- Written by Pastor Shawn Nettleton Pastor Shawn Nettleton
- Created: 27 February 2015 27 February 2015
On Ash Wednesday we began the season of the church year we call Lent. The word "Lent" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten and German word lenzin, meaning “springtime” or “the lengthening of days.”
While not always referred to as "Lent," Christians since the late second century have set aside a time for fasting and prayer as they prepared to celebrate the festival of Easter. Fasting varied in the first two centuries beginning with a two to three day fast which was later lengthened to all of holy week. A period of a forty-day fast is first mentioned at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). These forty days were later associated with Moses' forty days on Mount Sinai, Elijah's forty-day fast and Jesus' forty days and Israel's forty years in the wilderness.
The Ash Wednesday rite reminds us that this holy season of Lent is a time for prayerful and penitential reflection, special devotion, self-denial and humble repentance as we meditation on the holy suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. These sacred days are to prepare us to celebrate Easter “with glad hearts and keep the feast in sincerity and truth.”1
A theologian once said that Lent is “spring training for the Christian.” But how exactly is that? Certainly, we are not like many of the non-roster invitees trying to make one of the thirty Major League Baseball teams this spring! Absolutely not! We have been bought and purchased by the blood of Christ, signed, sealed and delivered to the Father as His very own! We are already on the team and not by our own doing! Certainly, we are not like the many overpriced and overpaid players who have “cashed it in” and will under perform and play for themselves and not the team. Absolutely not! The grace of God in Christ does not allow us to become lazy and selfish Christians, but rather the Holy Spirit moves and guides us to love and serve our neighbor willingly and joyfully!
So how exactly is Lent “spring training for the Christian”? Over the next five weeks, players will be crafting their skills, working on various aspects of their game, such as their timing, mechanics, etc. They will be practicing throwing and running drills, preparing and conditioning themselves for a long season. For the Christian, Lent is a time for us to grow in faith, to discipline ourselves to say no to temptation and to practice self-control as we focus on Jesus.
Based on Matthew chapter six, the Western Church has historically practiced the three-fold discipline of almsgiving (charity or giving to the needy), prayer and fasting (Matthew 6:1–18) in the Lenten season. This, of course, is where the tradition of “giving something up” for Lent arose. While this is certainly a fine thing to do in Lent, a couple points should be made. First, our Lord makes it clear that none of these things (almsgiving, prayer or fasting) should be done for show. Secondly, these disciplines aren't just about giving something up, but about doing something such as giving or making time for prayer.
As we prepare this Lent to celebrate the Easter feast in sincerity and truth, I would like to share with you some helpful thoughts on these Lenten disciplines by pastor Bo Giertz. In his devotional To Live with Christ, Giertz writes,
What does it mean to fast? It means to willingly abstain from something that in itself is both permissible and good. You abstain from it in order to free yourself to serve Christ. You show both yourself and your Lord that can take this earthly thing or leave it. This is the right way for a Christian to live. We should use this world and its goods as if we didn't need them. There is a lot of good we should rejoice over, but nothing should control us. We should not let ourselves be bound or captive to anything. Nothing should be allowed to be more important to us than to the Lord Himself.Bo Giertz, To Live with Christ (Concordia Publishing House, 2008), 183–184
Let's be clear: Lent is not about proving ourselves to Jesus! It is not about us making atonement for our sins or earning "brownie points" with God! In a very real sense, Lent is not about us, but about Jesus Christ and His work for us! But pastor Giertz is right, nothing in this life should control us and we should not be bound to anything! And Lent is a great opportunity for us to practice self-control and good Christian discipline, holy living.
By abstaining from certain things—at least for periods of time—we can give money and possibly time to serve Christ in a special way. It can be a good form of fasting to abstain from something and instead give the money to a special Lenten collection or to something else. To regularly give a portion of what you've earned is also a form of fasting. You abstain from something you otherwise could've purchased yourself, and you do it for Christ's sake. Jesus tells us we should do it joyfully. We shouldn't make a big thing about it. It's a secret between you and your Lord that He alone knows.Bo Giertz, To Live with Christ (Concordia Publishing House, 2008), 184
Harkening our Lord's bidding, we should practice these things joyfully and not make a big deal about them. Our Lord wants us to grow in faith, not in self-righteousness. And these traditional Lenten disciplines can help us do just that. However, the best Lenten discipline is given to us in the book of Hebrews. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
Whether you are fasting, giving something up or doing something extra for Lent (prayer, Scripture reading, giving, etc.), fix your eyes on Jesus! He is only One who can prepare you now and always to celebrate the feast of Easter. May God bless our Lententide as we fix our eyes on Jesus!