A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent
But for all the glories of this astonishing exhibition, the piece that has captivated my imagination in the days since my visit is a simple marble slab from northern Italy, a fragment of an early Christian tombstone that was carved around 400 A.D. The gleaming white stone features a sketch of a young girl in the garden of Paradise. She stands naked in a tub as a river of living water flows down upon her from a heavenly orb. Within this orb we glimpse the unmistakable form of a descending dove, the Holy Spirit coming down from heaven in the midst of a starry host. To the girl’s right stands the haloed figure of Christ with His hand raised in blessing, while to her left a shepherd—most likely her bishop—lays hands upon her head. And carved around the scene we find a Latin inscription: “For an innocent spirit, whom the Lord elected, who rests in peace, a believer, on the tenth day before the calends of September.” Unfortunately, the girl’s name does not survive on the fragment we possess today. But her family’s confident hope that our young sister now rests in the arms of our Lord still echoes across sixteen centuries. It seemed as if the modern museum fell away from me as I peered at this flat white stone in the Plexiglas case. For a moment I was at a graveside in ancient Italy. I could almost hear their sobs and their prayers as they commended their little one into Christ’s care.
And as I stood before that ancient Christian tombstone the words of our Gospel lesson this morning came to mind: “’Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Undoubtedly the early Christian family that placed this stone over the grave of their loved one 1600 years ago knew this passage well, and the image reflects it. For the water of baptism pouring down upon the young girl in that drawing looks as if it has become a virtual highway leading into the Kingdom of God. And the Holy Spirit who descended upon her with that Living Water has brought this daughter of Eve back to the Garden where she will now walk and talk with her Lord, the Christ who greets her in blessing even as the sacrament is performed.
You will seldom see a more powerful testimony to the power of holy Baptism than this ancient Christian memorial. Yet the inscription proves the faithful family that placed the grave marker did not consider baptism a kind of magical portal into heaven. Instead, they emphasized that the young girl they entrusted to Christ’s arms was a believer. God elected her for eternal life and she had responded to His call with faith.
From the beginning God has chosen His people for special relationship with Him, calling them to leave behind their old lives and trust in His gracious care. Abram heard that call while living in Mesopotamia two thousand years before in the Incarnation of our Savior. And Abram left his home and his family and travelled to Canaan in response to that divine call and the promise that accompanied it: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you … and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." And as Saint Paul points out today, Abram—now renamed Abraham by his Lord--" believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Abraham stepped out in faith, trusting in the God who called him to a new life and who promised that the world would be blessed by Abraham’s “offspring.” This blessing from God, and the righteousness that was reckoned to “the father of many” on account of his faith, were purely the gracious gift of a loving God, unearned and unmerited. Abraham had been “elected” by God to receive them, and by faith they had become his own.
Of course, in the fullness of time the one, true God fulfilled the grandest of His promises to Abraham. The Father of all things sent His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that by the divine Offspring of a daughter of Abraham all the nations of the earth may in truth “bless themselves” through faith in His Name. And the blessing the world receives through faith in Christ is nothing less than eternal life in “the presence of the God in whom [Abraham] believed, [the God] who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The young fourth-century Christian girl whose tombstone sits today in the Kimbell Museum now truly rests in the peace that passes all understanding, a joyful recipient of the Father’s gracious election and heir to eternal life with her Savior, born anew by the Holy Spirit and the Living Water come down from heaven, washed in the Blood of the Lamb and blessed by the hand that hurls the worlds. And the same inheritance and blessing awaits each one of us if we place our trust in the One who came “into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
Indeed, the judgment we must face begins within ourselves. Every day you and I are confronted by the same questions the apostles pondered at Caesarea Philippi and Pontius Pilate considered from his judgment seat, “Who to do you say that I am?”… “Truth, what is truth?” It is our own hearts and souls and minds that will judge us by our response. The Answer to those questions, of course, stands beside us this day, just as He did at the side of our young sister in the faith so long ago. Christ extends his nail-scarred hands to us in blessing, offering us rebirth through the power of the Spirit, slaking our thirsts with the Living Water we first tasted in Holy Baptism, if we will only repent and return to Him. The One who was lifted up on the cross to draw all men to His salvation will sustain us with His own precious Body and Blood, if we but turn from our sin and take hold of Him by faith. New and unending life in Christ is a gift God freely offers us if only our hearts and minds will receive it. He has come to give Life to the dead, if we will but choose to believe and live. Then God’s saving grace will transform our hearts of stone into wellsprings of divine Life and Love, welling up in us to eternal life and overflowing as a blessing to all those around us. “Let thy steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in thee.” Amen.