Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century March 17, 1982, p. 292. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
In the midst of our trivial moralizing, our scolding, supererogation, and scrambling for a few penitential brownie points, John reminds us of why we’re here. We are on the way of the cross not because of what we have done or left undone but because of what God has done.
For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the at the world might be saved through him. [John 3:17].
Go ahead admit it, preacher. You love it. Lent is your favorite season of the church year. Children love Christmas, missionaries love Epiphany, charismatics dote on Pentecost — but for preachers, nothing beats Lent. Here is the homiletical season par excellence, six weeks when we are given license to do what we would do all year if we could: breast-beating, belittling, berating. It’s a time of sackcloth and ashes, the long fast, self-denial, focus upon sin and its consequences. Every preacher gets to play the prophet at Lent.
And the beautiful part is, the people love it. “You are the overaggressive ones whose culpability made the cross inevitable,” we preach. “All like sheep have gone astray,” we cry, and the people in unison say, “You really stepped on our toes today, preacher.” What a wonderful Lenten litany.
Recently at a worship workshop I noted that the church traditionally forbade kneeling and prayers of confession during celebrative periods like Easter. The assembled clergy were shocked. “Surely you’re not implying that Easter or Christmas takes sin away,” said one. “Confession should begin every Sunday service,” said another. After all, what is Sunday for if not to get those poor fools on their knees? Smoking, drinking, adultery, the arms race, sexism, racism — the list of Lenten preaching possibilities is limitless.
On the fourth Sunday of Lent, as the church makes its way on bloody and bruised knees toward the cross, there is a pause in this procession of preachers and their willing flagellants. This is “mid-Lent,” or “refreshment Sunday,” a respite from the rigors of penitence. Since the Middle Ages, this Sunday was a time for fruitcakes and refreshment, a break in the Lenten fast. In the gloomy way toward the Passion, the Gospel for this Sunday bids us pause long enough to put the cross in proper context:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, . . . For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him [John 3:16-17].
God loved the world, loved so much that he gave. Not to condemn but to save, John says. Not to condemn.
In the midst of our trivial moralizing, our scolding, supererogation, and scrambling for a few penitential brownie points, John reminds us of why we’re here. We are on the way of the cross not because of what we have done or left undone but because of what God has done. The cross is not simply one more piece of damaging evidence that seals shut the case against guilty humanity.
The goriest work of human sin gets sidetracked into glorious divine redemption. The prophet is sent not to scold but to save. It was out of love that he came among us and stood beside us and chided us and died with us, for us, and saved us. Love.
Oh yes, says the church at mid-Lent. Yes. Now we remember. It was for this that we began the journey. It was not for sackcloth and ashes, whips, the sacrifice of a before-dinner martini and empty stomachs that we are here. It was love that put us in this parade. We kneel not as miserable worms but as those brought to their knees by sheer wonder at the gift. It was not to condemn us that our Lord bid us bear his cross, but to save us. We are not here as the lost but as the found.
The cross is heavy and clouds gather, and we shall have more days for honesty, more Sundays to examine our lives again and pray for the courage to be truthful about all, the ways in which we betray so great a love. Lent is only half over; there is still more repenting to be done. But as we turn our steps again in the direction of the upward climb toward Calvary, let us take these words with us, no matter what the preacher says: it was not for condemnation that he was sent to us, but for love. He beckons us on, not to condemn but to save.