Today we are exactly halfway through Lent. We are now twenty-three days into a forty-six-day journey.
On Ash Wednesday, we entered the season of Lent by confessing that we have sinned both by what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone. At HERITAGE, we’ll confess our sins again using King David’s words from Psalm 51as Lent draws to a close on Maundy Thursday.
Lent is a time for reflection and honest acknowledgment of our need for a savior. It’s a time for us to remember our sinfulness and to come face-to-face with our ultimate inability to overcome our sins on our own.
It’s not much in fashion these days to dwell on our sins. But without acknowledging the real truth of our sinfulness, it's impossible to experience the full joy of our salvation.
During Lent at HERITAGE we’ve been looking at individual encounters with Jesus in the Gospel of John. Each person in our series is in need of a different kind of salvation, and none of them go away unsatisfied. There is great joy in each of their stories.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, is encouraged toward anew understanding of the spiritual presence of God in his life (John 3:1-17). A Samaritan woman discovers that when Jesus becomes part of her story there’s much more to her story and life than she ever imagined (John 4:5-42). A blind beggar gains his sight for the first time, and his transformation amazes all who see him (John 9:1-41). Lazarus is brought back to life from the dead (John 11:1-44).
These are four very different people forever changed by their encounters with Christ. And, importantly, they’re all people whom many would have excluded from the circle of God's salvation for one reason or another.
In each encounter, Jesus is expanding the circle of who is included in the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Jesus’ run-ins with the Pharisees during his ministry are perhaps the best-documented series of conflicts in the New Testament. Those in Jesus’ inner circle would have seen any Pharisee as a clear enemy. Yet Jesus welcomes Nicodemus and brings him into the fold.
Jews and Samaritans did not associate with one another. Samaritans were seen as religious heretics. Yet Jesus uses a Samaritan woman on the margins of society to bring a whole Samaritan town to faith.
A blind street-corner beggar would be widely considered as sinful and unclean then and now. Yet Jesus heals this man and demonstrates God's power in a previously unseen way that amazes all who see him.
Lazarus is the patron saint of lepers, someone associated with disease and contagion. Yet Jesus restores Lazarus to life, and through him the fullness of God's power over life and death is revealed.
Each of these encounters does more than simply demonstrate Jesus’ power and compassion. Each expands our understanding of who God is willing to include in God’s kingdom.
The question, then, is whether or not we can manage to expand our circles of inclusion, too.
One of the overarching themes of scripture—from beginning to end—is that God is constantly pushing down the boundaries we’ve constructed and inviting more and more people into the fold.
The circle of who is included in God’s kingdom is expanding and it always has been.
So I worry when I see us drawing smaller circles to define the area of God's compassion and creating increasingly restrictive barriers that exclude people from our faith communities who are different than we are.
As I examine my own sinfulness this Lent, I’m consciously working to acknowledge all the ways I overlook and exclude people whom Jesus didn’t. Jesus, as near as I can tell, didn’t exclude anyone. And those he was most harsh toward were those who overlooked the excluded and the downtrodden (Matt 25:31-46).
The people Jesus was most harsh toward weren’t sinners like them. Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for sinners like us.
Today we are twenty-three days into our forty-six-day journey toward the cross, and I for one am praying to see an expanding circle of inclusion when I get there. Aren’t you?
It takes an awfully big circle to include sinners like us.
See you Sunday.