Long journeys repeated time and again develop a certain character. We get accustomed to terrain and landmarks. We develop a sense of the passing of time. We even come to expect fatigue and refreshment.
Fatigue sets in when we begin to wonder if we can finish the journey. Refreshment lifts our spirits when we glimpse the end. In glimpsing the end we know that we can finish the journey, even when it remains demanding.
The Lenten path is demanding. Whether we envision ourselves entering the wilderness with Jesus as he faced his temptations or following him on his journey toward Jerusalem, the path is demanding.
On the fourth Sunday of Lent we pass the midpoint of our journey and glimpse the fulfillment of the promises of forgiveness and renewal and wholeness. We may have grown accustomed to the wilderness–but it still is the wilderness. The calendar may tell us how long we have been on the path–but our hearts have been beating out the passing of time in ways no calendar can record.
A week ago we ached with fatigue, thirsty and hungry for reassurance that we were on the right path. On this Sunday we glimpse the end and find refreshment in the company of prophet, Psalm, epistle and the Gospel.
In the Hebrew Bible Joshua is the first prophetic book. Christians miss the power of the prophets by only regarding the likes of the books of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Habakkuk as “prophetic.” The power of the prophets is primarily the interpretation of how God is present. Only through discerning God’s influence in the past and present can prophets anticipate how God may appear in the days ahead.
Our lesson from the book of Joshua is short but refreshing. “The Lord said to Joshua,” we read, “‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt'” (5.9).
After 400 years of Egyptian captivity and 40 years of wilderness wandering after the Exodus, the Israelites caught a glimpse of the end: the end of disgrace (5.12). Their journey was not over. Jericho and the whole land of Canaan was ahead of them, but they were refreshed by the assurance that their disgrace had been rolled back. The prophet announces and interprets how God is present.
On the fourth Sunday of Lent we read Psalm 32, another “penitential Psalm” that takes us backward and forward.
On Ash Wednesday Psalm 51 captured our yearning for repentance: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (51.10). Today we hear the confession of one who has experienced the refreshment of forgiveness: “Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity” (32.2).
For millennia these two psalms have been paired. Rabbis, preachers, and scholars have suggested that Psalm 51 was David’s prayer of repentance after his tryst with Bathsheba, and that Psalm 32 was his prayer of thanksgiving for having experienced divine forgiveness.
Along the Lenten path the power of the psalm is its reminder that seeking repentance and experiencing the refreshment of forgiveness is a continual process. The psalmist writes, “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayers to you/at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters will not reach them/You are a hiding place for me/you preserve me from trouble/you surround me glad cries of deliverance” (32.6-7).
Prophet and psalm remind us that repentance opens the way for forgiveness and that the experience of forgiveness refreshes us on the journey. Lent is primarily a time for repentance, but it also is a time to glimpse the promises of forgiveness.
The epistle sets the promise of forgiveness in the broadest and most narrow contexts. The far-flung promise is that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5.19). The intimate promise is that “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v 21).
The broad and the narrow carry a responsibility for those who glimpse the promise of forgiveness. Paul announces a politics of forgiveness: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (v 20). Forgiveness received should always become forgiveness shared.
The lure of Lent is to overcome the self-indulgence of seeking God’s favor for ourselves while not yearning for God’s favor for the world and others. The epistle gives a glimpse of the end: God in Christ is concerned for the whole and the part, and we should be, too. God in Christ seeks reconciliation with the world as fervently as with persons. In the seeking God also makes the appeal for forgiveness–for reconciliation–“through us.”
On the fourth Sunday of Lent the Gospel is too familiar! As soon as we note that the reading is from Luke 15, as soon as we read the words, “There was a man who had two sons” (v 11b) we glaze over. “Oh,” we say, “the Prodigal Son,” as if we have already gotten all we can from the parable.
The parable is not only about the prodigal. Neither is it only about the older brother. The opening line should tell us that the parable is about a loving father “who had two sons.”
On the fourth Sunday in Lent we glimpse the end, with a twist. The younger brother is refreshed by his experience of forgiveness. He is welcomed home with a feast (vv 21-24).
The older brother turns sullen because of his self-indulgence, despite the seeking father’s plea to join the celebration of the forgiven (vv 25-32).
Along the path both responses are possible; only one is consistent with the goal before us.
We have passed the midpoint of our journey. Let us press forward, eager to be refreshed by the promises of the prophet, the psalm, the epistle, and the Gospel.
Richard F. Wilson is Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.