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Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Humility of Lent

The Humility of Lent
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
March 3, 2013
The Third Sunday of Lent

            One topic that has dominated many of the things I have read in recent years concerns the growth in popularity enjoyed by the Reformed movement in Protestantism. This movement has taken on titles like “neo-Reformed,” “neo-Calvinism,” and especially the “Young, Restless, Reformed” impulse. The Reformed trend in Protestantism is certainly neither new nor novel, but it has certainly become something more than in generations past. Calvinism, the root theological system at work in this neo-Reformed movement, has become a buzzword in popular debates among scholars and preachers, such as in the dueling authors N.T. Wright and John Piper.
            The latest flare-up of Calvinistic trouble is at Louisiana College, an SBC-sponsored school that shares many similarities with my Alma Mater, Mississippi College. The president, Joe Aguillard, has taken a “not in my back yard” stance on the teaching and official endorsement of that theological system at LC which has garnered much criticism.[1]
            I bring this up today not to discuss the theological intricacies of the Doctrines of Grace or of the differences and similarities between Calvinism and Arminianism; rather I want to bring up one theological point that seems missing in all of these debates, that is, the Christian’s humility.
            Regardless of which side of the theological fence you land on in this or any other topic, the Christian is obligated to maintain humility even in the face of Spirit-inspired conviction and the certainty of their position. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are to filter everything through a Christ-like love for our God and for our neighbor. I fear that we, like those who argue their positions in the secular world, have forgotten that it is the love of Christ crucified which compels us.

            During our journey in Lent we are stripped down. First comes the hunger, then the thirst. Soon we are considering giving up and returning to civilization, pretending to be holy and blameless. If we have the spiritual compunction to stay in the wilderness seeking God, we are sure to be stripped down even further. This time it’s not the hunger or the thirst or even the shame of wanting to quit – this time our very clothes fall to rags and we stand in our nakedness before the God who sees our sins inside and out.
            That’s the real heart of the matter in Lent – our sins and sinfulness laid bare for the Lord and for our own eyes to see. Any season of prayer, fasting, and intentional devotion opens us up to the liability of encountering the Holy One. Such an encounter will always leave us exposed, guilt-ridden, and humbled. Like the Israelites who saw Moses when he descended from the Mountain, we are uncomfortable with the Holy, and we quickly erect things to block it and to make us feel better about ourselves.[2]
            Where do we hide? With what do we clothe ourselves? Some wrap themselves in success and accomplishment. Some cover the walls of their hearts with diplomas and accolades. Some avoid the accountability of the Holy by spreading themselves thin in volunteering, in work, and in family life. Some mask their hearts in cloaks of piety: singing songs, praying prayers, and taking social stances that make them appear as holy as the one from whom they hide.
            We can, through these things, make ourselves out to be a group of strong, well-adjusted disciples. Such thinking necessarily makes others weak, less developed believers. That’s the type of trouble that got the believers in Corinth in trouble with Paul.
            The believers at Corinth were living in an over-realized eschatology. They had been baptized into Christ and were living as though the freedom that came from that commitment offered them license to live in any manner in which they saw fit. They were eating and drinking with the pagans, sleeping with prostitutes, and dividing themselves into cliques of stronger believers and weaker believers. They believed that with the coming of the Holy Spirit the Kingdom was theirs and they could live as they pleased.
Paul is quick to renounce and denounce such ungodly license. By conjuring the memory of the Israelites journeying in the wilderness, Paul communicates the risk that the Corinthians run by living in such ways. B.J. Oropeza comments on this idea, saying, “They [the believers at Corinth] have experienced an eschatological salvation through their initiation but its culmination lies in their future… The Christian ought to run his or her life in the present so as to attain the future life expressed in imagery of completing a race and completing a journey… Paul believes that the Corinthian congregation must live out that tension in perseverance until the end of their natural lives. A persistent failure to do so would result in the forfeiture of the future life. In such a case, the Corinthian member would thus perish with the corrupt and transient world and not attain that final future salvation in the age of incorruption. This could happen to the Corinthians despite their genuine initiation, election and membership in the body of Christ.”[3]
The believers in Corinth who are haughtily living as though the Spirit’s presence excuses all things are living dangerously. They are running the risk of expulsion from the Body because of their apostasy in the wilderness of this in-between time ‘twixt the Ascension and the Second Coming. William Baird adds to the danger, saying, “The lesson is absolutely clear: Although the Corinthians have been blessed with the gifts of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, God can readily become displeased with them. Participation in Baptism and the Supper provides no easy security. Like Paul, the Corinthians, and today's Christians, can be quickly disqualified.”[4]
This threat of disqualification must not be taken lightly. When we become too comfortable in our salvation, when we rest on our laurels of faith rather than progressing on our journey through the wilderness we are not, I repeat, are not fulfilling God’s will for us in Christ. Hear again the hammer-strokes of Paul’s argument: our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food, and all drank the same supernatural drink…the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. It seems that faithfulness to the will of God is not as easy as fitting in with the majority, even if that majority looks as though they are following the Way.
When we stop moving along the narrow path laid out before us because of the threat of fear or the temptation of comfort, we have a tendency to lose the humility that comes from relying on the God that calls us into the wilderness in the first place. But we’re so good at feeling confident and secure! As Baptists we hold to the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, which holds that nothing can cause a person marked for salvation to lose that salvation. There is no sin so great or circumstance so awful that God will reject a person’s faith in Christ Jesus for eternal life.
Oh how comfortable that makes us! The certainty of salvation and the good, old-fashioned Protestant allergy to “works” often renders us as the “frozen chosen,” feeling neither the need nor the compulsion to live in the dangerous, naked wilderness. The popularity of folk-Calvinism professed by many in the neo-Reformed movement adds to this inertia of the soul by laying a divine determinism over the souls of men and women that amounts to fatalism for many believers. Since God has pre-determined our salvation[5] and nothing we can do can alter such an unmerited gift, what should motivate us to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling?”[6]
The motivation comes in our determination to be faithful to the life of discipleship to which God has called us. We are to live and serve as Jesus did, holding the lives of our neighbors above even our own. This Lenten journey into the wilderness should lay our hearts bare – we should be as exposed to ourselves and to God as we have ever been. For surely we have not served, we have not loved, we have not walked as we should.
What should wake us from our comfortable spiritual slumber is that we will certainly be judged by our Holy God. We like to speak of judgment as much as we like to speak of sin. Yet it is judgment that is at the heart of our Scripture passages today. It is the judgment of God against the apostate Israelites in the wilderness, the ones who forsook the God who had just delivered them. It is judgment that threatens our complacency; judgment that will certainly cut more deeply than our Lenten confessions ever could.
But let us be clear about what sort of judgment. The crowds surrounding Jesus are bothered by the same fatalistic superstitions that cloud the minds of so many modern Christians. They see God’s wrath behind every earthquake and hurricane, his judgment motivating every catastrophe. To cut through the clutter of misconception Jesus tells a curious story of a fig tree that bears no fruit. Charles Hedrick helps us understand the implication of this parable: “The Galileans whom Pilate killed and the eighteen unnamed persons who died in a disastrous fall of the tower of Siloam were no worse than those who escaped the tragedies, and those who escaped were no better than those who died. Thus everyone stands under the threat of God's judgment unless they repent. In this kind of a context the story about the fig tree seems to be a warning to everyone to repent in view of the impending judgment. From this perspective the immediate context and the story come together: bear the fruit of repentance or perish in the judgment.[7]
            Here is where the right humility of the Lenten season appears. It is in the knowledge that regardless of our position on the journey of discipleship, no matter how many burdens we bear, no matter strength of our faith or the fortitude of our souls we will be judged. We must not live in the comfort of knowing it all or confessing it all or praying it all. There is more to do, more to love, more to give. We have not arrived.
            We must be humbled by the judgment and brought low by the holiness of our God, the God who meets us in the wilderness when we have nothing left, when we are naked and without dignity or pride. We are humbled at the great weight of sin that has been borne on our account by God’s own self. In our theology, in our prayers, in the very way in which we do church, we must live lives marked by the humility of one following Jesus to the cross.
            It is painfully ironic how we treat God’s grace. We usually slide from humility to the arrogance displayed at Corinth within a single prayer. Believers quarrel with others, accusing them of apostasy and heresy over their interpretation of God’s grace – GRACE! We need to be reminded, again and again and again and again that the invitation to salvation offered to all the world is the essence of God’s call to us. It is that call, simple and profound, that humbles us ultimately, When we, in the wilderness, are honest and naked before our Holy God, when even ashes and sackcloth are insufficient to adorn our guilt, all we have to hold on to is the great love of God that is offered to us. That, friends, is the nature of Lent’s humility. When we have nothing left, we have the love of God. When our theological constructs are swept away, we have the love of God. When our pretentiousness to holiness is exposed, we have the love of God. This is the time to seek and find that love, in the midst of our sorrow wilderness.
            “Isaiah 55 proclaims that God's grace… was intended not only for those who remained faithful, but even for the defectors and "back- sliders." The cost of faithful discipleship includes the hard lesson of accepting the injustice of divine grace, and grace is a challenge to all our notions of "meritocracy," about who deserves what. But the invitation, thank God, is to all: Ho, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters . . . and inquire of God while he is near.”[8]

[1] See and There is also an article relating to the controversy in The Baptist Message, but it is only available online to subscribers.
[2] Cf. Exodus 34:29-35.
[3] From Oropeza, B.J., “Apostasy in the Wilderness: Paul’s Message to the Corinthians in a State of Eschatological Liminality,” JSNT 75, p. 69-86.
[4] Baird, William, “1 Corinthians 10:1-13,” Interpretation 44 no. 3, p. 286-290.
[5] Some in the Calvinist camp would argue that God’s pre-determination covers the non-spiritual as well. See R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God, Tyndale, 1994.
[6] Cf. Philippians 2:12.
[7] Hedrick, Charles W., “An Unfinished Story about a Fig Tree in a Vineyard (Luke 13:6-9), Perspectives in Religious Studies 26 no 2, p. 169-92.
[8] Sanders, James A., “Isaiah 55:1-9,” Interpretation 32 no 3, p. 291-95.

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