Back to the Basics in Lent
Text: John 3:1-17
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a refreshing honest simplicity to Lent. It’s about getting back to the basics. The readings and prayers take us back the roots of our faith. We hear about Jesus going to the cross, which is the center of everything. We get the passages that have taught us from the time we were children: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” We look forward to the highest, most important feast of the church year: Easter.
There’s also an honest simplicity to what Lent teaches us about ourselves. Again, we’re going back to the basics. Only ten short days ago or so, we heard the reality that every single person faces: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We looked in the mirror and saw that dust, those ashes on our foreheads. And somehow, it helps us see ourselves more clearly. We heard in the prayer this morning, prayed by churches all around the world today, “You see that of ourselves we have no strength,” then we asked the Lord to protect us in body and soul. Lent reminds us what we need: help. More than help, we need to be saved.
But why this season of getting back to basics? Why this time of honest reflection, even if it makes us think about things we’d rather not think about, even if it forces us to admit things about ourselves that we might not want to admit? Because that is precisely the problem. Because we don’t want to admit it. But we need to. We’re good at losing focus and thinking that we’re doing just fine on our own. That was the thinking of the Pharisees in our reading from John’s gospel, including Nicodemus, who was coming to Jesus at night to learn from Him(when none of the other Pharisees would have known). The Pharisees thought that they were keeping all the right rules. Because they were keeping all the right rules, they were better than those outsider Gentiles. They were even better than most other Jews. And because they were doing things the right way—that is, the way they thought things needed to be done—they thought that they were closer to God, that they were earning things from Him, that they were doing just fine.
We do the same. We want to think that we have it all together. We act as if we do, especially in front of others. We walk through our lives as if we’re the ones taking care of ourselves, defending ourselves from all dangers that may happen to the body and all evil that might assault the soul. We think that we earn our own way, we buy our own daily bread out of our own resources, that we got it all on our own, thank you very much. We console ourselves by saying that we don’t do things that are really bad—it’s not like we’re murderers or drug dealers or thieves. And even if we were to do something like that, there must be a good reason for it. So we’re doing fine. Who could say that we’re not? Certainly not God. He must be fine with us. There’s always a part of us that thinks that we’re smart enough or strong enough or good enough to earn gifts from God in this life, and even win the kingdom of heaven in the next.
But then we come to Lent, with all of its reminders. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” “O God, You see that of ourselves we have no strength…” We have readings that tell us that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they’re born of water and the Spirit, because those who are born of the flesh (that’s us) are only flesh. If we can’t understand earthly, fleshly things, how can we understand heavenly, spiritual things?
So Lent helps us refocus and get an accurate assessment of how we’re actually doing. Jesus teaches Nicodemus that he and the Pharisees aren’t doing as well as they think. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God…Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? We speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you won’t receive our testimony. Nicodemus, you’re lost. You’re not even following this conversation. How can you possibly hope to understand divine things that have been hidden from the mind of mortal man since before time began? You can’t. So stop ignoring what I’m saying, stop refusing the testimony of my Apostles and listen. Learn, Nicodemus.”
Paul says the same thing in his letter today, helping the Christians in Rome—and us—refocus on the important things, getting us back to the basics: that we’re not winning anything from God through the law. “The law brings wrath,” he says, “but where there is no law there is no transgression. You’ve got it all wrong, Romans. What you’re doing isn’t securing your place with God in eternity. Abraham wasn’t given life in that way; neither are you. So get back to the cross.” Paul says, “Look at the promises God made there to forgive you and be with you.”
So it is with us. We have this time, this season, to remind us of what it is that really saves. Just as the Romans weren’t saved by how well they kept the law, just as Nicodemus wasn’t saved by how well he kept the law, neither are we. It’s time to get back to the core, to the heart of what it is that we believe as Christians, as believers in Christ. We have to get to the beating heart of the Gospel.
We have eternal life only by faith in the Son. That’s what Jesus tells us today in our reading from John’s gospel. The picture He uses is that of being born, particularly, being born of the Spirit. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” How good of a job would you say you did at being born? You wouldn’t. That’s because being born is a passive thing. Being born means being brought into an entirely new world you didn’t even know existed by someone who was there before you, someone who watches over you and protects you because you’re a newborn, defenseless and unable to win anything by your own power. And, of course, this is a perfect description of what happens in Baptism. Someone who came into this world before you brings you into it, washing you clean, breathing your first breath into you, guiding you, nurturing you. And that person is Jesus, the Son of Man. In Baptism, we’ve been born from above, born of the Holy Spirit, brought into Christ’s family and Church.
So we rejoice to get that reminder today. We need it. We need to get back to the basics. God wants to give us everything as a gift, whether it’s in this life or the next. That doesn’t mean that we just do whatever we want. Of course not. We still want to live as His children, reflecting Him to those around us through our thoughts, words, and deeds. But we don’t let ourselves think that by doing these things we make God owe us anything. He wants to give us eternal life as a gift through His Son. So, out of His great love for all creation, He gave His only Son to be lifted up on a dry, craggy hill outside Jerusalem. This would be the payment for all the times we didn’t do the things commanded by the law, for all the times we thought we could corner God into doing something because of our own actions. This would be the way that eternal life would overflow into the world, overflowing from the baptismal font, overflowing from the chalice in Communion, overflowing from the words of forgiveness spoken whenever we want that life given to us again.
This is the core of the faith, what we’re getting back to this Lent: We believe that Jesus was given into death on the cross, so that we could live forever. Everything else flows from that. As we walk our way toward that cross this season, we refocus on it again. We let it dominate our thoughts. We let it shape the way we think about everything else—how we prioritize other things, how we understand them, what we do with our life, our words toward each other, everything. And we come to give thanks that we’ve received everything as a gift —even the faith that holds on to Jesus’ cross. In the name of Jesus, the Crucified One, Amen.