Who Are We? A Holy Nation - 1st Peter 2:9-10
As I began considering this series on “Who Are We,” one of the first things that stood out was the phrase “a holy nation.” Why? Well, it is because I cannot begin to tell you the number of times I have heard conversations or been part of conversations relating to our nation being “a Christian Nation.” Discussions about prayer in schools—how dare they get rid of it, we are a Christian nation. The removing of the Ten Commandments from courthouses—how dare they discuss that, we are a Christian nation. The removal of the Christian Flag and most recently the kneeling soldier monument in King, NC—what are they thinking, we are a Christian nation. If it is not one issue it is another, whether it is the perception of Christian freedoms being taken away, or the allowed observance of other religions practices. This sermon is not about whether or not the United States ever has been, is, or will be a Christian nation—the original intent or our Founding Fathers or not…because Peter was not writing about the United States when he offered this description of who we, as Christians are to be. In fact, as Peter wrote, “But you are…a holy nation…”, was not writing about any geographically bound region—remember, this letter was being written to a group of Christians that were scattered about Asia Minor. This means that Peter is talking about something that extends far beyond a politically governed territory. Reviewing where we have been the last couple of weeks should help us get a grasp of what Peter was thinking.
We began by considering that we are a chosen race. We learned that this has nothing to do with the color of our skin, the color of our hair, the color of our eyes, the language we speak, or any other aspect of our ethnicity. It has to do with being chosen by God, called into a relationship with Christ. It has to do with being loved by God, being valued by God, and having a God-given purpose in life—the purpose of leading all the world to that day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Last week we considered that we are a royal priesthood. We remember that through Christ we all have access to God the Father…and that we, like the priests of the Old Testament, and like the High Priest of High Priests, Jesus Christ Himself, are called to stand in the gap between God and those who are far from God. We are called to be mediators of forgiveness, possibly even to those who do not realize they need forgiveness. We are to be mediators of God’s blessings, pronouncing God’s providential care and love, and making it real in meeting the needs of those who are in the world. And finally, as has always been connected with the role of priests, there is sacrifice—though we are not called to sacrifice livestock and produce, Christ put an end to that in the giving of His own life, but like Christ, in our role as priests in the line of the King of Kings, our sacrifice is like that of Jesus, that of our own lives.
So what does it mean now, to be a holy nation? It means living as those who have been called into relationship as we have been chosen by God to mediate God’s forgiveness and blessings to the world through sacrifice. It also means that we do this by living in this world, within our own national boundaries, but not of this world, not even of our nation, as living as a holy nation calls our allegiance beyond our flag and places our allegiance to God Himself. To “be holy” means to “be set apart.” We are accepted by God in the midst of our sin, chosen by God even when we are like the world and of the world…yet through God’s grace, we are called to change, we are called to be made holy, as John Wesley would have said, to grow in sanctification or be made perfect in love. Some would suggest that we aren’t called to change, that God never intended for us to be perfect but if there is any uncertainty in that, Peter countered it earlier in his letter as he connected our lives as a Christian nation to God’s selection and instructions of Israel in the Old Testament using words harkening us back to Leviticus. Peter wrote, “Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”[i] We are called to strive to be made Holy by the working of God’s Spirit in our lives…and it is by God’s design, I truly believe—for it was not mine, that we come to this part of our series as we begin Lent and incorporate our iced-out Ash Wednesday service into our service on this first Sunday of Lent.
It may have been the toughest forty-six day stretch in my entire life. I was either twenty or twenty-one years old. I was a student at Methodist University (Methodist College back then) and a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. I lived on campus in one of the residential halls. I think it was the night of the fraternity bon fire that it hit me the hardest. It was the middle of ritual week where we were bringing new brothers into the fraternity. It was either after the bon fire, or maybe we were discussing it for the next night, but there I was being confronted and having to decide between faithfulness and fitting-in (and enjoying myself). We were going to have a pizza party. What is the problem, you may wonder. Well, the trouble for me was that I had given up pizza and soda for Lent. I’m not sure what I was thinking at the time, but yes, I was a college student and chose to give up the two things that I almost literally lived off of while in school. I didn’t think that Easter was ever going to arrive, and forget about your Easter dinner with ham, veggies, macaroni and cheese, and assorted desserts…the only pie I wanted was a pizza pie with pepperoni and extra cheese served with Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper on the side.
Many folks observe the tradition of giving up something they enjoy during the season of Lent—some will give up desserts or sweets in general, others very specific items like pizza, soda, chocolate, ice cream, or peanut butter; some will give up activities such as spending time using social media like Facebook or Twitter or maybe playing video games or playing golf or maybe going out to eat; still others joke around about giving up something they don’t like—I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard kids say they want to give up going to school or doing homework, or adults say they want to give up going to work or doing housework, or give up foods they don’t like like brussel sprouts or liver (though I would quickly point out that you use Lent as an excuse to not do things you don’t like doing).
Where did the idea of giving something up for Lent originate? It began as a period of fasting and preparation for those preparing to be baptized on Easter Day as they surrendered their lives to Christ, later on it would become a season in which all Christians would enter a time of self-reflection and do penance for their sins. The tradition of giving something that we enjoy for Lent grew out of the tradition of fasting and was to be a small sacrifice that would cause us to reflect on the great sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. The purpose of this season was that this sacrifice would in some way draw us closer in our relationship with God, and if we had strayed, we would be drawn back into a right relationship with our Savior.
Sometimes, though, the fasting leading us to a closer relationship with God loses out. I have heard folks say, “I need to lose some weight, so I am giving up sweets for Lent.” I may have even said that myself in the past. Unfortunately, though, that takes what was supposed to be an action of self-denial and self-sacrifice and turns it into a self-improvement diet plan, so it still remains “about me” rather than about Christ. In other instances, where we go through the ritual of giving something up, but all we focus on is “I can’t wait for Easter to get here so I can have (whatever we have given up).” (Some folks don’t wait until Easter, they celebrate weekly the fact that every Sunday is considered a “Little Easter” and not actually part of Lent and they are “legally” allowed to indulge in what they have sacrificed—and I’ve been there and done that as well.) Each of these, though, I think miss the point of “giving something up” because they keep us focused on ourselves rather than on what they are supposed to turn our attention toward, and that is the cross of Christ.
The purpose of any sacrifice should be to focus less on ourselves and more on the worship of God and allowing God to make us more Christ-like…a transformation that is more than a forty day fast from something we enjoy that leaves us unchanged and come Easter back to the same old us. That is one reason that Dr. James Moore’s book, Giving Up Something Bad For Lent, caught my eye as I was looking over resources for this season. It is not about giving up homework or eating liver—things we don’t like, but about giving up those things about ourselves that are not reflective of Christ—things that we “enjoy” or consider “too painful” to try to change about ourselves—things like apathy, regret, addiction, fears, bitterness, judgment, and envy. These are all things that Christ came to free us from, but that often we hold on to. This year, I would like us to take up the challenge of examining our lives and find something in our lives that we need God’s grace to change about us, some part of us that is not Christ-like in the way it should be. Are we living stuck in the past—living each day in sorrow or depressed, focused on mistakes we have made or missed opportunities rather than living in the hope that God has promised us a future of blessing and prosperity? Are we bound by our addictions—to drugs, to alcohol, to tobacco, to overeating, to overspending, to gossiping—rather than enjoying the freedom that Christ has won for us over anything that would try to control us? Are we afraid to do anything, living as if any action or risk will automatically result in the worst-case scenario playing out—rather than trusting that in everything God will work for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose? Does bitterness haunt us, causing the acidity of unforgiveness fill our lives with the bile of hatred, anger, or a desire for vengeance rather than being able to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Do we sit in judgment of others, readily condemning them for their sins, rather than having our hearts break for them because we have forgotten the log that was (or is) in our own eyes because we are so focused on the speck in theirs—rather than offering to come alongside them and together, in community, supporting one another in an effort to live holy lives? Do we look at what others have, their possessions, their reputations, their status, their abilities and wish that we had it ourselves, always thinking we need more—rather than being content and thankful for the blessings that God has placed in our lives? There may be others—other dark spots that mar our lives—those things that we either revel in or simply make excuses for—maybe even saying, “God just made me this way.” God did not create us to have dark spots, but to live in perfect relationship with Him—He desires our growth and our transformation—not a temporary absence of some pleasure in our lives. Through our weekly Lenten reflections we will examine the need for us each to give up these places of darkness that we so readily hold on to…and the need to give them up and be changed—to be made holy.
Will giving up something bad…not just for Lent…but for good be easy? No. It is not something we can do on our own, but only with the grace of God, the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, transforming us and changing us as we live into the freedom that Christ won for us on the cross. There is nothing wrong with giving up something you enjoy for the sake of Lenten Sacrifice in an effort focus in on the sacrifice of Christ—in fact it is commendable when done for the sake of growing closer to God. So if you have decided to give up chocolate, watching television, social media, or something else you enjoy, by all means, offer that sacrifice up to God as part of this seasons transformational time. However, I challenge each of us to consider what we need transformed out of our lives this Lent, a permanent change we need to experience to become more like Christ—to take that that darkness, write it on the index card in your bulletin, fold the card, and as you come forward to receive your ashes, nail it to that sin to the cross, leave it there, and begin allowing Christ to free you from it and this Lent be transformed into something new come Easter—members of God’s holy nation!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.