Wednesday, February 22, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 6:22; sermon starts around 15:10)
Since this evening has already been kind of an evening of honest self-disclosure on my part, I will also share with you that I have a terrible toothache – or if I’m being really honest, a teethache. It’s been bothering me since sometime in mid- to late- December. It has made eating kind of a painful challenge, because biting down in just the wrong way or trying to eat something too crunchy or too chewy instantly lands me in a world of hurt.
I feel very embarrassed to admit this, but the reason for my dental woes is that, prior to last month, it had been over eleven years since I last went to the dentist. 😬😬😬 I didn’t mean for it to be that long. I chalk it up to the fact that for many years, I didn’t go because I didn’t have dental insurance; and also, with my ADHD, that’s just one of those things that’s hard for me to remember consistently to do.
But also, the truth is that I put it off because I knew it would most likely be uncomfortable and unpleasant, probably even painful. And the longer I neglected to go to the dentist, the harder it got to even think about going. My embarrassment and the potential for pain both only grew as time went by.
It took this pain that was so severe that I couldn’t ignore it anymore to finally get me to make an appointment and get back on the right track. And I am working on it – don’t worry. 😉 I’ve been to the dentist twice already this year – I got good grades for “most improved” at my second appointment – and I’ve got another appointment coming up in March. I’m working on it, slowly but surely.
I mention my dental dilemma because there’s a terrible irony in it that points us toward the heart of the season of Lent, which we begin today. I put off going to the dentist and getting care, in part, because I was anxious about how much it was going to hurt. But now that it already does hurt, it’s actually going to require me to go through a process that will hurt even more in order for me to get back to a place where my mouth and I are free of pain.
It reminds me of a Lenten reflection I read earlier this week by author and theologian Walter Wangerin. In his reflection, he was writing about times of conflict that he’s had with his wife, and the pain he himself experienced because of the ways that he had done wrong to her. He writes:
When I have sinned against her, my sin appears in the suffering of her face. Her tears reflect with terrible accuracy my selfishness – my self! But I hate the sight, and the same selfishness I see now makes me look away. “Stop crying,” I say… or else I just leave the room. Walk away.excerpt from Walter Wangerin’s reflection “In Mirrors” in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter
Oh, what a coward I am, and what a fool! Only when I have the courage fully to look, clearly to know myself – even the evil of myself – will I admit my need for healing. But if I look away from her whom I have hurt, I have also turned away from her who might forgive me. I reject the very source of my healing.”
The season of Lent is a season of turning back toward God – with all our flaws and failings, with all our hurting and broken hearts – it’s a season of turning back toward the one whom we have sinned against and disappointed so that we may be forgiven and find healing, however painful that may be. As we read in our first reading, in the well-known words of the prophet Joel:
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”Joel 2:12-13
Lent, in a sense, is the overdue dental appointment of liturgical seasons. It’s a season of owning and confessing the ways that we have failed to live up to being the people we wanted to be – let alone the people who God wanted us to be – so that God may meet us where we are and lead us into healing and wholeness.
The journey of Lent that we begin today is a journey that will lead us down through the depths of human brokenness and suffering and death. It will lead us to confront our own brokenness and suffering and death. It is the painful journey of Jesus Christ to the cross.
And yet, even amidst all this, it’s important for us to remember that the point of Lent isn’t just to wallow in suffering and brokenness just for the sake of a good wallow. Despite its reputation for being solemn and penitential, the truth is that Lent is actually secretly a season of immeasurable joy.
Because when we have finally had enough of that ache in our soul that it forces us to do something about it – that it leads us to turn around and do the hard thing – we turn back to God only to find that we are already forgiven. We turn our hearts back to God only to find that we are still loved completely and unendingly by the one who never stopped hoping and waiting for us to come home.
Jesus leads us and guides us in the way of the cross. And though it is a journey that will take us inevitably through the valley of the shadow of death, it is also the one and only path that leads us into the fullness of the life and joy of God.
This is why we practice Lent every year – and why we often undertake spiritual disciplines in order to deepen our experience. It’s not because it’s something we “should” do or because it will somehow make us worthier, more respectable Christians. Like me going to the dentist: it’s not like I’m going and willingly doing painful things because it is something dignified or noble to do – it isn’t – or because I think it will somehow make me a better person. I go because I am hurting; I am in need of healing. I go because it is the only way for me to be healed and made whole.
So I encourage you this evening: stop ignoring the toothache in your soul. You know what it is for you: those places where anger or resentment are festering, where fear is gnawing away at your mind, where shame and guilt are stealing your sense of peace. Accept the invitation of Lent; and take the time to tune in with yourself and turn back to God with your whole heart, in whatever state it’s in.
Invite God into the places within yourself where it hurts the most – and there you will discover the deep and abiding joy of Lent.