What is Lent All About?

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Matthew 4:1–11 NRSV)

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LENT was originally not a religious word at all. A Teutonic (Germanic) word meaning “long,” it was used to refer to the lengthening days of spring. The word was passed through Anglo-Saxo into English, and finally used to translate the Latin quadragesima (“forty days”) which imitates the Greek name for the season of Lent, tessarakoste, or fortieth. So that is why we call this season Lent.

By the fifth century, church authorities assumed the practice of Lent went back to the apostles. However historians have noted that, in the first three centuries, churches were quite diverse in their practice of the fast before Easter. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius cites a letter from Irenaeus (late second century) who states that there was much confusion over the fast that came before Easter. Some thought it should be one day, others two, and yet others thought forty hours (day and night) as the correct amount. Later when Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, which contains the letter from Irenaeus, was translated from Greek into Latin, the translator punctuated text so that last group fasted for forty days, not forty hours. So, interestingly, Lent became a forty-day preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

If you would like more information about the origin and development of Lent, see the Catholic Encyclopedia, available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm.

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LENT is about repenting, reorienting, recalibrating and realigning. Lent provides an opportunity as we approach Resurrection Sunday to bring our lives more in sync with Jesus. Reflecting on the temptation of Jesus (see the Scripture above) provides resources for this time of penitence and prayer.

Henri Nowen in In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership made the dynamic  Jesus’ temptations real for me. Jesus responded to each temptation with Scripture;more specifically, Jesus quotes texts from Deuteronomy 6-8.

Deuteronomy 6-8 tells how the “newly minted” nation of Israel was tested in the wilderness; and how at each test the they failed to trust God.

Now comes Jesus’ turn. He too is tested but each time he successfully deflects Satan’s overtures. Where Israel, the nation, had failed, Jesus the Son will succeed. Part of Jesus success was that he knew the story. Because he knew the story of how Israel had failed the test, Jesus knew exactly what he was facing. Now that we have both stories, that of Israel and of Jesus, we know what we need to do when tempted.

Nowen reframes each temptation so we can hear them better. The temptation to turn stone into bread is the temptation to be relevant. The temptation to jump off the temple to be caught by angels is the temptation to be sensational. And the temptation to possess all the kingdoms of the world is the temptation to be powerful.

Each of these are a real temptation because we are all tempted to focus on what we want more than anything else. When we speak of being relevant (particularly in church life) we generally have in mind that notion that if we were more relevant, more people would be interested in church. So the conversation becomes what we need to do to please people and that is where this becomes a problem. Recall another story: when Aaron, the high priest, made a golden calf for the people. The golden calf was relevant but the golden calf was not God.

Each of us have felt the desire to be sensational. Drama Queen seems to be an art form for some today. How often do we walk the line between “doing our deeds before others” and “doing our deeds before othersso that they might see our Heavenly Father.” Jesus could have stepped off the pinnacle of the temple and floated down to the earth impressing all those who saw him. However, as with the stones, Jesus understood that making himself important or impressive works against the mission of God. All three of the temptations partake of the attitude that it’s-about-me.

Finally, the desire to be powerful is so “natural” that in our culture we assume that is what people should aspire to be. Jesus could have had the whole world without the cross! That is what Satan is offering. However, the way of power without the cross is not the way of God. To be powerful is to bypass the way of suffering and the gospel is clear that for Jesus suffering comes before glory. Those who would follow Jesus must learn this, too. As the apostle Paul will say later when we are weak, we are strong (see 1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 10:10; 12:10; 13:9).

So what is the meaning of Lent? Well, that depends on what you want to do with it. Let me encourage you to use this season as a time to repent, reorient, recalibrate, and realign your life with that of your Lord Jesus. Let’s resist the temptation to be relevantsensational, and powerful and simply moving into being who God has called us to be.

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To Begin Again

Can a person really start over?

Isn’t there always baggage?

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change?

The cynic in me wants to see real change as impossible but I’m not sure I want to live in a world where this is the case. No doubt, life is tough and for some and at times really tough. Yet the Bible, which has been around a lot longer than I have, holds out a vision of humanity that has potential. New things can happen!

For example, notice this medley of verses:

[The Lord] put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God (Psalms 40:3); See, I [the Lord] am doing a new thing! (Isaiah 43:19); Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17) “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant ….” (Jeremiah 31:31); Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) … what counts is a new creation. (Galatians 6:15).

The Apostle Paul invited the church at Colossae (in modern day Turkey) to enter into God’s newness. In the third chapter of his letter to that church, Paul points to three areas in which God wants to renew us.

First, God invites us to renew our orientation, to seek what is heavenly, not earthly. Sometimes we live as if the minutia of every moment is the most important issue in our lives. We all—at times—are drama queens. We fail to see that in a few short moments most of what  upset us now will not really matter in the grand scheme of things. However, the Apostle is not just suggesting that we get a better mental attitude; this is not how to think your way into a better way of feeling.

The invitation is for complete reorientation. Because we have been baptized into Christ, we now “seek the things above” and we do this because “Christ is there!” Now, as those united with Christ, we are, in some sense, already with him. Imagine living now as if we were already living in heaven.

Next God calls us to reevaluate our identity. In a (religious) world intent on reminding us often that we are sinners (and we are), the Bible most often strikes another note. In this text, believers in Jesus are those who are hidden in Christ, those who have put on the new self that, according to the Apostle, “is being renewed by the knowledge according to the creator’s image.” Our new identity is not defined by religious or socioeconomic labels but by Christ. Therefore, believers should see themselves as God sees them: as specially chosen, holy and deeply loved.

Consequently, God invites to refresh our way of life. Continuing the language of baptism, Paul reminds us to “put to death” dispositions, habits and tendencies that simply do not belong to heaven-minded people. The laundry list is long and dirty: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, idolatry, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying, “since” as Paul adds, “you have taken off your old self with its practices.”

Continuing the baptismal image, Paul is confident that believers have “put on” the new self and the associated dispositions, habits, and tendencies. These virtues include compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, telling the truth, speaking wholesome words, love, unity, peace, and thankfulness.

In summary, Paul is not inviting his readers to embrace the power of positive thinking, but rather of taking hold of a completely different paradigm for reality. The primary feature of this new paradigm is that we are now united with Christ. This union with Christ instigates certain new realities, namely, that we are now “hidden in Christ.” The changes called for grows out of a relationship with Christ. If one belongs to Jesus, then it follows that such a person would think differently about who they are. This, then, would (naturally) lead believers to put off things that work against their new identity and to put on attributes that are consistent with that new identity.

Can a person really start over? Yes, with Jesus they can.

Isn’t there always baggage? Yes, but God can handle your baggage.

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change? Only if you so choose; it is not the way of Jesus.

Also published at http://www.fcchammond.org/JANNEWSLETTER.aspx.

God’s Life: Raising Kids Who Get It

Previously, we explored the mutuality of marriage as God intended. Now, Paul in Ephesians (6:1-4) explores what it means to have God’s life as the ruling influence in the relationship between parents and children.

No doubt there is a sense in which parents submit to the needs of their children, however, here the submission revolves around the needs and (unequal) roles of each.

First, Paul calls children to obey their parents. Obey is not a command placed on the wife in the husband-wife relationship in the Bible. (Though Sarah is said to have obeyed Abraham in 1 Pet 3, it was not commanded of her). Moreover, in healthy families, there is a clear recognition of who the parents are and who the children are. When parents allow their children to violate this boundary, all kinds of dysfunction follow.

Obedience to parents would have been an expected virtue in the ancient world, however, Paul roots obedience to parents in God’s life. Children are to obey “in the Lord” which might be more freely rendered, “as is consistent for those who belong to the Lord.” Furthermore, obedience to parents reaches back to the Ten Commandments call to honor one’s father and mother and is connected with the promise of a long (prosperous) life on earth. Obedience, then, is an important spiritual discipline in which children are to experience and live out God’s life.

Second, Paul calls on fathers particularly (notice the move from “parents” in v. 1 to “fathers” in v. 4; see also Col 3:20-21) to educate their children. This move is probably not to exclude the mother—which the Ten Commandments clearly included—but to recognize the role that fathers were supposed to play in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Note that the text begins with restraining fathers: “don’t make your children angry.” Children, as well as wives, in the ancient world belonged to the husband and so the category of child abuse was nearly absent. However, this is not the way of Jesus.

Instead, fathers who belong to Jesus treat their children different than the way the world treats children. Even more Paul calls on fathers to make sure their children are disciplined and educated by the Lord.

Note how much this sounds like what Moses taught the nation of Israel:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4–9 NRSV)

Therefore, one of the main questions we should ask as we raise our children: “what kind of people are we making?” How we raise our children will affect them for life, and maybe, even eternity. It may be the turning point to whether or not “they get it.”

Mimicking God

The goal of Christian spiritual formation is that the believer becomes more like Jesus. This does not entail an abdication of one’s own personality but rather an embracing of those Christ-like characteristics, dispositions, and habits that brought Jesus into harmony with God.

Furthermore, and paradoxically, the more like Jesus we become the more truly human we become. The new creation work of God is to recreate us in the “image” of God (Eph 4:24). This “image” language intentionally echoes the Genesis creation story where God created people in his own image. Thus, to become like God is to become truly human.

Therefore Paul invites his readers at the beginning of chapter 5:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1–2 NRSV).

Having just called for his readers to forgive like God forgives, Paul continues to call people into the deeper life of God by calling them to remove what is not truly human. There is a long list of these beastly vices: fornication, impurity, greed, vulgar talk, and drunkenness. In place of these vices should be wise living and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit.

In this rather lengthy call for ethical living (Eph 4:17-5:21), what stands out to me is how Paul teases his reader into the transforming work of God. Early in this text, Paul speaks of learning Christ as the way to God. This learning-Christ curriculum involved deleting the old self and wrapping yourself with the new self—“created based on the likeness of God.”

Therefore, it is not a far stretch to see the way of Jesus as the way of imitating God—much like how young children seek to imitate their parents. As God’s beloved children, Paul calls us, we are to live a live of love because Christ showed us the way. Jesus was both the demonstration of God’s love for us and a model for how we should love God.

Because of the work of Jesus, we are now “children of light” (Eph 5:8). Therefore, we live in the light and not the darkness; in fact, our lives themselves shine light on the way of darkness.

So imitating God, we say, “Let there be light!”

I Am Responsible

The following post comes from an article I wrote for my church’s weekly newsletter but because it was related to the series I have been writing on Ephesians, I thought those who have been following my thoughts might appreciate this piece.

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As a church family, we have been exploring Paul’s description of the mission of God. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul will set forth what God has done for us in Christ in the first three chapters, in chapters 4 through 6 Paul will list a patchwork of virtues, dispositions, habits, and actions, God seeks in us because of what he has done for us in Christ.

These virtues, dispositions, habits, and actions will cover everything from how we treat one another, including those closest to us, our families, but it will also deal with values as personal as our sexual ethics, how we choose to use our language, or how we express our anger.

One thing remains clear: while we cannot save ourselves–this is the work of God–we are responsible for what we do with the salvation God has given us.

Responsibility may well be the missing virtue of our time. We always seem to have an excuse, a rationalization, or someone to blame so that we don’t have to feel the full force of personal responsibility. We become so good at (accustomed to?) using such tactics that we sometimes are unaware that we are using them.

M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, attributed much of what we call mental illness today to people’s mishandling of responsibility. According to Peck, neurotics take too much responsibility (often over other people), while psychotics take too little (even over their own lives). I’m sure Dr. Peck would add that things are more complex than this, but he is on to something.

Still my mental health is related to the level of personal responsibility that I take over things that are truly mine. As the Serenity Prayer reminds us, there are some things you can’t change and some things you can. May God give us power to discern between the two.

Leaving Something Behind

Following Jesus always require that we leave something behind. Some things to be left behind are obvious such as sins, bad attitudes, and selfish ways; some are less obvious like dispositions, privilege, or the need for power.

Last week I was with a small country church that was reflecting on the Gospel of Mark’s version of the “Rich, Young Ruler.” At the climatic turn in the story, Jesus calls for the man to sell all of his possessions, give them to the poor and then follow him.

Jesus did not require every disciple to sell their possessions so it seems that Jesus could tell that this particular man’s possession had a strangle-hold on him. The man’s response to Jesus validates this, as Mark narrates, “… he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22 NRSV).

Later, Peter will respond to Jesus’ teaching about the difficulty the rich have in entering the kingdom of God with “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). While, somewhat self-serving, Peter did leave something behind to follow Jesus. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark several people left things behind to follow Jesus.

At the beginning of the Gospel when Jesus called his first disciples, Peter and Andrew, they responded by “leaving their nets and following Jesus.” Likewise, when the next set of brothers, James and John, were summoned, they “left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired hands, and followed him” (Mark 1:16-20). The cost of following Jesus, it appears, means leaving something behind.

This does not appear to be an isolated theme in the Gospel of Mark. When Mark tells of the calling of Levi, a tax collector (Mark 2:13-14), Mark notices that Levi “got up and followed Jesus,” even though at the time he was on the job. Levi left working for the imperial government to serve the kingdom of God.

The healed demoniac was willing to leave his home and friends to follow Jesus. Here, against the normal flow of things, Jesus refused to let the man follow him personally, but calls on him to tell “what the Lord has done for you” among his own family and friends (Mark 5:1-20). This is how most of us will follow Jesus today.

Later in the Markan narrative, the blind man named Bartimaeus will seek healing from Jesus (10:46-52). In coming to Jesus, he will throw off his cloak, leaving it behind. Once Bartimaeus had received his sight, he “followed Jesus on the way.”

In a turning point moment in the Passion Narrative (Mark 11-16), when Jesus is arrested, Mark, sadly, no doubt, notes that the remaining eleven disciples deserted Jesus and fled (14:50). Almost ironically, the word deserted in the Greek is the same word for leaving something behind used in the stories about the calling of the disciples mentioned above. The left all to follow Jesus and now the left all to abandon Jesus.

Immediately following this announcement of desertion on the part of Jesus’ disciples, Mark tells the curious story of a young man who was following Jesus at the time of Jesus’ arrest (14:51-52). Oddly, it seems, the young man was wearing nothing but a linen cloth. The soldiers grabbed him but “he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” This story, whatever its meaning, serves as an anti-discipleship story: here is how not to follow Jesus, so to speak.

So, consistently, throughout the Gospel, Mark illustrates that to follow Jesus one must leave something behind. Mark’s story of Jesus then raises two pertinent questions:

  • What are you willing to leave behind for Jesus?
  • What are not unwilling to give up for Jesus?

Discipleship is lived out between those two questions, don’t you think?

Giving Not Grasping

Known as the Carmen Christi, the song of Christ, Philippians 2:5-11 may well be an early Christian hymn, or at least, part of one. Translators cannot decide whether it should be set off as poetry or as prose because it is rhythmic but not fully balanced. Paul may have used a familiar song to make his point—similar to a way a preacher today might cite a well known song but change a word here or there to make a different point—the new point made here, though, is very important.

Using a keyword in this letter, Paul calls on the reader to think like Jesus (Phil 2:5). Next the song explains how to think like Jesus. Jesus, who exists as God, did not consider that privilege as an opportunity to grab more for himself.

Instead, consistent with the nature of God, he “emptied” himself or made himself nothing, taking on the “form” of a slave. Thus, he demoted himself from divine omnipotence to menial service. The demotion follows a staircase pattern: He emptied himself

taking on the form of a slave
in the likeness of humanity
in the shape of a man
becoming obedient to death
even death on a criminal’s cross

At the heart of this passage is the call to think like Jesus. How does this look? That to be like God is about giving self away. To hoard either power or possessions to oneself is not like God.

This song emphasizes the completeness of this giving away. Jesus gave up the prerogatives of Godness to become a human for the sake of others. Jesus’ renunciation of his privilege was so complete that he died a criminal’s death.

The completeness of Jesus’ giving it all away is implied in v. 9. Here God the Father is the one who exalts Jesus and gives him the name above every name. At this name, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. The name referred to here is Lord (v. 11). The inspiration for this point comes from the ancient prophet Isaiah where Lord refers to YHWH, God’s personal name.

Before me every knee will bow;
by me every tongue will swear.
They will say of me, ‘In the LORD alone
are righteousness and strength
. (Isa. 45:23b-24a)

While I would never pretend to know all the mysteries regarding the nature of God, such as how could God become human, did God really die, or how Jesus was still God, yet human, this text is clear about one thing:

God’s nature is about giving not getting. Consequently, those who follow Jesus will grow into givers not getters. This is how we think like Jesus.