Have you ever had to tell someone they were wrong? And, no, I’m not talking about telling someone that they got a wrong answer, or took a wrong turn, or their remembrance of a past event wasn’t quite right. No, I’m talking about having to tell someone that something that they love, something that they enjoy, something that their proud of…is wrong. It’s a sin. It’s a hard thing to do, to tell someone they are wrong. It’s also a hard thing to hear.
No one likes to be wrong, and we will often do just about anything to not admit we are wrong. We might justify our sins and try to convince ourselves and others that we really had no other choice. We might attempt to mitigate our sin, give some clever reasoning as to how we got so confused and so we weren’t really wrong, just mistaken. Sometimes we just refuse to be wrong, refuse to admit a sin is a sin. We reject the correction of others, “No, I’m not wrong.” And, here is the other side of all of this, the moment you tell someone they’re wrong, or they tell you that you’re wrong, the moment that sin is laid bare, well, now there is this division. Now, two people who were maybe friends, or family are at odds, and it’s not fun. It’s a tense moment, a window of time that could make or break the future of that relationship.
This is what we step into as we enter this season of Lent. A tense moment, a window of time where we reflect upon our sin and brokenness – all those times we are wrong – and how that has impacted the most important relationship in our lives, that one with our God. And, while all this might seem daunting and just a massive killjoy, I hope today you see why it’s not. I hope you see the joy of this season. Because there is joy in Lent, but it is a curious type of joy. You see that here in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
Paul’s conflicted – sort of. Take a look. In the first verse of our lesson, Paul writes, “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while…” Humanly speaking Paul felt awful about a letter he wrote to his friends, his brothers and sisters, in the Corinthian Church. He regretted that letter, but he had to send it. You see he loved them, but they had embraced sin and were unrepentant. So, he hurt them by writing to them and calling out their sin and its danger to their spiritual health.
And that’s a curious moment too, isn’t it? Because no matter how kind and well-rehearsed your words are, no matter your level of concern and care, in a moment of sin the only way to love is to hurt. You must tell that person you love they’re wrong. You have to expose their sin. But you never know how that person will react to your correction.
Notice how that all went for Paul. His words caused sorrow. He did hurt those whom he loved – and it hurt him! – but then there was this, this unexpected moment, “…yet, now I am happy,” he wrote, “not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance.” This is the curious joy of Lent. It’s that humbling honest moment when sin is confessed and a relationship is restored. Do you have this joy? Do you want it?
Well, that’s what Lent is all about. You see, Lent goes deeper, to the heart, the marrow, into the sticky, black darkness of our inner selves where all kinds of sin just fester. And, in Lent, we invite God’s light of truth and grace into these tender spaces, and though it may hurt, though it may be embarrassing, though we might weep over what he sees, the reality is that this is who we are, sinners, – and God knows this! And, what’s most shocking then is that you and me, we’re someone God wants. God wants a relationship with you even as he sees who you really are.
If we put on our Sunday best for Easter to celebrate the resurrection, Lent calls us to waste no time in such festiveness. “Come as you are, come dirty, come poor. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done; what matters is you’re here.” Lent then is that joyful realization that even I can stand at the foot of Jesus’ cross – and am invited to do so by God himself – and there my sinfulness, my wrongs, can be confessed to his open ear…and he hears. So, you see, that’s what we are called to do. We repent. We turn from our sin, and we look to Christ.
Martin Luther once wrote, “the entire life of believers is one of repentance.” Think about that. Repentance for breakfast. Repentance while driving. Repentance while watching TV. Repentance when your head hits the pillow at night. This is the life of a Christian. Over and over, time and again. Plan for the Spirit to drag you back home, stinking from the pigpen. Plan for the Spirit to find you when you get lost like a stupid, helpless sheep. Plan for the Spirit to hold the head of your old sinful nature under the waters of baptism until no more bubbles rise to the surface, then to raise a new person, in the image of Jesus, alive from those same waters.
And plan for that song of repentance to play on repeat the rest of your life, to live a baptismal life of repentance, of daily death and resurrection. Because that’s the calling card of God. That’s how our Father makes things happen. And, while this is happening, plan on one more—wonderfully unexpected!—event: joy.
And the joy is not that you realized who you are. The joy is not that you’ve beaten yourself to a sinful pulp and now you can finally feel good about yourself. The joy is that in all these moments of sin and shame God is at work. He is the one who instills in you that “Godly sorrow” that Paul says, “brings repentance.” He is the one who “leads you to salvation.” He is the one who restores your soul and leaves you with “no regret.” He is the one who responds to your confession of sin with a confession of his own, “I love you. I lay down my life to save your own. I forgive you. I heal you. Mine you are, now and forever.”
This is why Paul was happy even as he hurt his friends, even as he told them that they were wrong. Because God had worked in their hearts and restored the relationship that they had broken. And, in their sorrow over their sin, they turned to God, they repented, and they heard his confession of love and forgiveness. In this way, he restored joy to them by restoring them to himself. He wrenched them from all those passing pleasures that are supposed to “make us happy” and led them to true joy, which is found solely and completely in Jesus.
So, as we sit in these chairs this Ash Wednesday, perhaps feeling good about feeling bad, thinking that our confession and repentance alone are what makes things right between us and God, realize that thought is deeply and dangerously wrong. It’s the cross before us and the cross of ash many of you will soon carry on our head or hand that points us, finally, to the truth, to the Christ of the cross, in whom we are made deeply and beautifully right. Because of him, and him alone, we find joy in Lent for all the right reasons. For it is in Jesus we are reconciled to the Father, adopted as his children, and on our brows is written the very name of the Lord himself (Revelation 22:4).
This is our joy. It’s a curious kind of joy, because it means you’re wrong, you’re a sinner, but the good news is that Jesus acted for you. The good news is that Jesus is the author and finisher of your faith. The good news is that Jesus is the active agent in your salvation. The good news is that Jesus saved you all by himself. The good news is that Jesus is not waiting on you to do anything, he has given you everything already. It is finished.
Believe that, and you will have this joy, the joy of knowing that even as you falter and fail and sin each day, that in Christ you are a beloved child of God. You are forgiven. Heaven is your home. And you can repent. You can turn to him, and when you do you will find his arms open to you, not just now, but forever. That’s his promise. That’s his joy. It’s you, and it will always be you. Amen.