One might think that the best time for me to present an Introduction to the Season of Lent would be on the first Sunday in Lent, which was last Sunday. But last Sunday’s service included both of our sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper – only the second time I can remember that happening in my nearly sixteen years here. So I couldn’t resist presenting a discussion of sacraments then, and saving Lent’s introduction for today.
So, yes, I know today is the second Sunday in Lent, not the first. And there is plenty of the season left, so I think it’s still worth discussing.
The season of Lent is the six and a half week period leading up to Easter: 6 Sundays, and 40 Monday-thru-Saturdays, modelled after the forty days Jesus was out in the wilderness right before his ministry began, preparing for that ministry. As it was a time of preparation for him, so Lent is a time of preparation for us – a time to prepare ourselves to hear again the story of the Last Supper, and his death, and his resurrection, and what those events mean for us.
It may be helpful to begin with what the season is not: It is not a six and a half week extension of Good Friday, the day of our Lord’s death. We do not have to feel and to act, for forty-six days, the way we feel and act at a Good Friday worship service, or at our Maundy Thursday evening service, where we tell the story of Good Friday. We are not meant to be somber or sad all these weeks, to be thinking only of Jesus’ pain and death and sacrifice all these weeks, to have long faces and sad songs, as if Jesus is on the cross this whole extended time. Lent is not Good Friday.
For example: In the church I served previously, we participated in the every-Wednesday-evening in Lent joint services organized by the Ministerium, and each year the ministers chose a theme for those services. And some years someone suggested a theme like “the seven last words of Jesus,” on the cross; or the stations of the cross, as he goes from his trial to his burial. Those, however, are themes for a Good Friday service, about that one day. Usually we were much better at remembering that Lent is not Good Friday, that Lent is intended for a more general, and more varied, preparing of ourselves – that a lot can happen during Lent. And so we chose things like the parables Jesus told in the weeks leading to Palm Sunday, or people he encountered on his eleven-chapter trip to Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke; a variety of Jesus’ teachings, a variety of stories, not just one.
Our first Scripture lesson today describes Jesus “setting his face to go to Jerusalem.” He was out in the countryside, out in the villages, making the rounds, and then decided it should not be put off any longer: it was time to make that final trip to Jerusalem, where he knew, we’re told earlier in the chapter, what was going to happen. So the journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, begins then. But notice that the trip begins in chapter nine of Luke’s gospel and his death in not until chapter twenty-three. In between, Jesus teaches, he tells stories, he heals, he sends out disciples, he rejoices, he encourages, he visits friends, he blesses children, he meets that “wee little man” Zacchaeus . . . all as part of his trip toward Jerusalem, his trip toward Good Friday. Our “looking toward Jerusalem,” toward Good Friday, this season, can be the same: lots of activities, lots of emotions, lots of accomplishments, preparing ourselves in many ways for those final three days, from Thursday night to Easter morning. Lent is not Good Friday.
Our invitation to observe Lent, in the Presbyterian worship book’s service for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, makes this clear: The worship leader says “I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a holy Lent, by (first) self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting.” Now this is a part that certainly can produce remorse and somber feelings, as we look at our lives and see what is wrong, and confess the wrong to God. and take steps not to do it again. Straightening out our lives is an important part of preparing ourselves for Jesus, and for the new life Jesus offers us, through his death and resurrection. We shouldn’t overlook this aspect.
But then the invitation continues: “and by reading and meditating on the Word of God” – by familiarizing ourselves, or becoming re-acquainted with what the Bible says, and especially with the story of Jesus. This is an especially good time to select and read one of the four gospels, a story of Jesus’ life. Each one is only about twenty-five pages long; I think we can handle that in six and a half weeks. Or if you prefer more of a group approach, try out a Sunday School class or the Monday-evening discussion group for this six-week period, if you haven’t been attending, or the Wednesday-at-noon services. This season is also for looking at God’s Word.
The invitation to Lent goes on: “and by works of love.” We are reminded that preparing ourselves for responsible discipleship also means loving our neighbor, taking care of one another, helping those in need in particular. Some people decide to give an extra percentage of their income, during this season, to church or charity, as a Lenten discipline, or to volunteer. This season is when we collect the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering, to help those in need. We’re not just looking inward, at our own lives. We also practice works of love.
The season of Lent, then, is for doing whatever kind of preparation you need to do, to renew your relationship with God – not just for being sad.
- Perhaps you’ve been neglecting to give thanks to God enough lately, for all God has given us. Then Lent can be for you a time to be intentional about expressing gratitude to God. Try to think of one thing each day, to thank God for.
- Maybe the focus for you this year should be getting better acquainted with the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. Pick that gospel; read half a page a day.
- This may be the time for you to take a hard look at your life, to identify the things that need to be corrected, to stop doing certain things, and start others.
- Or maybe what you need this spring is to get back in touch with the joy of our faith, if you’ve gotten too far into the guilt, or the sense of duty, if you’ve lost the joy. Think of one thing each day that flows from your faith that makes you happy: the prospect of eternal life; the friends you see Sunday morning; Easter morning; your favorite hymns.
- Maybe this year the focus of your Lent is to get intentional about prayer. You might want to set particular points in the day for short prayers – mealtimes, bedtime. Or start working on a daily prayer period: Begin short – maybe one minute of talking, one minute of listening – and then gradually build up. Include the different kinds of prayer; thanks, confession, prayer for others, prayers for yourself, prayers for world situations, listening for God.
- Maybe the most important thing you can do for Lent 2020 is to re-commit to regular worship: Sunday mornings here, or Wednesday Noon’s or both.
- Or maybe it’s to re-dedicate yourself to those acts of love, and acts of justice; maybe those have slipped off your radar screen lately. That is, after all, the kind of “prayer and fasting” God says is most important, through Isaiah: “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to share with the hungry and the poor, to help the oppressed go free?” Maybe the last thing you need right now is to turn inward, introspective; but instead go out and help others.
All these are ways we “set our faces for Jerusalem,” six weeks and fourteen chapters of Luke away. Prepare whatever way you most need to prepare, this year.
Robin VanCleff wrote a very short poem about her need to get away from gloom, which Good Friday tends to bring, during Lent:
“Lord, I’ve stayed too long
on the flat plains
of spiritual monotony,
And plunged too often
into the valleys of gloom.
Now, for these forty days,
let me scale the mountaintop
Where I can breathe fresh air
and see clearly
the distant landscape.
Let me climb the mountain
and meet you there.”
Whatever you need to do to “meet God” this time around, that’s what this season is for.
Let’s pray: God, meet us in the worship services of this season, or in the prayers we say, or in surprising places we don’t expect in these next six weeks. Encourage us to come and meet you, that we may grow closer to the people you want us to be. Amen.