Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
This coming week is the beginning of Lent. You probably know that traditionally, Lent was a season of preparation for people before they are baptized on Easter Sunday. A big part of that preparation was self-examination, as we reflect on the sins we’ve committed for which we confess and give up to God’s mercy. Nowadays Christians use the season of Lent to practice some form of spiritual discipline, including prayer and fasting, as a way of recommitting to God.
We Presbyterians are rooted theologically in the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity, especially as defined by John Calvin. In his Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin begins with the following statement, which comes back to me on a regular basis:
Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.
Now we know that we can never fully know God, though we can get glimpses through reading the Bible and our own witness to God’s actions. But even as we try to know ourselves, I sometimes think there’s a paradox: are we worthless creatures, dead in spirit and helplessly caught up in sin, or are we heroes in the world and even the divine agents of God’s power and will?
It seems that the Bible speaks about us both ways. It’s funny that I looked back and found that the last two years, I have referenced this passage from Isaiah on the Monday prior to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. (It is an alternate reading in the Ash Wednesday lectionary, along with Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.)
Apparently there’s part of me that yearns for this passage to describe our role in God’s world as one of high responsibility and positive impact. It also happens to be the scripture that is guiding our theme of reconciliation throughout our Presbytery meetings this year.
But how does that fit with our tradition of lamenting our sinful and worthless nature during Lent?
I wouldn’t presume to claim wisdom about who we are as worthy or worthless beings, but it’s apparent to me that we are both. We are created and loved by God, and so have the imprint of God’s glory in us, and the inheritance of doing our Father’s will, as led by God’s beloved Jesus Christ. Yet we are deeply flawed, with a tendency towards attempting to claim dominance over our lives, which turns us away from God, the source of life and righteousness. Like ancient myths of Icarus and Venus/Lucifer, we are powerful enough to think we can come too close to God (or the sun), and suffer grave consequences for striving to replace God with ourselves.
However, if we are clear about our role as servants of God, gifted and entrusted by God to do God’s mighty works, then we can do great things, as God works through us. As agents of God, we can rebuild the ruins of our lives, we can raise up our families and communities, we can facilitate reconciliation and care for those trapped in poverty and despair. But when we confuse these God-directed miracles for our own, we do great damage, not only to ourselves and as an offense to God, but to those who are misled to think it’s us, and not God, who are to be trusted.
Unfortunately we have a tendency to repeat this mistake in our own churches. We put too much emphasis on the pastor as having the power of God’s grace in his or her own person—or we attribute every bad thing that has happened in the church to the failure of the pastor. We tend to reduce individuals to saints or sinners, when in fact we are both: we are ALL sinners, yet because Christ has claimed and saved us, we are saints, not for what we do or what we’ve earned, but simply because we acknowledge that we are loved by God, and we try to love God and God’s children.
So as we enter into the season of Lent, let us be clear-eyed in our self-examination, and see that we—and our siblings—are both blessed and empowered to do the work of the Kingdom, yet imperfect and helpless to do good without the guidance and Spirit of our Lord. Let us be humble enough to always turn to God for direction, and humble enough to do what God tells us, even if it seems more than we can safely do on our own.