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1 Peter 1:8-12
Lent is about Jesus Christ. Yes, Lent features many fine traditions and includes many fine tools for building one’s spiritual life. But the heart of Lent is time spent with Jesus Christ.
Our theme book for Lent this year is 1 Peter, and tonight’s text begins with Peter saying this about Jesus: “Though you have not seen him you love him.” These words come at the end of an introduction to the book in which Peter mentions many blessings which come from Jesus. He therefore assumes that his readers love Jesus, and why wouldn’t they? He has blessed them so richly. And yet, should he really make this assumption? Did the people really love Jesus?
Peter loved Jesus. Jesus had even asked him if he did, remember? “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter had said. But then Jesus asked him the same question two more times. Peter was offended, but at some level, I’m guessing, he knew that the question bore repeating. Peter might love him at the moment, but what about later – especially if times might get tough?
Do you love Jesus? I was asked that question by a pastor many years ago when I was a teenager - in a song. “Oh Mark, do you love Jesus?” he sang. The song was fun, which made the question easier to answer. But it’s a serious question nonetheless. Yes, I loved Jesus. I loved him because of the joy he brought as expressed in music, and I loved him because of the supporting group he had made me a part of. And over the years I learned to love him for many other reasons too.
However, in my journey through life there have been times when my love for Jesus has waned. There have been times when my love was not strong. I’m guessing many of you have experienced those times too. Lent, then, is a time to work on that relationship of love with Jesus.
“Return to me with all your heart” says God through the prophet Joel in our first reading – the church’s traditional OT reading for Ash Wednesday. We know we have strayed. God’s wants us to return. His appeal is to our heart. He wishes to have a relationship of love with us.
Peter tells us in his letter why we should love Jesus. He says we love him because we are “obtaining the outcome of our faith – the salvation of our souls.” Salvation is something that Peter’s listeners would have longed for greatly – probably in ways we can’t appreciate. Most of them were not well-to-do. In fact most of them were probably quite poor. Many were likely slaves. Throughout this epistle Peter mentions suffering, implying that his hearers knew plenty of this. And at the beginning of the letter Peter refers to his hearers as “exiles of the Dispersion” (in Greek – “Diaspora”). This was a common Jewish term for those who had left their home and gone to a foreign land. Indeed, the readers of this letter were people living in Galatia (modern day Turkey) and most were probably Jewish Christians who had moved there years ago. The term lets us know about their status in that land. They were not a fully assimilated people. They were likely not citizens but aliens, and definitely a minority.
People with such challenges would have longed for salvation– probably more than we do. But then again, maybe our longing is just as strong as theirs. As wonderful as our life is in 21st century America it still comes filled with much heartache and challenge. We have problems with our health, our financial status, our family situation. Sometimes we just don’t feel at home where we’re at. The feeling of longing for more, something better, seems to be a common emotion for all of us.
It’s one thing to long for salvation. It’s another thing to achieve it. Notice that when Peter talks about salvation he calls it a “salvation of our souls.” Saying it this way makes two important points.
First, Peter makes the same point that Jesus did: we need to be saved, because our soul – our very person – who we really are – is not well. “It is not what goes into a man that defiles him but that which comes out,” Jesus once said. We know of all the filth which comes out of us—our thoughts, words and actions which hurt others and frustrate God’s purposes of holiness among us.
This sin comes from within. As much as our outward circumstances dictate our station in life – the parents to whom we were born, how much talent and ability we were given, how others in life have treated us –it is our inner life which affects us even more. Sometimes we make good, healthy choices. But other times we do and say things which are outright sinful.
Ash Wednesday is a day for us to think about our sin. In today’s Gospel Jesus mentions the sin of only doing things to be seen by others. This is the sin of hypocrisy and it betrays our selfish nature. It shows our inclination to compete with others instead of working together, and it shows how we attempt to cover our flaws by dishonestly making ourselves look better than we are.
Jesus’ second example of sin is related to this—the sin of storing up treasures for ourselves on earth. This is not just a case of unwise priorities. Jesus is warning us against the sin of making material things our goal in life. This is a sin against the first commandment because it places our comfort above the love of God. It leads to sins against the ninth and tenth commandments, causing us to covet the things of others. And it pushes us in the direction of sins against the rest of the commandments as we become increasingly bold in acquiring that treasure which has captured our heart.
Jesus warns us against these sins because he knows our history. He knows that we fall into sin easily and often. We need salvation from these sins, for without salvation these sins bring destruction and death to our souls.
This relates to the second meaning of Peter when he writes about the salvation of our souls. Peter here implies that the greatest realization of our salvation will come at a point in time beyond this present life. Our soul includes that part of us which goes beyond the grave. And so when Peter talks about the salvation of our souls he is talking about someday being taken from this life of pain, this vale of tears, and going to a better place.
According to Peter and the rest of the New Testament authors, this new place beyond the grave will be perfect, holy and right. Those who go there will be filled with such peace and joy that they will know it is their true home.
Getting to this place on our own is impossible. But Christ Jesus has made it possible for us by dying for our sins. In his introduction to this first epistle of his, Peter describes our new home this way: “According to his great mercy, God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Ash Wednesday is a time for us to think about our mortality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And yet because of Jesus our mortality is overcome. God has caused us to be born again. Our journey of life is now ashes to glory, dust to new life.
The journey of Lent to Easter reinforces this promise in a powerful way. And when we take the journey seriously we will discover that we love Jesus more and more, because we’re more and more convinced that Jesus is the way to our true home.
So let’s use this Lent to love Jesus more and more, because His passion and resurrection are leading us to our true home. God didn’t want the people in ancient Turkey to settle in too much. He doesn’t want us to settle too much into our present lives either. A little discontent, a desire for something better, a desire for our true home is good. It makes us appreciate how blessed we are. The psalmist says, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25‒26)
We’re not there yet, but we are yearning. Jesus, we love you. You’re leading us home. Don’t let us wander away! Amen.
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