Sermons That Work

Quick, What Is Another…, Lent 4 (B) – 2009

March 22, 2009

Quick, what is another name for today, the Fourth Sunday in Lent?

Give up? Actually, there are several possible answers to this question, all of them correct, and all of them originating in ecclesiastical history and liturgical practice.

In some quarters, especially among our Roman Catholic friends and neighbors, the Fourth Sunday in Lent is known as Laetare [pronounced, “lay-TAH-ray”] Sunday, from the Latin word meaning “rejoice.” It may at first seem odd to speak of rejoicing in the middle of Lent, a season of penitence and sacrifice. After all, we have put away our alleluias and festive faces for the duration. Yet, in ancient times, the special, or proper, parts of the service on this day began with the single word “rejoice,” reminding worshippers that the Church is more than halfway through its Lenten discipline and well on the way to Easter joy.

“So lighten up a little,” the Church seems to have been saying. For much the same reason, in some Anglican circles this day has become known as Refreshment Sunday.

As if that were not enough, in the United Kingdom this day has been celebrated at least since late medieval times as, of all things, Mothering Sunday, the equivalent of Mother’s Day in North America. No one quite knows why mothers have come to be honored in the middle of Lent. But some scholars speculate that the original Scripture lessons, or readings, on this day made reference to Mary, the Mother of God and the mother of the Church. In any event, if you have British friends, be sure to wish them well today.

There you have it. No matter how you name it, the Fourth Sunday of Lent – more or less the middle point of the season – is special.

Life itself, of course, is made up of middle points and transitions to which we attribute unique and special importance. It is human nature to mark time, to take note of milestones and halfway points. We may remember being halfway through high school or college; halfway through a transition between rectors at Church; or halfway through a project at work. And mothers will certainly remember being halfway through pregnancy, eager for the birth of their child.

Whatever the effort, being halfway through something is special. It can bring either anxiety or a foretaste of accomplishment. Or both.

In our first reading today, we find the ancient Israelites on their journey out of Egypt becoming downright anxious and “impatient on the way.” Their passage or transition has been long and arduous, and it is far from over. “Why,” they challenge Moses, “have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” As if that had been Moses’ purpose all along. They even complain of the food and drink. “We detest this miserable food,” they grumble like spoiled children. Did they perhaps expect gourmet fare in the desert?

The Israelites have forgotten that they are on their way home to the Promised Land. They have lost sight of the purpose and meaning of their journey. The desert and its hardships have robbed them not only of patience, but of perspective and hope as well. Only when the Lord punishes them with a multitude of poisonous serpents do the people come to their senses and repent. Only when those bitten by the serpents look upon the serpent of bronze raised by Moses do they once again come to live. The journey of the Israelites is not over, but it has gained new significance and purpose.

We find ourselves today as a nation in the midst of transformation and crisis. Our banks are failing. Our industries are staggering. People are losing their jobs at record rates. No one knows if the government’s remedies will work. And our minds are filled with anxious questions: Where do we stand? Will it end soon? Or has it just begun?

It would be easy for us to lose hope and to despair, as did the ancient Israelites. Indeed, today, as in ancient times, there seems to be no end of complaint and blame. Some fault the greed of Wall Street and business leaders for our problems. Others cite irresponsible politicians and world leaders. Yet few are willing to look in the mirror. We all feel the bite of our anxieties. Perhaps we too need a bronze serpent to gaze upon. Perhaps we too need to face our fears and learn once again to live.

We may well ask: Is there anything left for us to rejoice about on Laetare Sunday, halfway through this discontented Lenten season?

The season itself suggests that there is.

Lent is, after all, a time of reflection, repentance, and prayer – a time to allow the Lord to turn us around in faith so that we may at last be regenerated in the risen life of Easter. And that has little to do with business cycles or the size of our paycheck.

Jesus himself, in our gospel reading today, gives us the best reason of all for rejoicing. “God so loved the world,” he tells us, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

That is the kind of economy we can all believe in – the economy of salvation. So, yes: there is still plenty of room for hope and even joy.

Decades ago an irreverent wit once observed, “God protects fools, children, and the United States of America.” The truth of the matter is that God protects us all – fools as well as the wise; children as well as mothers and fathers; Americans, ancient Israelites, and people of every land and creed. In spite of our fears, complaints, and foolishness, God loves us all without bounds. We need only look to his Son to understand this truth and live.

And that is reason enough to rejoice even today – even in the middle of Lent.

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Christopher Sikkema


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