Lent is a curious season. 40 days of purple. Somber and serious. Sackcloth and ashes. Prayer and penitence. It seems so out of place in our culture of consumption and comfort. Contrition cuts against the grain of self-esteem and our expectations that every day will be sunny and happy. Lent is like a cold shower in a world of warm, fuzzy religion. A time to stand before the mirror of God’s law and face our sin and death squarely as men and women redeemed by Jesus.
In the OT reading for this evening, the prophet Joel urges us to rend our hearts and turn to the Lord. You may wear sackcloth, if you wish. You may heap ashes on your head, if that’s your desire. But a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise. It’s heartbreaking – what we have done to others, to ourselves, to God. And what others have done to us. And if it doesn’t break our hearts, that’s simply further evidence of how hardened our hearts have become, calloused by comfortable religions, sedated by syrupy spiritualities.
“Return to the Lord,” the prophet says. Turn to Him, for He has already turned to you. He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Whenever we confess our sins, God is always faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We know the price paid for our redemption: “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death.” Turn to the Lord with your sin, your broken lives, your death. He’s the One to turn you.
He made Jesus, His sinless Son, to be sin for us. Your sin and mine. Jesus on the cross is the adulterer, the murderer, the thief, the liar, the abortionist, the homosexual, the unfaithful spouse, the disobedient child, the fallen Christian, the loser and failure. He became our sin. He embodied our death in His body, so that we, in Him, might become the righteousness of God. God has reconciled the world to Himself in the death of Jesus.
This is why we speak so much about sin. Not so we can embark on some kind of spiritual self-improvement program. We know such efforts are doomed from the start. We speak of our sin so that we might ever more deeply speak of Jesus, the Savior of sinners, who for the joy set before Him, the joy of saving all of humanity from sin and death, endured the cross, scorning its shame (Heb. 12:2). Yes, we are ashamed of our sin. And rightly so. It’s embarrassing how we behave, especially we who call ourselves Christians. But the shame of Jesus is greater than our shame. He bore our shame to death on the cross, covering us with His robe, cleansing our soiled lives with His blood. We are examples to the world of how live clothed with Christ who covers our shame.
Lent is a time to clean up our house of yeast of malice and insincerity, of all the religions that rob us of the joy of our salvation. Jesus speaks of the three traditional “works of righteousness,” what the Jewish people still call today “mitzvoth’ – almsgiving, fasting, prayer. These are also the traditional pieties of Lent, though we ought to be doing them all the time. Doing these “works of righteousness” will not make us righteous; we are already that in Jesus. They are what the righteous do, and Jesus presumes that His justified disciples will do them too. Only He cautions against doing them in order to be seen and praised by men.
When you give to the poor, Jesus says, and He assumes that His disciples will be generous toward the poor, sound no trumpet. Don’t even let your left hand (or your tax accountant) know what your right hand is doing. Don’t give with one eye on the books and one ear cocked for the applause. Give out of the abundance of God’s grace, en crypto, cryptically, under cover, the way God works. Almsgiving is the antidote to the religion of money with its endless creeds and commandments. The love of money is the root of all manner of evil, Paul says. And the only way to hold your money is with a dead hand, giving freely and receiving with thanksgiving. Use this time of Lent to give more freely, especially to the poor. Loosen your grip, hold your money with a dead grip instead of a death grip, and you will enjoy the gift of daily bread that much more.
When you pray, Jesus says, and He assumes that His disciples will pray, don’t make a big deal of it, in the marketplace, on the street corner, in the MacDonalds, or even in church. And don’t deal with God as though He were some kind of vending machine into which we plug the right combination of prayer and praise to get a blessing on demand. Instead, come as dear children coming to the dear Father and say, “Our Father.” Papa. Talk to God.
Prayer is the antidote to the religion of cause and effect, by which we imagine that we can change the course of things by making a big enough noise. Prayer is not about getting stuff out of God or parading our piety around for the neighbors to ogle at. Prayer is intimate conversation between the creature and the Creator. Family talk. Baby talk. Pillow talk. Honest talk between you and the God who loved you to death in the death of His Son.
When you fast, Jesus says, and He assumes that His disciples will fast, don’t walk around with long, unwashed faces and dirty hair. Instead, wash your face, comb your hair, and let your hunger be between you and God. Don’t fast religiously, fast unreligiously. Out of non-necessity. A discipline of our undisciplined appetites.
Because we lost the sense of fast, we’ve lost the joy of the feast. It’s all fast food now. How sad our tables have become: styrofoam containers, plastic forks, paper cups. And in place of a healthy, disciplined fast, we have the disorder of dieting, where we no longer enjoy the gift of daily bread without confessing our fat grams and calorie counts and feeling guilty over that piece of chocolate cake. Jesus didn’t hang on a cross for all of this.
Fasting, in its healthy, non-religious form, is a discipline of the appetite. A reminder that we do not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from God’s mouth. Fasting is not a deal cut with God, but a sharpening of our senses, an embrace of our mortality and even our death. It’s a celebration of our freedom. We are not slaves but free men and women in Christ. And we are as free to put down the piece of bread or that glass of wine as we are to take it up. “For freedom Christ has set you free” (Gal 5:1), let no one or nothing enslave you, including food and drink.
While it may sound strange, I will say it anyway. Enjoy this season of Lent. Savor the opportunity to give more of yourself away to others in need. Relish the discipline of your appetites. Enjoy a greater time for prayer and the Word of God. It is truly a joy to be free in Christ, and to experience the freedom of those who are dead and no longer live to themselves, whose lives are hidden safely in Jesus.
And when your Lenten fast is ended, may you come to a renewed joy of the Paschal Feast that is already and always yours in Jesus.