The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and the call of Ash Wednesday is the call to repent, to turn back to God. But what exactly does that mean? Well, according to one author, to repent means to come to our senses, and God knows, if we need to do anything in this country of ours it is that: come to our senses.
And I can dare say "we" because there is not one of us who doesn't need to come to his or her senses in one way or another. In other words, we all of us need to remember and return to what matters most. Especially we Christians.
Certainly more than a few of us need to come to our senses with regard to politics. More and more people over the course of the past few years have been so driven and defined by personal politics that they have forgotten what is truly important. A commentator has written, "Most of the things that make life worthwhile and meaningful do not have to do with politics. They have to do with relationship or belief or virtues." Another author has pointed out that "while politics touches everything, politics is not everything – not by a long shot." And that's the truth of it.
But for more and more people – Christians included – politics is everything. It is everything in the sense that it has come to dominate people's thoughts and conversations with others – or, more accurately perhaps – their arguments with others. It is everything in the sense that it is the main source of people’s hope or despair. And it is everything in the sense that more and more people now take their primary identity from their politics. So they are first and foremost Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, a supporter of this individual or that individual. For many Christians, political beliefs are, in fact, more powerful than religious beliefs, their religious beliefs serving to shore up their political beliefs rather than shape those beliefs. Some churches so identify with one party or another that members with differing views no longer feel welcome and are afraid to voice their views to fellow members for fear of being ridiculed. But politics is not only coming between members of churches, it is also driving friends and even family members apart, damaging and in some cases destroying relationships. People are actually "defriending" (is that what it's called?) friends on Facebook, conversation nearly impossible, self righteousness on both sides at an all-time high. And virtues such as truthfulness or kindness or self-restraint? I'm afraid many people, regardless of party affiliation, have allowed such things to be pushed well into the background. It seems many of us have forgotten what matters most.
But how did we get into such a state? Try arrogance, anger, and fear. And here too Christians are no exception – if anything, they are more arrogant and angry and fearful than anyone. And the arrogance I mean is the arrogance of people on both sides thinking that their views alone are right and they can't imagine how anyone could not see it their
way, that they have nothing to learn from those who differ, that anyone who does differ can't really be Christian because Christians should see things only one way, which happens to be their way. And the anger I mean is the anger people on both sides feel when they think they’ve become invisible, or don't matter, or are not being heard, or others matter more, or the very things they hold dear are being threatened but no one in power seems to care. And the fear I mean is the fear stoked for years now by politicians of all stripes in order to advance their own agendas and gain power – the fear of … well, you name it, fill in the blank with whatever fear will get you to vote this way or that way. Here too we need to come to our senses.
What we need to do is repent. And at this point I'm going to bring back some old words that have fallen on hard times of late and are rarely heard these days, but words that need to be heard again because they are the only words that truly describe what's going on and why we need to repent, these words: sin and idolatry.
When we allow arrogance and anger and fear to drive us apart from others, to damage relationships, to lead us to judge others, to keep us from helping others, to hurt others, that is sin. At least, according to Jesus it is. When we allow political beliefs to shape and influence us more than the Gospel, that is sin. At least, according to Jesus it is. And when we allow cultural values rather than Christian virtues to form us, that is sin. At least, according to Jesus it is.
But beneath these sins is the sin that leads to all other sins: idolatry, the worship of gods we ourselves have made, all the little gods of our culture. If you want to understand what's been going on in our land for years and years, the word idolatry says it all. And now we can add political ideology to the American pantheon of our gods, putting it right up there with money and power and success and sex and celebrity and other things we worship and glorify and go after in the hope such things will give us security or happiness or meaning. The one true hope we have is to come to our senses and return to God.
And the God we must return to is the God of scripture, the Lord of all creation. The commentator I referred to at the outset also wrote this: "A lot of people are looking for God as a sort of tanning lamp… They're looking for a warm glow that will shine down on them." In other words, they want to be comforted and feel good about themselves as they are, not be changed and become better selves and live in better ways than they have been living.
The God of scripture, the God of Jesus, is not, however, like a tanning lamp that makes us feel and look real good on the outside. The God of Jesus is much more like an x-ray or CAT scan that sees inside of us to show us what needs to be done to make us into the new people God means for us to be. It's what Jesus and teachings do: change us inside and out.
And that's what happens when we return to God, return to the Lord. Because to return to the Lord is to return to valuing our relationship with God and our relationships with others more than anything; it is to return to better belief, belief based on the Gospel of Christ; it is to return to acquiring certain virtues and having them form our character: such virtues as truthfulness, humility, generosity, kindness, compassion, courage, self restraint, to name a few; it is to return to taking our identity from Christ.
And there's something else: it is to return to striving after moral excellence rather than settling for moral mediocrity, as the commentator I've mentioned puts it. And by that he means not settling for thinking that all in all we're pretty good people because we haven't done bad things, well, not really bad things, at least not as bad as some people we could name. But the issue is not the bad we've done; the issue is the good we don't do – not serving the other, ignoring the suffering of others not only in our country but in other countries too, paying little or no attention to the very ones God has commanded us to give full attention to, not showing kindness, not loving God and the neighbor as we should. What we fail to do says a lot about whether we are Christian in a way that makes a difference to God or anyone else for that matter. That's my deepest concern: that Christians be Christians before all else and live in a more excellent way.
And all of this is what we will be thinking about throughout Lent as we gather for midweek Lenten services on Wednesday evening at 7 PM. We will be thinking about coming to our senses and returning to what makes life worthwhile and meaningful and leads to a greater sense of purpose, a higher joy, and a stronger hope.
God be with you,