Prayer and Penance in Lent

Preacher: 
Don Alexander
Sermon Text: 

Preacher: Don Alexander

Sermon Text: March 8, 2020

2nd Sunday of Lent (A)

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17: John 3:1-17

Prayer and Penance in Lent

Lent is a time of prayer and penance. Our understanding of prayer and penance determines the spiritual growth we gain from this Lenten season. When it comes to prayer, I discovered a gem in today’s story of Nicodemus about the different ways God uses to answer prayers.  When it comes to penance, I heard a metaphor about 30 years ago that has slowly changed my Lenten practices for the better.  I’d like to explore both prayer and penance this morning and begin with Nicodemus.

The familiar story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night has always seemed peculiar to me. For starters, there don’t seem to be any role models.  Nicodemus comes across as particularly dimwitted and Jesus seems oblivious to Nicodemus’ failure to understand that being born from above isn’t literally like being born of flesh.  Because the passage seemed so peculiar, I borrowed a practice from Marcus Borg of reading the passage as if I was reading it for the first time.  I know this is literally impossible but letting go of preconceived notions frequently yields new insights. It’s a practice I’ve found helpful and I recommend it.

I began by reading up to where Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and stopped. Now John’s gospel makes abundant use of the words light and dark. While there are other explanations, I wondered if John was suggesting Nicodemus was coming out of his own spiritual darkness.  I found several ideas that supported this notion.  For starters, Nicodemus greets Jesus with a statement of faith, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God”.  However, his lack of understanding about being born from above suggests he may be in an early stage of his faith journey. Another hint is Nicodemus’ name is Greek and means “Victory of the People.” Perhaps John was using Nicodemus and his budding faith as a metaphor for the budding faith of Jews and Greeks who were coming to understand Jesus was from God. That would be a victory for those people. 

Nicodemus appears two more times in John’s gospel. When Jesus is on trial, Nicodemus stands up for both Jesus and Jewish law by telling the Sanhedrin the law requires them to give Jesus a fair trial. Finally, we see Nicodemus bringing myrrh and aloes to Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper Jewish burial. Nicodemus’ faith in Jesus appears to be growing. His faith is moving from darkness into light

After Nicodemus recognizes Jesus is from God, I paused again and wondered, without preconceived ideas, how Jesus might respond. As you might imagine, second guessing Jesus is an exercise in both futility and humility.  Nonetheless, two thoughts came to mind.  The first was when John the Baptist sent disciples to ask Jesus if he was the messiah. Jesus said, “Tell John what you have seen, the blind see, the lame walk, leapers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”  Jesus is saying,’ You’ve seen the evidence; figure it out for yourself.’  Nicodemus though, has figured it out.  Based on Jesus’ works he knows Jesus is from God.  I imagined Jesus could say  ‘Well done Nicodemus you have seen and understood.’  That wasn’t how Jesus responded.

The second thought was when Jesus asked Peter “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter states Jesus is the messiah. Jesus tells Peter that it was the Father in heaven that revealed this to Peter. I then wondered if Jesus might say to Nicodemus, ‘Well done, you didn’t understand this on your own but your Father in heaven revealed it to you.’  Alas Jesus doesn’t say this either.  Instead Jesus insists that a person needs to be born from above, born of the spirit and poor Nicodemus never seems to understand Jesus’ point.. 

While I pondered how Jesus might respond to Nicodemus, I had overlooked a key element.  In each instance Jesus met Peter, John the Baptist, and Nicodemus, where they were spiritually and answered them accordingly. I realized, and I hope you do too, that when I’ve prayed for guidance on a serious issue, God answers us based on where we are.  Sometimes, like Peter I get a clear sense of direction.  Other times, it seems I need to figure things out for myself. God knows when we need to exercise our spiritual muscles to make us stronger and God responds by saying, ‘you have the information you need, make a good decision.’   And finally, there are times I don’t recognize that I even received an answer until many months or even years later.    I expect Nicodemus eventually understood what Jesus was saying. It may have been accompanied by a palm to the forehead and some comment about “How could I be so thick?”  The fact that his faith grew suggests to me that he eventually realized Jesus was saying he was already born from above, otherwise he would not have recognized Jesus was from God.  Moreover, when Jesus said “...no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus was explaining why Nicodemus could see things that his counterparts in the Sanhedrin couldn’t see.

My point here isn’t to focus on whether we get the answer we want from our prayers but rather that God’s response is nuanced and is always delivered in a way that meets us where we are.  Sometimes the response is subtle and we may miss it.  Being aware of this can help us to be more aware of God’s presence in our lives and that is certainly part of what Lent is about.  Lent also frequently involves some form of penance and it’s common for people to give up something or to do something that helps them be better Christians.

Every Lent I recall a sermon I heard about 30 years ago that captured the essence of Lent better than anything I’ve heard before or since.  The priest talked about preparing his garden for spring and tending some pampas grass.  He spoke of cutting away the dead shoots to expose the fresh green growth buried deep in the center of the plant and how he fertilized and watered the plant to encourage the new growth.  This is, as near as I can tell, the perfect metaphor for Lent.  Lent is when we examine our lives for deadwood and find a practice that will help us remove our deadwood and encourage new growth.

Now I confess, I’m a little like Nicodemus in today’s story. While I understood the pampas grass metaphor I didn’t actually put it to use. Let me explain.  Anyone who has spent much time around me knows I enjoy a good craft beer. I don’t mean the watered down stuff in the beer aisle of your grocery store.  My wife likes to say I’m a beer snob. Well, given my fondness for beer, my typical Lenten practice throughout my 20s, 30s, and 40s was to give up beer for Lent.  It seemed in keeping with the spirit of Lent and no one ever questioned my practice or my intent.  Alas, no one, not even me, ever questioned if there was any benefit to giving up beer.

Eventually it occurred to me that giving up beer was neither clearing out any deadwood nor nourishing any new spiritual growth.  So I decided to change my Lenten penitential practice.  I started by identifying deadwood. And a word of caution, finding deadwood is brutal to one’s ego.  For me it usually involved recognizing areas where I was spiritually lazy and then finding a practice to remove the deadwood and promote spiritual growth. These days, I rarely find myself giving up things. Instead, I work on being more consistent with prayer, fasting, and meditative writing to counteract my deadwood.   As it turned out, cleaning the deadwood and nourishing spiritual growth was a lot harder than giving up beer.  However, unlike when I gave up beer, there is spiritual growth.

So as we become fully immersed in Lent, I encourage you to look for your deadwood and find a practice to clear it out and nurture new growth.  And as we pray for direction know that God answers prayers in different ways depending on where we are spiritually.  This means sometimes we get clear and unequivocal answers to our prayers.  Other times we only see the answer in hindsight. And sometimes God trusts us to make a good decision based on what we already know.  Listen carefully to both what God has to say and how he says it so you work on removing deadwood and nurturing new spiritual growth.

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