WHAT IS LENT? (Not Lint!)

Even though most readers know about Lent, since it begins this Wednesday I want to highlight some basics about it in this post. Called the Lenten tradition, Lent is a 40-day season in which Christians focus on their faith as they look forward to and prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Often associated with Roman Catholic tradition and practice, Lent is certainly not limited to Catholicism as many believers in a variety of denominations and churches participate. While much of what takes place during Lent has biblical connections, the actual Lenten season is not prescribed in the New Testament. As meaningful as observing Lent can be and is for many Christians, not all observe it nor are they commanded to do so.

The first mention of the practice of Lent is found in the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The celebration of Easter Sunday and Jesus’ resurrection, however, began much earlier. The emphasis upon 40 days comes from the biblical account of Jesus’ fast in the wilderness following his baptism. The time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is actually more than 40 days, but Sundays are not counted – Sundays are feast days because Sunday is the day of Jesus’ resurrection.

Ash Wednesday and the marking of Christians with an ashen cross was added in the 600s. The usage of ashes underscores human mortality and our need for repentance. Participation in Ash Wednesday is not required in order to participate in the Lenten season. There is no one way to observe Lent as Christians have celebrated the season in a variety of ways.

Simply stated, engaging in Lent is a season of intentional focus on reflection, repentance, prayer, Bible reading, confession, humility, and devotion in anticipation of remembering, acknowledging, and celebrating Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

Many believers also include fasting as a part of their expression of devotion during this season. Fasting usually refers to eating and food, but is not limited to food. Nor is fasting in terms of eating always a total fast from food. People have fasted from meat, desserts, coffee, soda, and a variety of choices for a day, a week, or the entire period of Lent. Beyond food and drink, some fast from TV, radio, the news, or other activities that they set aside or give up to focus on the season.

Through the years I’ve tried a lot of things during this season to focus and enhance my faith and devotion. Some have been more helpful than others. I’m look forward to beginning tomorrow a book of readings entitled TO SEEK AND TO SAVE: DAILY REFLECTIONS ON THE ROAD TO THE CROSS by Sinclair B. Ferguson. I hope these thoughts have been informative and encouraging.

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GOD’S RETURN POLICY

Now that Christmas Day is over and we have opened our gifts, many will be returning something they received. Different stores, of course, have different policies with regard to the way they deal with returns. Some will refund what the gift cost, and some will only offer an exchange for something else. Some require a receipt and a few charge a restocking fee.

I’ve been thinking about this after Christmas post since November 1 when I read an online article entitled “God’s Generous Return Policy” by John Lee. In his article Lee did not relate anything to Christmas gift returns, but I am. I’m borrowing from his basic idea.

My interest isn’t in returning gifts as such, but in returning to God. In the Old Testament the prophets speak often of God’s people not returning to him.

Following an assessment of the Northern Kingdom’s misdeeds and consequences, in Jeremiah 3:10 God comments on the Southern Kingdom, “In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense.”

In Joel 2: 12 and 13 the prophet relays God’s invitation, “Even now return to me with all your heart with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

In Amos 4:6-11 God reminds his people through the prophet of five consequences they have endured, and yet have not returned to him. Very similarly God does the same through the prophet Haggai, “I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not return to me” (Haggai 2:17).

My favorite two verses from the Old Testament prophets about God’s return policy are similar to Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, and Haggai, but add a promise not included in the others. Zechariah 1:3 proclaims God’s message: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you’.  Malachi 3:7 offers the same promise, but also reminds them why they need to take action: “Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

These messages from the prophets to God’s people in the Old Testament give us insight into why a person today might need to return to God: they have left him. The call to return to God suggests that someone has turned away from God or drifted away from him.

When I was a youth pastor some 48 years ago we had a sign in front of our church building on which we posted a new message every week. One of my favorites our senior minister put up has stayed with me: “Feel Far from God? Guess Who Moved?”

The preaching of the prophets to God’s people in the Old Testament also make it clear that often or usually when people leave God there are consequences in their lives. Those consequences are intended to get the attention of those who have done so.

When those who have turned away from God want to return to him what is needed is a change of attitude and action. In the New Testament, especially with the prophet John the Baptist, returning to God requires repentance (Matthew 3:1 and 2).

I’m not sure what to make of Zechariah and Malachi’s promise from God, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” It reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Do you remember what the father did when he saw his younger son returning? In the story Jesus says “while he (the prodigal son) was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, thru his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

John Lee is right, isn’t he? God indeed does have a generous return policy. And if you need to take advantage of it, I encourage you to do so.

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I WAS WRONG

i’m sure there are many reasons why, but a lot of us have a hard time saying “I was wrong.” As I have grown older, I have noted that it has become easier for me to acknowledge my mistakes. Perhaps I am giving myself too much credit, but I think a readiness to admit when we are or were wrong is a sign of maturity.

In the words of Mark Galli, one of the reasons we find it hard to say “I was wrong” is because “we remain addicted to the drug of self-justification.” We justify ourselves because the person we wronged was also wrong. (Are you familiar with the saying “two wrongs don’t make a right?”)

Or we justify ourselves because of other things that were going on in our lives at the time. We had too much to do, or were short on time, or we didn’t feel well, or had a bad day, or any number of reasons we might give to others and ourselves. Our personal situation may elicit some sympathy and understanding, but it doesn’t make doing something wrong right.

Sometimes we won’t say we were wrong because of pride–we are simply too proud and too stubborn to admit we made a mistake. It often does require humility, but that can be very good for us.

For Christians, this matter of acknowledging we were wrong is the first step of repentance. Repentance is not a popular or particularly admired word in most circles today, but it is an important word in the Bible. We might remind ourselves that Jesus launched his public ministry with a call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).

To admit we were wrong is to take responsibility. We admit it to ourselves, we acknowledge it to the person or persons we wronged, and we confess it to God. But acknowledging we were wrong is just the first step.

Next, repentance involves being sorry we were wrong—feeling remorse and regret over what we did or said. It is not being sorry we were caught or found out, but being convicted or conscience stricken by it. Sometimes it includes doing what we can to make things right.

Finally, repentance leads to a resolve to do better in the future. That means we make a commitment to be more aware of our weaknesses and tendencies so that we strive not to do what we did again. But it’s even more than that. Theologian J.I. Packer presses the point when he notes repentance “is an actual abandonment of what has been wrong in order to replace it by what is right.”

When was the last time you did something wrong? When was the last time you admitted you were wrong? And when was the last time you repented? I’m hoping the frequency of needing to say those three magic words “I was wrong” lessens in my life, but I’m learning the importance and value of saying them.

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DO YOU NEED THIS?

Although I’ve never participated in Ash Wednesday, like many Christians, for many years I have focused my devotional life in a variety of ways during Lent. As we approach Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, I have been intensifying my focus. Earlier this week I read something that has given me a fresh challenge during these last two weeks of the season.

I was reading a 2004 college commencement address by Dallas Willard and his definition of repent got my attention. He said “Repent means to change the way you’ve been thinking and acting.” I don’t know about you, but given that definition, I need to do some repenting.

Most of the time we think of repentance as something that is needed and takes place at the beginning of the Christian life. Both John the Baptist, as well as Jesus, called people to repent as they launched their public ministries. And on the Day of Pentecost, when the Church was born, Peter told those present they needed to repent.  Clearly there is an initial repentance in becoming a follower of Jesus; but I don’t think that’s the only time believers need to repent.

With Willard’s definition in mind, I went to an old book by William Barclay I remembered that had a brief discussion of repentance. In it he reports that repent “literally means an afterthought as opposed to a forethought. An afterthought, a second thought, is usually a changed thought.” It’s not as crisp a definition as Willard’s, but if you read it slowly it has some pop.

As I read Barclay’s description I could not help but think about Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal/Lost Son in Luke 15:11-32. In the story, after the boy had lost everything, Jesus tells us in verse 17 “When he came to his senses” he had a change of heart and decided to go home. Verses 17-20 paint a picture in Barclay’s words of an afterthought, a second thought, which was a changed thought. I think the boy repented.

The general understanding of repentance is that it requires three things: a recognition of having done something wrong, regret/sorrow for doing it, and a resolve to do better. I hope you see why I don’t think repenting is something limited to the beginning of the Christian life, but is needed throughout the Christian life.

Today through Easter Sunday seems to me like a good time to consider the practice of repenting. Beyond that, participating in the Lord’s Supper seems like an appropriate time. Would it be too much to suggest we give it some thought on a daily basis?

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