think that’s because the word repentance is often accompanied by the word sin. And we humans, especially we Americans, we don’t really like to think of ourselves as sinful.
But in the season of Lent, the church calls us back to remember this essential tenets of our faith. Sin and repentance.
So, let’s dig in today. What is sin? What is repentance?
Sin, by definition, is anything that we do that is counter to the way of God. That sounds kind of easy: Okay, got it: To sin is to do anything that is counter to the way of God.
But of course, it is always an easy thing to figure out. What is the way of God? Who is God? What things should I do to walk in the way of God? [And for some: Do I want to walk in the way of God or is choosing sin better?]
In many ways, the journey of the Christian is a life-long process of answering these questions. Of understanding who God is and what the way of God is. Of getting to know Jesus who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And there is no simple way to get to know Jesus, to understand the God of the universe who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It takes practice and discipline. Evagrios committed his life to spending time in solitude in the desert so that he could be in a quiet place where he could study Scripture and learn the ways of the Lord.
Now, most of us are not called to be desert monks. Maybe you are, but most of us are not. Most of us are called to have families and work full-time jobs and participate actively in society. But Evagios knew that if we do not spend time in Scripture, if we do not spend time in prayer, we will never discover the way of the Lord. We will never really know what is good, what is right, what is truth. And we will never have the strength to turn from evil.
And that is what repentance is. It’s turning from evil, turning from sin, turning from the things that stand in the way of God.
Our first Old Testament Scripture today is from the story of Noah. Most of us know this story. We grew up with the books about Noah’s Arc and songs about the animals coming into the arc two by two-sie, two-sie. Many of us may have even had a toy arc and some animals to play with. Some families may have even joked about the unicorn getting left behind. That is complements of Shel Silverstein’s 1960’s poem and the sooner after hit song by the Irish Rovers. Remember that? It was a favorite in the Norris Household.
But this tale of Noah is actually a difficult portrait of the power of sin in the world.
Scripture tells us in Genesis 6 “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was very great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” Humankind, instead of taking time for God. Instead of focusing on getting to know the God of the universe, humankind turned to their own desires. “Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”
Lent is about looking at the state of our hearts. It’s about slowing down and giving something up. About taking on a new routine like a Friday night Fish Fry or a Wednesday nigh Bible Talk to begin to focus our mind’s eye more on the Lord.
It’s about stepping away from the things that we want to think about. The things we normally think about. The ways of the world, to focus on better things. As it says in Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.”
We don’t want to be like the people of Noah’s day who refused to focus on the things of God, and refused to put them into practice. We want to repent and follow in God’s ways. We want to have thoughts in accordance with God’s purpose.
This week has been a particularly hard one for thinking about sin and repentance. We here at Kerr almost always have kiddos in our church service. That is something I love dearly about our little church. We don’t send our kids out during the service, but instead, we are so glad to have you all here throughout the service because all of church is for you and you are welcome in all parts of church and the Scriptures and preaching is for you, too.
But I also pray a lot about how to mention national tragedies in our services because we are a mixed age congregation. I think as much as we try to protect our kids from the evil of the world, they know what’s going on. They know, in particular, because this national tragedy has to do with their world. The world of schools.
We, like Noah, are living in a time when people do not focus on the way of God but instead turn their minds and hearts to evil. We are living in a time when we do not focus on the way of God but instead turn our minds and hearts to evil. We as a nation must repent. We must acknowledge that we are allowing our kids to be put in war zones. We are allowing ordinary citizens to have weapons only designed for war and then we are allowing them to be set off in public places, even schools.
We are no longer being neighbors to one another, taking care of one another, watching out for one another. Instead, we as a nation tolerate bullying, in some ways we even reward it, thinking that tough words against others, words of destruction said at an international level somehow show strength. We do not look for signs of distress in our kids because so many of our kids experience distress.
Kids walk around with PTSD because they have seen so much violence, not just on TV and in video games but in real life. On the news, in our neighborhoods. In our homes. There are more kids living in foster homes right now than ever before in PA history because of the heroine and opioid crises. Parents are being taken from them by overdoses or incarceration or because so many of us have fallen in love with a drug and can think about nothing but how to get more of it, even our kids fail in comparison.
Friends, we live in a time where the “wickedness of humankind is very great.”
And I know that there is a temptation to look at what is happening and to say, “But Pastor KJ, that is just one individual doing something terrible.” But the Bible doesn’t do it.
In the Scriptures, God certainly does talk about individual sin. And certainly, we are all held accountable for our own actions, but sin in the Bible is most often talked about communally.
We started our service with a reading from the Book of Daniel. It was a prayer from this prophet of old and notice how he prays. When he confesses he doesn’t just confess for himself. Instead, he makes it clear that when national sins come, the sins fall not only on the one who commits the act of violence but on and I quote, “our kings, our officials, our ancestors.” Of course, we do not have a king, but our leaders, our president, our elected officials, and interestingly, our ancestors.
We did not get into this situation since this president has been elected, though I know that there are many who want to blame the current sins of our world on him. But for a long time, we as a nation have treated national sins as if they are normal. Friends, they are not. The kind of crime we saw this week happens in no other nation but our own. We as a nation must repent. And that doesn’t mean simply lifting up a prayer of repentance to God, it means changing our ways. Changing our laws, changing our mental health care so that kids can get the help they need. Changing our hearts so that love not hate becomes the way of our world.
If you have had a chance to look at your bulletin, you know that today we are starting a sermon series on the promises of God. Over the next six weeks, up until Easter, we will be looking at the promises God makes to humankind and to all of creation.
There are many in the Bible, and a few get a special distinction called a covenant. Next week we will dive deeper into what a covenant is and how God works within and thru covenants, but for today, it is enough to simply say this:
There are many right now who are throwing their fists up at God and asking “Why?” The Psalmist says, “How long, O Lord? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” We too are asking how long this will go on. How many more have to die. Before we as a nation repent and do better.
Our ancient text tells us that there was a time when the people of the world had become so evil, God considered wiping them all from the face of the earth. But instead, God spared humankind and then made a promise to us. God promised Noah to never destroy all of humanity again. God doesn’t promise that we humans will be sinless. God knows better. God knows that evil will still be at work.
But God puts a rainbow in the sky to remind us and himself. Did you catch that? The rainbow is not only for us, but for God. The rainbow reminds God that God promised humanity he will not wipe us out. God will give us time to repent.
And 1 John reminds us of a beautiful truth…
Friends, the promise of God is that the death and sin and evil and destruction we see in this life is not all there is. When we repent, there is forgiveness. And the evil of the past is drowned in past. We become a new creation. Let us live into the promise of God, repent, and become new.