Lenten Sermon Series: “Subtexts”

“Lent is a double journey—a journey together and alone toward the mystery of God’s redemptive embrace in the death and resurrection of Christ. At the same time, it is a journey into the depths of our humanity.”

~ Don E. Sailers

The Gospel comes to expose two themes of hiddenness in this world: the hiddenness of the kingdom of God and the hiddenness of the human soul. Especially toward the end of the Gospel, this double hiddenness is brought into a dramatic, and ironic, tension. Jesus is received as King of the Jews upon his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. A week later he will be crucified as King of the Jews in his (presumably) defeated exit from life. Between his “ironic entry” into and “ironic exit” from Jerusalem he gives a number of parables that reveal something about the hiddenness of God’s kingdom and the hiddenness of the human heart (esp. Matt. 25), after which come the ironic symbols of the coming kingdom: the burial anointing by the woman (Mt. 26:6-13), the elements of the New Covenant in bodily brokenness and blood (Mt. 26:7-30), and indeed war of two Wills in the Garden (“not my will, but your will be done”) in which victory comes by way of surrender (Mt. 26:36-46).

In retrospect, the Gospel reveals the truth of the human situation in light of the truth of the kingdom of God: we all have an inner world and an outer world, what we say and what we think, who we are and who we portray ourselves to be, motives and ulterior motives. We wear our texts on our sleeves, but there are always subtexts beneath the surface. 

But Jesus makes it clear at the outset of his ministry: the righteousness of the New Covenant does not settle for changed behavior, only for a changed heart (Mt. 5). Our hypocrisy, our duplicity, our lack of transparency and openness with God and with one another—the world of subtexts veiled by the world of texts…and Facebook—thus comes under fire. The Gospel comes with catch. The one condition to receive the grace of God is that the subtexts must rise to the surface. Jesus eats and drinks with prostitutes, tax collectors, drunks, not because they are any better or worse than anyone else, but because their sins were already exposed—they wore their sin on their sleeves, like lepers. They couldn’t hide their sin and therefore were exposed to grace, which is the precise text of the kingdom in the subtexts of the Gospels. But grace comes only to those who confess they need it. Indeed, Jesus comes “not for the righteous, but for sinners” (Mk. 2:17).

The season of Lent is a season of fasting, reflection, and repentance. It is a journey with Jesus into the desert (Mt. 4), where our subterranean temptations rise to the surface with the serpent and begin revealing the twisted shape of our two-pronged souls, which is the exact shape of that serpent’s tongue. We desire God, but we also desire praise, to love God and to be gods (Gen. 3); we desire peace but we also desire revenge; we desire love but we also desire self-gratification; we have at times a passion for Jesus, but there are other gasoline passions; we desire community but we also desire exaltation; we desire God’s will but we never desire “not my will.” There is an essential desire to be filled with the fullness of God, but that desire of fullness is infested with emptiness (Eccles. 3:11), filled with sinful habits and protected by hidden attitudes and hardened hearts. We spend much or our lives numbing ourselves to the emptiness, distracting ourselves from it or simply trying in vain to fill it. But it turns out to be a bottomless abyss. Desire is always stronger that satisfaction. The promises of our temptations always return void, and every empty promise pushes the soul toward the surface, thinning it out, and soon life just becomes a series of actions and reactions, a restless pinball with an impenetrable surface—no stability, no connection, no depth, no anchors, no stillness, no reflection, no transparency, no exposure of the heart, no communion of the spirit, no deep crying out to deep (Ps. 42): just a shell of a once-human existence in constant commotion.

And thus the Lenten fast forces us to look our emptiness in square in the eyes in order to “examine [ourselves] to see whether [we] are living in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). Whatever else Paul meant by those words to the Church in Corinth, one thing is clear: they needed to examine themselves for faith-life and it was possible to fail that examination. This is not Paul the evangelist at Mars Hill (Acts 17); this is Paul the preacher on any given Sunday. In other words, the same Paul who was the chief champion of the grace by which the Church was founded and is sustained recognized there would be individuals in the pews whose faith was only skin deep, who were deceived into thinking that being a Christian means being connected with Christ by virtue of our connection with the Church rather than being connected with the Church by virtue of our connection with Christ. So Paul calls each member of the Church to take stock, to look within themselves, because if there is no authentic reflection before the living God, there may be no authentic connection with the living God. 

In our unreflective world, fast-paced and on-demand, there is hardly a more urgent need than for our need than this kind of self-examination. Our Lenten fast thus leads us into the kind of reflection that reveals the ways in which we must turn toward Christ in repentance. By moving through this somber season we are better prepared to see how fitting is the cross, not for Christ but for us! Indeed, as the thief at Jesus’ side confessed, it is our “just reward” (Lk. 23:41). Only then can the Gospel penetrate to the level of the salvation we actually need, because only then can the cross be seen in the true light of our most essential confession: not simply did Christ die for the world, but Christ died for me!

As A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, once wrote:

Is it for me to be cleansed by His power
From the pollution of sin?
Is it for me to be kept every hour
By His abiding within?
Wonderful promise so full and so free,
Wonderful Savior, oh, how can it be-
Cleansing and pardon and mercy for me?
Yes, it’s for me, for me!

When that kind of confession comes to the surface out of the depths, then will we see the unrelenting pursuit of this God for his exiled creation, then will we see that the Passion of Christ is not simply a favor from God but God’s furious love, indeed then will our Good Friday be well suited for Sunday Morning.

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