Homily for Septuagesima
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. St. Paul writes for us today: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” And also, Christ our Lord says in the gospel according to St. Luke, the fourteenth chapter: “And whoever does not bear his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.”
Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, this morning in the church calendar we enter into what is called Shrovetide, the pre-Lenten season that begins today and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day right before Ash Wednesday. The word “shrove” is the simple past tense of an older English verb “shrive,” which means to confess one’s sins and receive forgiveness. In the historic church year, this pre-Lenten season of Shrovetide or “shriving-time,” or in laymen’s terms, “confession-time,” was meant as a period of preparation and repentance prior to the more deliberate and concentrated properly penitential season of Lent itself. Put otherwise, this mini-season of sorts is a short pre-Lenten preparation for Lent – which is itself a preparation for Holy Week, right? Hence its name of “Pre-Lent.” And this Sunday has traditionally been called Septuagesima Sunday, the Latin word for the “70th” day.
We are nine weeks out from Easter Sunday, roughly seventy days through the first week of Easter, but even here and now, in this season, on this Septuagesima Sunday, our preparation and repentance should already be underway. We should not wait until Lent, but we should instead begin to prepare ourselves ahead of time. And so our epistle lesson from St. Paul today is all about discipline and spiritual preparation.
Now the word “discipline” ultimately means “to instruct.” That’s what the word means on its most basic level. And I don’t know if you have ever noticed this, but the world “discipline” is awfully close to the word “disciple.” They share the same Latin root and both words refer to instruction (or discipline) and one who is instructed (or the disciple). So a disciple is one who is disciplined – or one who is instructed. In our Christian context, a disciple refers to a person instructed by Jesus. But St. Paul also tells us that we are to discipline ourselves as well, we are to instruct ourselves, we are to teach our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls to conform to the lessons we have received from Christ our Lord. We instruct ourselves as He has instructed us. And as Jesus Himself reminds us in Luke’s gospel, we do this by taking up our crosses and following Him. If we do not bear our crosses for His name’s sake, we cannot call ourselves His disciples. It’s that simple. If we do not discipline ourselves, we are no disciples of Christ. And again, as Paul implies, if we do not instruct and discipline our bodies and souls through the bearing of crosses, then we run this race of life aimlessly and we are no better off than a boxer who punches foolishly at the air.
But what does all this mean though? What does it mean to discipline ourselves in a spiritual way? What does it mean to take up our crosses and bear them for our Lord’s sake – and to follow Him?
Well, the renowned nineteenth century Anglican-turned-Roman-Catholic-cardinal, John Henry Newman, once put it this way: in a sermon on Romans thirteen, he said: “To take up the cross of Christ is no great action done once for all; rather it consists in the continual practice of small duties which are often distasteful to us.” I wouldn’t normally quote a Roman cardinal from an evangelical pulpit, but I think Newman really gets this right and he is as concise as one can be here.
Taking up your cross is not always a big dramatic thing you do every now and again. It is not solely about those momentous but few occasions in life for Christian bravery and tenacity. That is part of it, sure. Whenever you are called to stand up for the faith under pressure or persecution in a suspenseful or extraordinary way, that is something crucial and it is a significant cross to bear. But really, bearing crosses and discipleship and the art of disciplining oneself is a daily endeavor. And most of the time, it entails small efforts, little things, regular faithful habits and even humdrum religious routines – things some of us sometimes miss. We are all called to bear the crosses of major sufferings, of great losses and sorrows, of life-changing trials and tribulations, and of chances for perseverance amid persecution. However, what truly prepares us for dealing with those more consequential crosses, those more dramatic ordeals this life occasionally throws our way, what prepares us are the smaller, more mundane, everyday crosses that are far less exciting but are nevertheless absolutely foundational for a healthy faith.
So what are our everyday crosses? What are the things in our lives that we must endure and habitually work on for the sake of disciplining our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls, and in order to strengthen our spiritual determination, so to speak?
What are those “distasteful” things Newman mentions that, in time, actually toughen us up and fortify our faith? In short, what are the little things in our lives that build up our endurance day by day, so that we may run this race of the Christian life and finish it and win the prize of that imperishable wreath, as Paul says? Well, now is the time to think this through, friends. We should not wait until another Lent gets here. That’s what this season of pre-Lent is really all about. Don’t show up boxing the air this Ash Wednesday. And please don’t find yourself aimlessly dragging your feet in here come Holy Week without having already considered these necessary things. How can we bear these crosses and truly be called disciples of Christ if we don’t even remember what exactly they are and what they look like in our everyday lives?
Now to be sure, all our crosses are somewhat different. The struggles you have are not necessarily mine. The ways you may need to discipline yourself may not be my own. Having said that though, as your shepherd, it is my duty to point you in the right direction. And the truth is, while we all face various trials and unique burdens and crosses, we all also suffer from the same sinful nature. At the end of the day, many of our challenges are quite universal. And in my experience as a sinner for thirty-four years now—regrettably, I’ve got three and a half decades of sinning under my belt—so in my lengthy experience I’ve managed to boil down most of our spiritual difficulties into two primary camps – or into two categories dealing with what seem to be the most common obstacles we face: that of laziness and fear. And it's interesting, you know, because these fit rather nicely with Paul’s athletic imagery in our epistle lesson. What keeps us from working on our physical endurance, for instance? What keeps us from the gym? Well, usually it’s laziness and a little bit of fear. Laziness is straightforward enough. But fear is generally more subtle. Often it is the fear of failure or the fear of what others may think of us –fear of the world’s judgment. And this is much the same when it comes to our Christian faith. But I’ll come back to fear in just a moment.
For now, though, if you want to discipline your body, your heart and mind, your soul, your whole being, if you want to bear those daily crosses to build up the strength of your faith, the first thing you have to do is overcome your own profound laziness – a burden we all surely bear, clergymen very much included here. To make this point, do me a favor: look around for a second. Don’t get me wrong now, I am very proud of our worship attendance at Bethlehem. But I promise you, in the early days of this church, in the previous century, these pews were probably far fuller on a weekly basis. Now unfortunately, the case is much worse in many if not most LCMS congregations. We are for sure blessed here in Johnson City. But it is evident in our area as well. What does laziness in faith look like? Well the most glaring example is that of missing church.
A person can only go about three days without drinking some form of water before their body starts to fail them. The average person can go maybe a month or more without food before they die. But we don’t ordinarily have to find that out for ourselves because, thanks be to God and His providence, we have the opportunity to quench our thirst and fill our bellies just about whenever we wish. When we get thirsty, we drink. When we experience hunger, we eat. But do we even think twice when we find ourselves contemplating a good solid excuse to sleep in on Sunday morning and miss church on occasion?
Do we even feel guilty for our periodic absence? From the altar here is weekly distributed the very medicine of immortality. This medicine, the Holy Supper, saves the soul eternally. And yet, many would not really fret over skipping a Sunday and missing this precious meal. Our bodies will age and fall apart and eventually decay in the ground below. But we all nonetheless go out of our way to take care of them daily – as we should. Why not do the same for your soul then? For the imperishable? For the sake of that glorified body you will someday receive in the life to come? All that to say, if you want to start disciplining yourself, don’t make any more excuses. If you believe God dwells here in body and blood, as we preach, teach, and confess, if you really and truly believe this with all your heart, you will find a way to be here or in a sanctuary somewhere every single Sunday. So start there. Teach your body to conform to what you already know to be true in your heart. Come to church and commune.
Of course, that’s only one day a week. We also need to combat our laziness on a daily basis. But the same logic applies here. You eat and drink every day, I assume? You sleep nightly? You take care of your body day after day? Then do the same for your soul. Read the Bible every single day. Put your phone down. The smart phone is arguably the most successful trick the devil has ever pulled on us. And sadly, it so often works. I know from experience. Which, frankly, makes it demonic. So put it down and pick up a Bible. My hope is that all of you in this room have read the entire Word of God at least once in your lives. It should be something you read through much more often than that, honestly. But let’s say you haven’t even done that yet. Don’t worry though, the race is still on. It’s not too late.
Pick up the Bible and read it every day of your life. That is literally a physical cross you can take up with your hands.
Look, crosses are not always things that harm us. They are not always dreadful and painful things. Sometimes they are just things that we find, well, not always the most fun and amusing, pleasurable and entertaining. Or as Newman suggested, maybe our sinful nature finds these things somewhat distasteful. Maybe we even find reading the Bible difficult or, let’s be candid here, a little boring sometimes – at least compared to the other entertainments we Americans are so accustomed to. Leviticus might not always measure up to Netflix or the football game or whatever else. But that’s just the old sinful Adam in you, the lazy Adam, rearing his ugly head. No surprise there. He’s always going to be around this side of heaven. Therefore, the New Adam in you, the baptized believer in you, Christ in you, you’ve got to let that New Man become stronger and more resilient, so that he might daily overpower the old.
Get to it then. If our faith isn’t getting stronger every day, then our sinful nature certainly is. Don’t let the old overcome the new that Christ has purchased and given to you. Bear that cross, take it up, literally take up the Bible several times a day, open it up, and read it. Over time, it will change your life. Over time, it will make you spiritually tougher. If there is one thing you can do to ensure that imperishable prized wreath be placed on your head at the finish line on the Last Day, it’s reading God’s Word. Not once a week, but every day. The only way to win a victory over laziness is through constant exercise. And while you’re at it, sing a hymn or a doxology every day, too.
As the psalmist writes: “Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless His name; proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.” From day to day, brothers and sisters, sing. You should be singing good Lutheran hymns – and out loud. That’s what we Christians, we true evangelicals, do, morning and night.
And here's another good habit to pick up if you’re struggling with spiritual laziness: think about your sins daily. Take time out of your busy schedule to sit in peace and quiet, pick up the Ten Commandments or the Small Catechism, and think through the ways you have failed in your vocations, that you have hurt your loved ones, that you have neglected to help your neighbor, the ways you have disobeyed your God and lacked trust in Him. It may not be comfortable, you may well find it distasteful, but it is necessary. If you wait until you get here on Sunday morning to do this, you have already missed the point and even the value of forgiveness. Athletes don’t wait until the game or the contest starts to practice their skill. It is a daily thing. Repentance and confession are no different. And if you need encouragement in this, private confession and absolution is an excellent place to turn. If we have to verbalize our sins out loud to another human being, as Holy Scripture says we must, in James chapter five, then that will cause us to think through our sins more intentionally and frequently. In other words, it will hold us accountable and help us combat our own inclination toward laziness. By all means, you don’t have to confess your sins to me – but do confess them to another Christian somewhere. God very much tells us to do so. So if you aren’t doing that yet, what better time to start than in this season, in Shrovetide, in the pre-Lenten season of repentance and confession.
But what about our fear though, right? Laziness is not the sole problem – fear further weakens our faith. Well, we all pretty much fear the same thing here. We want to be as faithful as we can, but we also want to be well-respected by the world. We don’t want to rock the boat too much. We don’t want to make our lives any more difficult than they are already are. But listen, nobody has ever excelled at anything by doing the bare minimum. Sometimes you have to speak truth to a world that straight up doesn’t want to hear it. And sometimes you have to rock the boat a little bit – or maybe a lot.
What does this look like in practice though? Obviously, if you are ever called to speak the truth of the Gospel publicly, you should never shrink from that opportunity, no matter the ramifications for you or your reputation. That goes without saying. However, those occasions are often few and far between, for now, anyhow. But in preparation for those big moments of Christian confidence like that, you can work on overcoming your fear and hesitance in smaller, more incremental, daily ways. Try this: as I suggested last Sunday, tell someone about Jesus every day. Make it a goal – make it a habit. Exit your comfort zone. I am sure we all have people we love who are distant from the church. Don’t give up on them. Find subtle ways to remind them that that God loves them. And even strangers. Small talk can just as well be an opportunity for witness. Maybe they won’t hear you. Maybe they’ll think you’re a weird Jesus freak. So what? Who cares? You are doing it for the good of their soul. And even if it gets nowhere, maybe you’ve planted a seed – who knows? Or if nothing else, you’ve made a daily effort to overcome your own spiritual fear.
If nothing else at all, you’ve grown a little bit stronger yourself. And that’s always worth the effort and never in vain.
Dear faithful, in a lot of ways, this race of life is long. It requires great endurance. And sometimes we aren’t just running, we are fighting. We are boxing the devil, the world, our own sinful nature. And it can be a long, drawn-out fight. But at the same time though, life is pretty short. It goes by with the blink of an eye. I remember the day my eldest daughter was born like it was yesterday. It feels like it was yesterday. Yet now she walks and talks, she has ideas of her own, she even tells me she is proud of me. Before long, she’ll be all grown up. It’ll happen in no time. However much I wish it weren’t true, life is terribly short. Therefore, enjoy it. Enjoy what God has given you. Cherish it, never let this gift of life pass you by. So in the very same breath, don’t take any of it for granted. Especially when it comes to your faith.
Our Christian faith is a muscle that requires regular exercise – and the days are short, and as the end draws near, they are getting shorter. To be certain, we do not save ourselves. We are saved by grace through faith alone – all freely given by God the Father, purchased through the Son’s blood on that holy cross and made certain through His horrible descent into hell and then His resurrected flesh, and this faith is worked in us by the power of the Holy Spirit alone. Having said that though… when we are graciously given a good gift, we don’t let dust settle on it, now do we? We don’t mistreat it. We don’t ignore it or take it for granted.
Faith is a gift – but it is a gift that is alive; and being a living thing, it demands sustenance – it requires nourishment – it needs attention and exercise. And that is on us – that is our responsibility, our duty. So don’t neglect or misuse the free gift of saving faith God has lovingly given you. For if you do, it will atrophy and eventually die. Instead, take care of it. Strengthen it, day by day – by disciplining yourself. And continue to come here to this place, where you are strengthened by our Lord Jesus Himself.
Come to church, read the Bible every day, sing, think on your sins as often as you can, and share the Gospel. That’s how you continue to discipline your body, your heart and mind, your soul. And if and when we do these things, we are truly worthy of being called our Lord’s disciples – which is to say, we are worthy of being called Christians. And all who have been made worthy of Christ through His hand alone are invited to partake of His goodness and mercy, His all-encompassing forgiveness, in the holy meal of this altar. That is why we are here, after all: to be made stronger, to be fortified, to be reinforced, bolstered, shored up, to be prepared, for Lent, for Holy Week, for Easter, for every day of the Christian life – for the long race toward the goal of life without end. So to all who have been made worthy this morning, take a short break from the contest, take a moment from the fight, just for now, take a breather and come here and kneel, to briefly rest, and to be fed with your Lord’s true body and blood. If there is one thing you absolutely need in order to fight the good fight, to finish the race, to keep the faith, it’s what is right here at this rail. And if what you need for life without end is right here, then what you need most of all in this earthly life is to a l w a y s be here. In the holy name of our Lord Jesus. Amen.