Today the Christian church year chugs into the season of Lent. Every year we follow the exact same path: Advent; Christmas; Epiphany; Lent; Easter; Pentecost. Do you ever wonder why? Why we continue to cover the same ground year after year when it seems that it would be more exciting to focus on more practical and relevant things like marriage, family, finances and mental health? The reason is simple: sin. Your sin. My sin. The sins of the whole world of sinners. The Christian church – and everything that’s done in it throughout the Church year – exists for only one reason: for God to expose and remove sin. As much as people would like to shape the church to suit their own purposes, that’s the one and only mission of the Church. The reason for Lent, the reason for bringing little babies like Paul to baptism, the reason you are sitting there listening to this sermon, the reason we are breaking ground to expand our facilities is to take away sin. That’s why you’re here – or at least, why you should be here. How better to do that than to follow the life of Jesus throughout the year, the one who came to earth with the express purpose of taking away sin? We all were born into the desert of sin, the opposite of the Eden God created for us; helpless to escape it on our own. And that is why Jesus joins us in the desert this morning.
Unfortunately, if the devil succeeds in leading us to think that sin is not as serious as God says it is, that it isn’t the biggest problem we face in life, that it isn’t the true reason that one day we will all die; then we won’t see our need for the Church, and even worse, we won’t see our need for Jesus. What good is a Jew who died for sins that no one has? What good is a Church that openly admits that its mission is not to make life in this world better but to expose and forgive your sins if sin is not really a big deal? If we don’t believe sin is a big deal, then we are living a Satanic delusion and there will be side-effects of living a lie. First, we end up just going through the motions. We may bring our babies to be baptized, our children to Sunday school, we sit in those chairs and get up to receive Communion – but not because we really need to, but just because that’s what Christians do (and it keeps grandma happy!). The second is that you will try to redefine and reorient the church’s mission in a more social and charitable direction – you will want it to be a place where you can come to feel good about yourself by doing good, fun things with and for other people. Because, if we’re not here because we need forgiveness, then we must be the good ones, and it’s the people out there who need help and deliverance from us.
But if we ever doubt what we already admitted this morning: that we are by nature sinful, that we have disobeyed God in our thoughts, words, and actions, that we have done what is evil and failed to do what is good, that we deserve God’s punishment both now and in eternity…if we ever forget that the devil is real and only tells lies…if we ever forget that hell is a real, terrible place of total separation from God’s grace where it’s just you and your guilt and terror forever…if we ever forget about the big, stinking pile of sin each of us brought here this morning (although we are careful to keep it hidden behind our charming smiles and nice clothes) – then we have lost the only real reason for the Church’s existence and the only real reason to come to church. God put this church here, in this city, in this very place for you – to expose and remove your sin. That’s really the only reason we are here.
So a Christian pastor’s primary job – if he is faithful to his call – is to preach to the choir, to you (the “good” people who have come) and announce the deep, dark truth about you. The truth is that you have failed miserably, you have lost the fight – and it wasn’t even close. The devil has succeeded in tempting you to sin (to disobey God) which has earned you God’s penalty of death. You can try to ignore it, but you can’t escape it. This truth is eating you alive. Sin stains your every thought, word and action. Oh sure, we may follow the way of the world and try to claim that we are mostly “good” deep down. But if we ever start to believe it, then we’re even sicker than we think. Luther said that if you doubt your sinful condition you should pinch yourself to see if you’re still flesh and blood. And if you are, read what the Bible has to say about the sinful flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). (LC V:75)
Want more proof? Ever been sick? Ever had a body part not work like it should? Ever had a falling out with a friend or relative? What grudge are you still holding in your heart, even here in God’s house? Have you ever been rejected or depressed or saddened by loss? Ever had your body or car or home break down? These things don’t happen to perfect people in a perfect world. They are inescapable evidence of the sin that permeates everyone and everything in the world.
Now, if your life, your marriage, your children, your health, your job are all perfect; if nothing breaks down, nothing disappoints, nothing hurts, if everything in your life is perfectly wonderful – then you can relax. Actually, you can leave because we have nothing to offer you. You are (somehow) untainted by sin. You don’t need Jesus or his Church. You will live forever without him. But if you’re not heading for the door then it’s my responsibility to ensure that you know why. It’s not God’s fault. God doesn’t take pleasure in ruining, torturing, tormenting things or people. God is peace, not chaos. God is love, not hate. God is life, not death. So if chaos and sickness and hatred and death have invaded your life and your family, then you need to know that it’s because of sin. Sin which has corrupted you from head to toe. Sin which condemns you to death and hell. Sin which has ripped you out of the lush Garden of Eden dropped you in the dusty desert of this fallen world. And there is nothing you can do about it.
But here’s the good news: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert. The good news is that because you could not escape this barren desert on your own, God sent his Son to you. What makes this all the more remarkable is that this happened immediately after Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit descended on him, filled him. Usually when we think of being “filled with the Spirit” it means that we’re about to do or say wonderful things; you’re doing miracles, you’re healing and cleansing and converting, you’re winning at life, you’re happy and successful and probably rich. If you’re filled with the Spirit, you’re not – we would think – hungry and alone and facing temptation in a desert. And yet, here Jesus is because this is why Jesus came. He didn’t come to show us how awesome life could be if you just do it right. He didn’t come to gather a cult of followers who would imitate his behavior and repeat his words. He didn’t come merely to temporarily fix some of sin’s symptoms for some people by curing what ailed them. He came to do battle with the source of it all. He came into this world to wage war against the devil.
The devil knew it and the devil came at him with all the power he could muster. But the devil is hopelessly unoriginal; all he could muster were the same old tricks he used in the Garden of Eden. God had told Adam and Eve that he loved them, that his plan was best for them, and that he would always protect them. But the devil succeeded in leading them to doubt God’s Word, test his love, and trash his plan – and eat from the tree and earn death for themselves and all of us. Thus the desert of sin we are born into. Jesus came to turn the tables, to be the Son God intended Adam (and us) to be, to crush the devil’s power to tempt and trap us. And so the prince of darkness went head to head with the prince of heaven and nothing less than the eternal fate of our souls hung in the balance. “If you really are the Son of God, you shouldn’t have to suffer such terrible hunger, why don’t you just use some of that power to make yourself some bread” – in other words, be selfish, just this once, the devil said. Man does not live on bread alone, Jesus answered. God alone – not bread alone – gives and sustains life. “God’s plan calls for you to literally go through hell on a cross to achieve all authority in heaven and on earth – I’ll give it to you if you just bend a knee before me” the devil whispered. Worship the Lord your God and serve him only, Jesus responded. Any shortcut from God’s path only leads to hell. “If God’s Word is as reliable as you claim, then you can throw yourself down from this wall and he won’t let you get hurt” the prince of darkness argued. Do not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus answered. God’s protection is a promise to be trusted not tested. Isn’t it incredible how Jesus defeated the devil? He didn’t defeat him as God but as man – as your perfect substitute. He didn’t do it by summoning legions of angels or issuing an almighty command. Jesus defeated the devil by, frankly, becoming a child – by maintaining child-like faith in his Father – thus proving himself to be the perfect, obedient Son of God Adam and we were supposed to be, but are not. Jesus did what we fail to do every time we give in to temptation: he emptied himself, humbled himself, trusted completely in God and his Word, whether it seemed or felt right or not. And that simple, child-like trust in God defeated the devil and sent him scurrying back to hell.
So as you walk out those doors to continue wandering through this earthly desert, battling sin, death and the devil, take these assurances with you: you are never, ever alone. Jesus is there with you. He’s been there. He’s been alone, starving, miserable, stalked and hunted by the devil. Jesus is on his way to death too! And he’s not just here to empathize with you, coach you, give you a pep talk – just to say, “Oh man, this world is rough, isn’t it” or “There, I’ve shown you it can be done, now do it.” He didn’t come to teach you how to defeat the devil yourself – you, me, we, can’t. He came to defeat the devil for you. Like a Navy Seal dropping out of heaven, Jesus put two rounds in the devil’s skull, and then turns to rescue you, to take you out of this desert and back to paradise. That’s why the Holy Spirit led him to where you are, the desert of sin. He came to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8) and on Calvary’s cross, where he bled and died for the sins of the world, he accomplished his mission once and for all.
And while he won this victory for all people of all time – there’s only one place he dispenses those gifts: his church. What do you need if you happen to find yourself alone and wandering in a desert? Food, water and protection. Only here can you find the water of life, where God himself stoops down out of heaven and says “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Only here can you receive the body and blood of Jesus the only food that can both strengthen you for your daily battles and assures you that the victory has already been won. Only here will you find protection from the devil’s lies and attacks – because here is where the Word is preached and taught in truth and purity, the Word which destroys the devil’s lies and sends him sulking back to hell. The Church truly is the holy ark (as Luther said) in which God carries believers safely through this sin-filled desert to life in heaven. Here there is peace and hope and joy in a world that has none of those things. Here there is free and full forgiveness for every sin and every sinner. Here the promise of eternal life is offered to dying people in a dying world.
And that’s, finally, why we walk this same path each and every year. Why we stick to the boring old Word and sacraments that many have cast aside. Why preaching and teaching and baptizing and communing are not incidental, optional things we do as part of a greater mission to make this world a better place – Word and Sacrament are our mission! It’s why we are building. It’s why we refuse to let our church be transformed into just another boys and girls club, another social hotspot, another “do-good” charitable organization. Because the church is here for just one reason: to deal with sin. You are here because of your sin. And Jesus is here too. He’s here to take away your sin. That’s Lent in a nutshell. Welcome to Lent in the Lutheran Church. Amen.