Lent 4: Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15 1-3, 11b-32
This week there are two sets of reading to choose from, Lent 4 or Mothering Sunday. Those wishing to "Green up" their Mothering Sunday Service might find it appropriate to include thanksgivings and reflections on "Mother Earth" alongside "Mother Church" and "Mothers", but I have chosen to reflect on the Lent 4 readings.
"Past put behind us, for the future take us, Lord of our Lives, to live for Christ Alone." These words from Timothy Dudley Smith's hymn Lord for the Years, seem to sum up the theme of this Sunday's readings. In the Old Testament reading from Joshua, the Israelites are putting behind them their forty years of wandering in the wilderness as they cross into the promised land, where a different future beckons. This is marked by the cessation of the miraculous manna which sustained them in the desert and they turn now to the providence of the land which God has given them. Gone too, is the disgrace and humilitation of the land of Egypt, where God's people were enslaved and ridiculed, the shame of being "uncircumcised" and the doubts of the desert, as they enter the land of God's promises, confident that they are His people and He is their God.
For the Psalmist, what is being "put behind" is guilt, remorse and regret, as after repentence and confession, the assurance of sin forgiven is received.The relief and joy of the Psalmist are tangible as he looks forward to a life of renewed faith and trust in God. This is echoed and amplified in the Gospel for today, the Prodigal Son, where the son's poor choices and selfishness are put behind him as he is reconciled with the father he rejected. His repentence results in the surprising and undignified spectacle of his estranged Father, running to meet him and embracing him long before he gets the chance to utter his apology. Only the recriminations of the older brother, put a dampner on the joyous celebrations but one imagines a glorious future ahead for the reunited family.
The theme of reconciliation is writ large in the extract from Second Corinthians which declares "in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." It is worth noting that this is not the reconciliation of individuals or even the human race, but the entire universe. Is it worth pondering what the reconciliation of the cosmos might look like? All of this is set within the profound message of hope that is Christ's new creation, where all that is corrupt and sinful passes away and everything becomes new. Definitely a case of "past put behind us, for the future take us.
Traditionally the fourth Sunday of Lent, as well as being Mothering Sunday, is Laetare Sunday, which means Sunday of rejoicing; a change of pace in the middle of Lent when the mood shifts from somber penitence to joyful hope. It is a welcome change of focus which reminds us that self examination and repentence are not ends in themselves, but the vehicle of good change, of fresh starts, of drawing nearer to God and serving his purposes better. Whatever short term discomfort we may endure is more than rewarded by the results.
Often in our discussion of the environment we use the stick rather than the carrot, rightly pointing out that if humanity doesn't change its ways then there will be dire consequences, but this approach can lead to negativity and loss of hope. Today's readings stand as a corrective to this, reminding us that no situation is irredeemable, and that all things can be made new, that those estranged can be reconciled and the future need not be defined by the past.
There can be no doubt that our past attitudes toward the world which sustains us have been careless and exploitative. We might even go so far as to suggest that they have resulted in an estrangement between the natural world and humanity, but once we have realised this and commited to change, there is little to be gained from looking backwards, apportioning blame and wishing "what if". Instead we must look forward, commiting ourselves to work for reconciliation between God and people, people and people and people and Earth itself.