Mid-Week Lenten Sermon for April 1, 2020
Sermon Text: Psalm 137:1-6
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I don not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”
(The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV Text Edition: 2007. Copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.)
One of Deaconess Tara’s deaconess friends recently posted on social media: “This is the Lentiest Lent we’ve ever Lented.” She’s right. Lent is often defined as a time of sober self-reflection and denial. And this year forced to stay at home, we have lots of time to think and reflect on life and our walk with the Lord. One thing that may trouble us as we ponder this Lent is our disconnection with the church as we are no longer allowed to gather together. Some of the questions we may be pondering this Lent are: does this mean I’m no longer a Christian if I can’t gather with my brothers and sisters in Christ to worship the Lord? And does God consider me a Christian if I can’t receive Holy Communion or receive the absolution of my sins?
The nation of Israel in exile in Babylon had lots of time to reflect during her 70 year exile. Not only were the Israelites taken out of their homeland by their captors, they were tormented and mocked as Psalm 137 tells us. But worst of all, Israel was cut off from a functional priesthood and the temple in Jerusalem. To put this in perspective: the Mosaic Law made it clear that the only way an Israelite could offer a sacrifice to God, including a sin offering, was geographically at the temple in Jerusalem by a priest of the line of Aaron, who was wearing the consecrated priestly robe, upon the Most Holy Altar for Burnt Offering that had the holy fire continually burning since God lit the fire at the establishment of Solomon’s temple. That’s a lot of qualifications. And the nation of Israel had none of these: the temple had been destroyed, the priests in captivity and closely watched by the Babylonians, the priestly vestments either captured or destroyed, and the holy fire put out. And so it seemed like all of the worship life of Israel had been taken away except for prayer and God’s Word.
This is basically were we find ourselves today at home and not being able to worship together. Now thankfully we have been baptized and so for us the Holy Spirit dwells in us continually since our baptism. He continues to fill us and bless us as we pray to God and read God’s Holy Word. And while we can pray individually and in our families we miss the corporate prayer of the church just as we miss the fellowship of the saints together in worship. Yes, we can talk to each other over the phone and over the internet (and I encourage you all to keep doing this) but it is not the same as seeing each other face to face. And we are most certainly missing the holy absolution we receive from the pastor in worship along with the great blessing of Holy Communion.
And so we might ask ourselves, am I still a Christian if I can’t go to church? The answer here is a definite yes. It is faith in Christ which makes you a believer and part of God’s Holy Church. Our faith in Christ together with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who keeps us in the one true faith every day is what makes us a Christian. If you were in the hospital, or at home sick, or incarcerated in a mental facility or in jail you would still be a Christian. Your faith in Christ goes with you. No matter where we are we are still a Christian. What we are missing and wish we had back is the comfort received from speaking with and encouraging one another. We are missing Holy Absolution which the pastor gives, but this does not mean our sins are not forgiven. For Christ died on the cross once and for all on Good Friday. Historically speaking, your sins have already been forgiven. By your Holy Baptism you are spiritually connected and united to Christ’s death to atone for your sins and in His resurrection. Through faith in Christ you likewise continue to receive the forgiveness of your sins.
We might also ask, does God consider me a Christian if I can’t receive Holy Communion? Holy Communion is a sacrament of God which our Lord Jesus gave us His church. Through the blessed Sacrament we receive Christ’s Most Holy and precious Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins. The Sacrament of the Altar is but another way in which God continues to strengthen our faith in Christ. It is not the only way but it is an important way. It is a way God shows his love to us, forgives us our sins and shares His holiness with us.
When I was a first year seminarian, I once asked a question to my professor which is akin to the question we may be asking right now. I asked my professor, “If God forgives all our sins in Holy Baptism and in Absolution then why do we need the Sacrament of the Altar as well?” His answer to me was, “Why does a husband give his wife a hug as well as a kiss?” The point he was trying to make on a human level was there are many ways for us to show love and affection to our spouse. The theological point he was making is Holy Communion is in essence grace upon grace, it is another way God strengthens our faith and keeps us strong in our walk with Christ and it is another way in which we receive the forgiveness of our sins. So in light of our question, am I still a Christian if I don’t receive Holy Communion together with everyone in the church the answer is yes, you are certainly still a Christian. You are lacking one of God’s gifts of love and forgiveness to you but that does not mean that you are not a Christian or God does not consider you worthy. The very fact that you desire Holy Communion shows you have strong faith in Christ. And Lord willing that wait will be over some time soon. Lord willing soon, we will be able to receive all the gifts of grace: the Word and the Sacraments together.
Ancient Israel survived the Babylonian exile. A faithful group of Israelites, sustained by God’s Word, kept the faith and returned to Israel where they rebuilt the temple and began to worship God once more as He had commanded in the Mosaic Law. Israel learned in the exile that God was their God even apart from the land of Israel. He was their God with them wherever they went.
In time God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to this world and the Lord Jesus fulfilled all of the Mosaic Law for us in His life and death. Now, in the post-Easter, post-Pentecost church, we worship God not in a temple or through the sacrifices of the Old Testament but in spirit and in truth (John 4:23) which is through faith in Jesus. While we would love to worship God together and receive the Sacrament of the Altar, for now God shall sustain us as He sustained ancient Israel, through the gift of His Holy Word.
About the only people these days who are doing fine and even excelling are the introverts. This is their day! Introverts are those who are energized by being by themselves or being with just one or two other people. All the strong introverts of the congregation are doing fine. One of them told me they are doing better than they have for a long time. So there is a blessing in this social isolation and distancing for some! But the extroverts, those who are energized by being around other people, are being drained more and more with each passing day. Keep them in your prayers.
May the Lord Jesus who loves you and died for you, strengthen you in the faith in these days when His Holy Church cannot gather together and receive the Sacrament of the Altar. You are Christ’s and you are a Christian even if you cannot receive the Lord’s Supper or be part of the fellowship. You are the Lord’s by virtue of your Baptism and the faith in Christ the Holy Spirit has given you. Soon this Lentiest of Lents will be over and Lord willing soon we will be reunited in joyous worship again. In Christ’s Holy Name. Amen.
And now may the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.