The Season of Lent. I was not raised in a family that practiced a lot of the traditions of the liturgical year. I never heard of the Lectionary until I started attending a Presbyterian Church during college. Along with not hearing of the lectionary, I never heard the word Advent, nor Lent, and therein Ash Wednesday until I began my journey in the “Traditional Church.” As a result, I had to struggle to find the meaning of these traditions.
So, here I am, 45 years into this journey into the practice of the Christian tradition called Lent. This and the other traditions I have mentioned have existed for centuries as tools to assist followers of Jesus in remembering the faith they cherish, living the Christian path they are to walk, and growing deeper in a relationship with the Living God through his son and our Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This particular tradition is designed to help us remember the preparation God uses to get us ready for doing the work of the Lord. Lent reminds us of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by Satan…the Adversary. Sometimes we forget that Jesus had just come from a tremendous spiritual high. John had baptized him and as he was coming out of the water the voice of God proclaimed from heaven, “You are my son whom I love. With you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). It was from this high (he was full of the Spirit) that he was led by the Spirit in the wilderness and was tempted (Luke 4:1-2). After the time of temptation he returned from the wilderness into Galilee “…in the power of the Spirit” (4:14). This is the goal of the Season of Lent. Go into the wilderness of reflection. Spend time in prayer. Fight the devil. Become focused on God’s will. Release the power of the Holy Spirit in your life for the ministry to which God has called you.
So, what is the ministry to which we have been called? What is this Christian Life we have been called upon to live? Our texts today give us three insights upon which to reflect: The focus of the Christian Life, The Cost of the Christian Life, and the Actions of the Christian Life.
The Focus of the Christian Life
In the Gospel Lesson from Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 we see Jesus addressing three practices of ancient Jewish spirituality: alms giving, prayer, and fasting. What is particularly interesting in what Jesus said about these things in his Sermon on the Mount is that they can become practices done so people will say, “Wow, aren’t they spiritual. They must be spiritual giants because they do these things.”
Jesus’ response is that these (and I am assuming other) spiritual practices are not to be done for the adulation of people. Nor are spiritual practices to be done for as a selfish means of “I feel so much better because I do this or that spiritual thing” something that is a tendency today. No, these spiritual practices are to be done before the Lord to deepen our intimacy with God and to live in obedience to God’s direction in my life.
In Os Guinness’ book , The Call, he talks about living life before the audience of One. Living life for the approval of One. This is what Jesus was getting at. This is what Jesus modeled. This is the focus of the Christian Life.
The Cost of the Christian Life
Living life before the audience of One is not a life without cost. The Apostle Paul in the passage of 2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:10 says this is a ministry of reconciliation. We are called to help people reconcile with God. What a joyful calling…except for those who see no need to be reconciled. Jesus said it this way: I didn’t come to save those who are well. I came to heal those that know they are sick (Mark 2:17). Interestingly, it was those who thought they were well that ended up killing Jesus. They were the most sick of all.
There will be a cost to living the Christian life. We need to be aware of it and we need to be pre-committed to it. But let me add this: There is a cost to anything we cherish or value.
We just came through the national spectacle called the Super Bowl. Those teams go through great cost to get to the end result for which they had hoped and worked. They spend time, money, and risk their short-term and their long-term health to be called Super Bowl Champions. There is a cost to being a professional athlete.
Every Monday we have a group of women who gather in the fellowship hall to knit baby cocoons for new infants at the hospital. They expend their time to come together, their money to purchase supplies, their fingers to do the knitting. There is a cost to their life and their service.
Anything of value will cost us. The cost for Christians around this globe are much higher than what we are asked to give. Many of those Christians must give their very lives for the faith they profess and the Lord they love and serve.
The Actions of the Christian Life
Lent helps us in focusing our Christian Life before the audience of one. Lent helps us to understand and anticipate the cost of following Jesus. Lent also helps us to examine the actions we are called upon to take, no, the actions that need to become our lifestyle, as we follow our Lord.
This idea of our lifestyle is at the heart of the message from our Old Testament Lesson, Isaiah 58:1-12. The people Isaiah was addressing were spending time in worship at the temple. They were spending time in prayer. They were spending time fasting. But their actions seemingly had no impact on their behavior. As they were worshipping a God of Justice and mercy they were abusing their workers, people whom God also loved. They were acting unjustly. As they were sacrificing some of their own food and clothing they looked the other way as people starved. There seemed to be a spiritual disconnect between what they said and how they lived.
Through the voice of Isaiah God was very direct.
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and
untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and
break every yoke?
7 Is it not to
share your food with the hungry and
to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him, and
not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. Isaiah 58:6-10 (NIV)
My friends, Jesus lived a life that was focused on God, he understood the cost of what that focus meant, and he lived a fully integrated life where what he believed was perfectly reflected in how he lived.
As we walk through this Season of Lent, as we reflect on our walk with the Lord, let us be challenged to go deeper in the service of God who
Loved the whole world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.