God of wilderness and water,
your Son was baptized and tempted as we are.
Guide us through this season,
that we may not avoid struggle,
but open ourselves to blessing,
through the cleansing depths of repentance
and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.
Explanation of Lent
The season of Lent began just a few days ago, on Ash Wednesday. Lent is long season in the liturgical calendar, lasting 40 days from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday, just before Easter Sunday. (There are six Sundays during this season which are not included in the total because every Sunday is a reminder of the resurrection of Jesus and therefore cause for feasting and celebration, not fasting and lamentation.)
Lent is a paradox, a season of seeming contradictions. It is a time of darkness and mourning – looking inward – and yet it is a season for hope and reconciliation. The word “Lent” itself means “springtime” – a time for green growth and newness, while at the same time our spirits are being called away to the desert to face our true selves for who they really are.
Jesus himself experienced this desert-intensity, a stripping away all of his earthly dependencies in order to commune with God. Lent is fashioned after the 40 days of temptation Jesus faced. We read about it in Mark chapter 1 today. Verse 9 through 11 tell of the momentous baptism of Jesus, where the voice of the Spirit is heard clearly by all announcing, “This are my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” And immediately after this, (12) “the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, (13) and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
In our own spiritual formation, we will experience blessings as well as temptations and hardships, both ‘wild beasts’ and ‘angels.’ (Life with God Bible)
Moving to the Question
It’s easy to diminish Lent by only talking about what we are giving up, or by eating a few too many paczkis on Fat Tuesday or focusing too eagerly on Fish-Fry-Fridays. But the call of Lent is so much greater than giving up meat or chocolate or Facebook for a few weeks. Lent is a call to return to God. [slide] Lent invites us to ask ourselves, “How have I wandered from God?” …because, let’s be honest, we’ve all wandered…And “How can I return to God more fully?”
The desert-season of Lent is both frightening and freeing, an invitation to strip away all of the layers of self-protection we’ve accumulated over the past year; to take off our masks we have called “perfection” or “accomplishment;” to be honest about our facades – admitting we’re not as good as we’ve painted ourselves to be. And I think you would agree: It’s terrifying to have those layers pulled back. We don’t want to admit we’ve been less than honest. We don’t want to be exposed. (I mean, it’s like that nightmare you have where you’re speaking in front of a crowd and look down to realize you’re not wearing any clothes! The absolute worst. Look at how many products exist to help us physically fool ourselves and others…spanx, everything in the make-up aisle, Instagram filters.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle to identify my true self. I am so used to living in my “false self,” a role I’ve constructed to protect myself from harm and to earn love and admiration, an identity that is absolutely exhausting to maintain and yet essential for the ego I’ve erected.
One of my favorite authors on spiritual formation is Robert Mulholland, once a professor at Asbury seminary. In his book Invitation to a Journey, he writes this:
“The process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place primarily at the points of our unlikeness to Christ’s image…The Spirit of God may probe some area in which we are not conformed to the image of Christ. That probing will probably always be confrontational, and it will always be a challenge and a call to us in our brokenness to come out of the brokenness into wholeness in Christ. But it will be a costly call, because that brokenness is who we are.” p 37
Lent invites us to get back on the journey toward God, to let Him tenderly pull back the layers of our false selves of “productivity” and “perfection,” and to be transformed into Christ’s likeness for the sake of the world.
During our Ash Wednesday Service we read from the Prophet Joel, a passage I’d like to revisit now:
Joel 2:12-13 12
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
I had to look up the word “rend,” wondering what in the world it could mean to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” Rend means to tear into two or more pieces, to rip apart. In the Old Testament one way the people of God would show their remorse and repentance was to literally tear apart their garments, to physically pour soot and ashes on their heads and faces, to look as mournful on the outside as they felt on the inside. The problem was – and is – it’s so easy to go through these motions. It’s easy to pick a fast during Lent, to come to church every Sunday, and to drop a few bucks in the plate, to sponsor a child. And yet we wander. Our hearts are far from God. The call of Joel 2:12 (according to Eugene Peterson) is to “change your life, not just your clothes.”
Lent is a time to get real with God and with ourselves. It’s a chance to disrupt our routine, to add a new discipline or remove a habit in order to pay attention to God. If you haven’t already chosen a spiritual discipline for Lent, I encourage you to spend time alone with God this week and let Him point you in the right direction. He’ll ask you to look your brokenness right in the eye – to observe your struggle with gluttony or your addiction to media or your obsession with perfection or your need to have all the answers or your battle with anxiety – and He’ll invite you to a new path. Maybe it’s a fast of some sort. Maybe it’s a new prayer discipline. Maybe it’s practice of daily confession.
Whatever it is, I promise you the invitation is to “come out of the brokenness into wholeness in Christ.”
To the Table
We encounter this very same invitation each time we come to the Lord’s Table, the sacramental table of Jesus’ body and blood. This is a place where we all come – in all our stages and phases of brokenness, as honestly and repentant as we can manage, to partake in this gift of grace. This table is about confession. This table is about thanksgiving. This table is about the boundless love of God.