Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Getting ready for Lent 2015

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.  It is a time of prayer, fasting, reflection, and repentance.  We are called to consider the past year, our service to the Church, and the testimony (and perhaps the strength) of our faith.  Like Advent which precedes Christmas, Lent does not allow us to simply count down the days until Easter.  That is, the practices and the life of a disciple cannot be defined by a limited number of days as if we can end them when we tire of these practices.

Lent commands our attention and demands more from us than we are often willing to give.  And because we often give so little to the opportunity presented, we derive very little spiritual satisfaction from it.  It is just a season, a spot on the Christian calendar – all because we are willfully short-sighted.  We know Messiah is already risen – so the Holy Day of Easter seems … redundant.  In actual practice, it is just a “thing” we do only once a year.

The Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel is important for us as we prepare for the Season because Jesus is not merely recommending things we ought to do.  Rather He presumes the practices already to be a significant part of the life of the faithful; that is, if we are actually “faith-filled”.  Fasting and prayer are not strictly New Testament ideas.

When you are praying”, our Lord says (6:7).  Not “if”.  As John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, once observed, if Jesus as The Word Made Flesh, The Almighty Himself Incarnate, speaks, His words have the force of “commandment”, as sure and as certain as “You shall not kill”.  As when Jesus, during the Last Supper, “commanded” His disciples to “do this and remember Me”, the words spoken by our Lord not only assess our commitment to Him but they also challenge us to reach beyond ourselves.  As one preacher once said, “Get over yourself; it ain’t about you!”

And “when you fast” (6:16).  That is, “when” we deny ourselves one thing for something greater.  This is the BIG ONE because we have likely spent the last 2000 years trying to figure out exactly how much we need to give up – and for how long.  Many give up sweets or chocolate or tobacco or TV – but ONLY for the 40-day period and ONLY for as long as it is not too uncomfortable.  The commitment to something greater is lacking because we also give up these innocuous things strictly for self-improvement rather than spiritual enlightenment or fulfillment. 

Still, these can be a good start, but simply giving something up only for a finite period misses the point of the season devoted to genuine spiritual reflection.  Is chocolate getting in the way of our devotion to our Lord as it may get in the way of us seeing our toes?  Are sweets preventing us from spending more time in The Word?  Does TV prevent us from attending worship?  Does tobacco deny our needed time in fellowship with other Christians?  Do these things – or any other thing – inhibit our life as disciples in any way?

These are the questions we must ask ourselves, for this is what the season of Lent to be entirely about.  It is not simply a “test” to see if we are willing to give up a “thing”; it is a practice and a discipline that calls us into something much greater.  We will never know what “greater” thing there can be, however, if we never take part.

Divine Mercy (as “grace”) has come to be a marketable product that can be packaged and sold with clever advertising that promises something for nothing.  It pleases the senses in the false promise that we do not have to do anything or give up anything for spiritual gain. 

Mercy that cleanses, however, Mercy that purifies often by “fire”, Mercy that is never comfortable but is always comforting is not so easy – and not at all marketable.

For, you see, we cannot package “mercy”.  It can never be “new and improved” although genuine Mercy from the very heart of our Holy Father will seem new to us if we are willing to draw so near, if we are willing to get rid of the excess baggage we’ve taken on for the sake of “personal comfort” or in trying to live the “good life” or to claim our share of the so-called “American Dream” which has become, for too many, a nightmare when trying to “keep up with the Jones’”.

Lent is hard.  Pure and simple, if Lent is practiced for all it can actually do for the Holy Church, regardless of denomination, if we are mindful of our genuine need for Christ and our own part in the Life of the Church which is the Body of Christ, Lent will be the single, most difficult thing we will ever do.  And here’s the real challenge to it: it will not end on Easter!

So Jesus is not merely commanding us in such a way as to see whether or not we are serious as disciples.  Rather these means of grace are offered to us as Gifts; sacramental moments when we are truly and fully touched from Above and from deep within. 

Like a parent who knows what is best for our children, Our Lord is seeing to our well-being by requiring of us to “take a nap”, to “go into your room and shut the door” from the noise of a world that draws us away from – rather than toward – our very Source of Life.  And like a child who must eat vegetables instead of sweets, a child who must be denied some things that will do more harm than good, we are those very children whose well-being is sought after.

Regardless of your denominational tradition, let the season of Lent be for you all it is intended to be.  Do not be misled by those who insist such practices are no longer necessary or are “made up” by the Church as “works”.  Rather the Church as the Body of Christ takes up the very practices our Savior took up for Himself and for those who dare to follow Him to the Resurrection! 

Prepare to be blessed, dear friends, but do not believe it will “just happen” in a void.  Know that it will be given to those who prove their trustworthiness, their faithfulness, those who truly love The Lord our God.  Amen.

No comments: