Call to Worship:  Psalm 51:  10 – 17

Scripture:  Joel 2:  12 – 14

By Bobbie Hunt

On Tuesday, our church is serving pancakes for supper for those who are interested because the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is traditionally known as “Shrove” Tuesday.  Pancakes represent the richer, fatty foods that may be excluded in our diets once the ritual fasting of the Lenten season begins on the next day.  While the fasting tradition came out of the Roman Catholic traditions, there is a rich history of observing Lenten fasting in the Protestant churches coming out of the reformation.  But there are also protestant churches that reject the Lenten fast today. 

The truth is, we Protestants really don’t know what to do with lent. Is it just a religious relic from a distant past, something to learn about and perhaps admire, but that is no longer relevant?  Is lent simply the official reason for having Mardi Gras?  The origin of Lent suggests a different emphasis. It developed as a time of preparation for Easter, yes – but also as a time for new converts to the Christian faith to prepare for their FIRST Easter celebration.  In other words, originally it was a kind of boot camp or spring training,  pre-season for the main event that was to follow.  Lent was a time to reflect and prepare for facing the challenges of daily living as a Christian.  But, the Reformation-era critique of Lent as it was observed in Medieval Europe was much needed.  Those Lenten observations were enforced as church law; the Lenten fast was a “rule” and as such for many the spiritual benefits became rote practice, a meaningless ritual.  And, for others by not observing the rule to fast and to avoid meat on Fridays made them believe they were committing a sin. The solution, however, is not to cast aside Lent entirely, but to reform our practices so that they align with Scripture.   Jesus told his followers not to fast while he, the bridegroom, was present, but that they should (fast) after he departed.  This is found in Matthew 9:15.   Jesus further said to his disciples in Matthew 16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  So Jesus expected that his followers would fast.      Surely, the spiritual refreshment that can be found in lenten spiritual preparations is a gift to all Christians, and good medicine for the modern church. 

According to scripture, after being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the Judaean Desert.  During this time, Satan appeared to Jesus to tempt him. Jesus refused each temptation.  In the wilderness Jesus faced down temptation. In the wilderness Jesus examined his own faith and his own life. In the wilderness Jesus prepared himself for what was to come.  Jesus prepared for life in the will of His Father. I f you love Jesus Christ, cherish His gospel, and live under the teachings of the Bible, you should consider participating in daily or regular Lenten observance.

As tradition from the time of the Apostles, fasting has been forbidden on Sundays because every Sunday celebrates Christ resurrection.  The 40 days representing Jesus’ time in the wilderness represents a time of preparation as the number 40 does in other scripture.  This time prepared Jesus for enduring the events surrounding and during His crucifixion.   It prepared Jesus to endure and in that endurance give glory to His Father.

This leads us to question of what do we as individuals do about Lent?    We are not commanded to fast, but from the verses in Matthew rooted in Jewish tradition, there is the expectation that we will fast.  Fasting in its most literal meaning is to abstain from food and or drink, or certain food or drink.  Jesus “retreated” to the wilderness for this time of preparation.  It was to spend time praying and connecting with His Father.   He retreated to eliminate distractions and the voices and connections with people.   Fasting and feasting were part of the “architecture of time,” in which Jesus participated as an observant Jew.  Our practice of this rhythm of devotion each year can have a cumulative impact. Each time we latch ourselves to Christ during Lent,  he helps us grow in maturity and grace that impacts the months to follow.  Many Christians choose to keep or modify their Lenten disciplines for the rest of the year when they have established helpful spiritual routines.  Finally, all Christians are welcome to exercise the disciplines they learned in Lent at any time. In the same way that every Sunday is recognized as a “little Easter,” many Christians celebrate every Friday as a “little Lent” by fasting in remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death.  Other churches invite their members to fast in January as a way to devote the coming  year to God.  Setting time aside for certain practices allows us to focus more intently on God and to develop habits that strengthen our relationship with the Trinity.

The most common Lenten discipline is the food fast, but there are other ways to spiritually discipline ourselves so that whatever we choose to do puts our focus on building up our spiritual maturity so that we are able to rebuff the temptations that Satan puts in front of us and prepares us to face the realities of life and the trials we will face in the coming year.    Spending time alone, being still with God, should be the priority.   If you already practice this regularly you should increase the time during Lent.  You should include prayer and scripture reading.  But there is benefit to an element of denial in “giving up” something.  The point being that you are in training to resist the temptations of Satan while being built up in spiritual maturity by the work of the Holy Spirit. 

Some things people fast or abstain from aside from food or a particular food, are television shows, time on the internet or spent gaming,  recreational shopping, a cell phone attached to you at all times……this list is endless and personal to each of us.  It is imperative to be aware that a “giving up” kind of spiritual discipline can easily become counter-productive and even dangerous.  BECAUSE, when we have achieved a sense of control over this discipline, we can assign the credit to ourselves.  We can become prideful over what we have achieved and forget that its purpose is to strengthen our relationship with Christ and that the exercise is to His glory, not our own.  And, that when properly done, Christ is the source of the strength that produced the result.  Heightened devotion is fruitful for a season, but cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Church calendar offers a sustainable rhythm of which Lent is a part, and the fasting of Lent gives way to the feasting of Easter. Fasting and feasting are interconnected disciplines that teach us to love the King and His coming kingdom. In Lent, we learn to confess our sins, practice self-denial, process self-examination, and grow in servanthood and Christ-like humility.  In Easter, we learn to rejoice, exult, and feast in Christ’s victory.

In His retreat, Jesus engaged in spiritual disciplines. He fasted, he prayed, he withdrew from daily obligations and engaged in deep soul searching.  Jesus examined his life up to that point, where he had been, where he was now, and where he was going. He took stock of his life.  And it is the “taking stock” of our lives which is the heart and soul of Lenten spiritual disciplines for us. What we “give up” for lent is not the point.  It is not essential that we choose one of the traditional spiritual disciplines of fasting or prayer or study. Each of these spiritual disciplines are valuable tools. But what is important is that lent invites us to a time of spiritual examination.  A complete taking stock of our lives……and of our spiritual lives.

What is more important than the practices we take on is the heart attitude behind them. If there’s anything we should give up this time of year, it’s our sense of superiority either to those outside the church or those inside the church who do things differently than we do.   My friend, the cross of Christ levels us all.

And Lent is the time to prepare ourselves for life with God, in the present, in the future, and ultimately…forever