[Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11]
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.”
I had to stifle a shudder this year as I stood before my priest and heard her speak those ageless words, that reminder of what I am, as she marked my forehead with ashes.
I wonder if that’s how Adam and Eve felt in the garden as they became aware of their flesh, their nakedness, their mortality, their utter humanity.
It shouldn’t be surprising that, when they came to this realization, the first thing they wanted to do was cover it up.
Maybe if we ignore it, it will go away.
Maybe if we cover it up, no one will be the wiser.
Maybe if we just hide it well enough for long enough, everything will be alright.
And we do that too. Right?
We do that when we pretend death is something that only happens to other people.
We live in a culture that is scared to death of death– and we seem to think that if we don’t talk about it, then maybe it won’t happen– at least not to us.
And it’s not just death, either, it’s mortality. It’s flesh and bones– not just the moment of death itself, but all the sickness and aging and decay that leads up to it. It’s the whole human condition, in all its incarnational grittiness, that we’d just as soon not deal with.
Things like that aren’t “nice” to talk about, so we try to cover them up, lock them away, and ignore them out of existence.
In particular, we like to pretend sin is some antiquated concept that we’ve somehow evolved beyond, or outgrown as a species.
It’s become a dirty word in the Church nowadays.
You can’t say “sin”. You can’t say “wicked” or “depraved” or “fallen” or “wretched”.
Those aren’t “nice” things to talk about, either.
Much of the mainline Church– and Episcopalians are certainly no exception– has gotten into the rather blasphemous habit of refusing to acknowledge sin.
We’d rather deal with glitter than ashes.
We’d rather pretend that the only important images of God are the ones that look like someone we’d like to go out for a beer with, and the only parts of the Bible that matter are the ones that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.
We’d rather skip all this Lenten ugliness, and especially the reality of the Cross, and get straight to Easter.
Most of all, we seem hell-bent on deluding ourselves into thinking there’s absolutely nothing about us that a holy and just God wouldn’t find delightful.
Well, we don’t get to do that if we want to be called Christians. We don’t get to ignore reality– or dilute it– and that includes the reality of what we are.
We don’t get to pretend that we– individually or collectively– could ever be good enough or righteous enough to overcome how desperately we need God.
That’s the bottom line, folks: We can’t redeem ourselves.
There is nothing redeemable or redeeming about us, apart from the wildly undeserved grace of God, offered to us, as C. S. Lewis once said, not because we are lovable but because He is Love.
Here we stand, wretched sinners in the eyes of a perfect and holy God, with all our faults revealed, wrought with shame at the truth of who we are, wracked with grief at the suffering that we have caused in this world, broken down to our core with the knowledge that we cannot save ourselves.
We can’t ignore it or deny it. It’s plain as day.
We don’t get to cover it up with fig leaves, pour glitter on it, or hide it behind feel-good pseudo-theology that tells us what we want to hear.
The bright, shiny Carnival mask of Shrove Tuesday has been torn away from our faces, leaving them bare– except for the oil and ashes of Lent.
We are naked, exposed, vulnerable.
And that’s not a bad thing.
What we don’t– or won’t– see can’t save us.
It is only when we hate our wickedness more than we love the fleeting pleasure it affords us that we will seek holiness…and keep seeking it, and keep seeking it, no matter how many times we fail.
It is only when we see what a wretched estate mankind has been brought into by doing things our way that we will choose His way.
It is only when we begin to plumb the depths of how profoundly unworthy we are, both by our nature and our choices, to be given the time of day by a sinless God– let alone to be named as heirs to His Passion and the promise of salvation– that we can begin to experience even a fraction of the awe and wonder we ought to at His grace.
It is only when we have tasted the bitter fruit of truth– the truth of who we are– that we will hunger and thirst after the righteousness of God.
It is only when we are willing to put down the fig leaves that we can take up our Cross and follow Christ.