Sunday 28 February 2010 An intro to Lent
Pray for visitors
Give thanks for rain
Pray for Lorraine Bubb
Lord I pray that you would light a fire within us. Lord may we have a passion to reach those who live in the western suburbs who are far from you.
Readings: Job 2: 1-10 pg 558 Before Psalms
Matthew 4: 1-11 pg 3 of NT
This morning is the second Sunday of Lent. The word “Lent” has its roots in an old English word meaning “Spring”, realising that in the northern hemisphere they are moving into spring as we are moving towards autumn. In Afrikaans we would say, “lente”, and lente is actually an English word which was stolen.
Spring is the time of pruning our trees, cutting back the dead growth and preparing them to erupt into new life. It’s also a time to dig compost into the ground and plant new plants in your garden so that they get the full advantage of the growth months.
For some of us, spring is also a time of cleaning out your cupboards, admitting you will never fit into those pants again and so you might as well give them away. You unpack all the cupboards of your house and are amazed at the fondue pots and exercise machines and expired medicines and all the other junk you bought. When you bought it you probably thought, “I have to have this.”
For the earliest Christians, new Christians were called catechumens. For Catechumens, Lent was a period set aside to Spring clean their hearts and their lives before they were baptised. They realised that their baptism was the start of their new life and they wanted to be pure.
There was a time when on Easter Sunday, just before dawn, all the catechumens would meet at a stream to be baptised. Lent was the time of preparation for that morning when they would seek to strip everything out of their lives that was ungodly. At that time lent wasn’t about giving up chocolate of coffee, it was about giving up lust and hate and worship of false gods and selfish-ambition. Some catechumens would resign their jobs because they could no longer do what they used to do, and serve God. Lent was about exorcising your demons so that you could present yourself as holy to God.
To realise that for many people, when they were baptised on Easter Sunday after a period of Lent, it meant their lives were different forever, even to the point where their families would disown them. On one side of town people were being baptised. On the other side of town their families were having funerals for them.
Observing Lent didn’t make people more popular, it often made them the objects of other people’s anger and rejection.
More recently Lent has been connected to the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Matthew says the Holy Spirit led Him there to be tempted by the devil.
For forty days and forty nights, Jesus fasted, and when He was at His physical weakest, that was when He was tempted. What the devil offered Him was to have more. He could have more provision, He could have more power, He could even have more protection.
While most of us won’t go into a desert and fast for forty days, the areas in which Jesus was tempted are not uncommon to us.
Lent is a time of repentance. Repentance means we turn our heads, our hearts and our bodies away from doing something that we believe stands in the way of our relationship with God, and we return to Him. We don’t only have to repent of our sin. We have to repent of the things we put in the place of God that make us feels we are OK.
When there is something wrong in our lives, we employ coping mechanisms, which are essential to our survival. They are like an anesthetic to avoid pain. But sometimes we become addicted to our coping mechanism and we use them to avoid dealing with the issues in our lives. Three of the strongest coping mechanisms we employ are the three temptations Jesus faced, provision, power and protection.
Some of us hide behind provision. We may think, “If I can earn more, then I will never have to face any problem again”. We treat poor people differently to rich people. The difference between beggars and billionaires is not their character. Many beggars are better people than billionaires, but what determines the way society treats them is the difference in their wealth. Go observe in a magistrates court and you will see that rich and poor people are treated differently, lady justice is not as blind as she should be. We want to be rich so that we will be treated with more respect, and people will try harder to gain our approval.
We buy bigger houses, more expensive cars, wider screen TV’s, not because we need them, but because we never want people to scrutinize us again and find us vulnerable. We hide our imperfection behind pretty things, even if we are in debt up to our eyeballs. But provision is not just about possessions. Sometimes we hide our insecurity or loneliness with food. As long as my fridge is full, I can survive anything life can throw at me.
The second coping mechanism we employ is power. People who have been shouted at by a boss, or treated unfairly, of abused by a family member, learn to cling to power. We climb the corporate ladder so we can shout at others, and no one can shout at us. Already in a preschool sandpit, children are fighting over who writes the rules for their games.
People can often be heard saying, “I will never let anyone treat me like that again”. Part of power is to strive to be self-sufficient so that you will never need anyone again. Lots of people when they are retrenched start their own companies and their mantra is, “I will never place my future in someone else’s hands again.” I will never need you or anyone to survive.
The third coping mechanism is that we increase our protection. My nephew’s house was burgled last November, and his response was to spend R50 000 on security. He felt his space was violated. He was afraid his wife and daughter were unsafe in their own home, and he never wanted to feel that way again, so he built an impenetrable jail.
When we get hurt, to stop the pain we often build a wall around our hearts to keep us safe from pain. We put burglar proofing and high walls and electric fences around our hearts so that no-one can ever steal our happiness again.
These three coping mechanisms are the very areas Jesus was tempted in.
Have you noticed that if you gave up chocolate for Lent, it doesn’t reduce your desire for chocolate; it probably makes you want it even more? If you gave up coffee, even the smell of coffee can drive you mad.
When we give up Provision, Power or Protection, our consciousness of how much we rely on these coping mechanisms increases dramatically.
During Lent, we don’t cut things out just for the fun of not having them, we cut them out to create a vacuum in us which we then choose to fill with more of God. We prune our trees so that they can grow new branches. We clean the old junk out of cupboards, so we can have space to store our treasures.
Most of us won’t go into a desert to be tempted. In fact, we probably spend a lot of energy and money to avoid wilderness experiences.
But there are wilderness experiences we cannot avoid. Maybe your wilderness experience is a hospital room. A friend of mine goes for chemo once a month, but each chemo treatment takes 3 days. Lying there for 3 days is his wilderness. It’s where he meets the devil and comes face to face with his worst fears without anywhere to hide. He is quite a severe racist, and usually the person next to him is a person of colour. It’s like God is putting his greatest struggle in his face and calling him to realize his common humanity.
There was a guy in the Old Testament called Job, and he lost everything. He lost his health, he lost his wealth, he lost his wife and his children. Everything was stripped away. At one point his wife said to him, “Why don’t you just curse God and die?”
Job responded, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
Is it always best for us to receive blessings from God?
In the wilderness, everything is stripped away and we come face to face with all our demons. In the wilderness it comes down to our relationship with God.
Sometimes our wilderness is losing our job, or our house.
Unlike Jesus who was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, our wilderness experiences are often not designed by God, but are induced by greed or laziness or selfishness, but God says He will use those crises for the good of those who love Him. God does not give us cancer, or take away our jobs, or crash our investments, but when those storms come, He will use the crisis to deepen us spiritually.
Sometimes our wilderness is our husband or wife filing for divorce.
Your wilderness can be discovering your child is using drugs.
Maybe your wilderness began when you heard that your investments had lost 30% of their value and your dividends would be cut in half.
Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for the provision, power or protection you normally count on to save your life, and find there is nothing there. No food. No earthly power. No special protection--just a Bible-quoting devil and endless amounts of loneliness.
This is not a place for the feint hearted; this is not a time to give up in fear. Sooner or later, every one of us will get to take our own wilderness experience, our own trip to the desert to discover who we really are and what our lives are really centred on.
No wonder we want to avoid these wilderness experiences, no-one wants to face their demons unarmed. When Jesus had finished in the wilderness, we read that angels came and ministered to Him. I think Matthew wants us to realise that Jesus would not have made it back without divine intervention.
We don’t need God so much when we are healthy. We don’t need God so much when our bank account provides our daily bread. We don’t need God when the walls around our hearts are keeping us safe from the danger of falling in love.
Even though Jesus came out of the wilderness hungry, clutching to life, He came out different. Jesus came out free. He was free from the cravings for all the things that would entice Him away from fulfilling God’s plan for His life.
He was free from His craving for provision. Never again would Jesus decide whether something was wrong or right based on whether it would pay His bills or leave Him destitute. Jesus would never compromise His beliefs for a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread.
Jesus was free from the lust for power. He didn’t care who thought He was great or who despised Him. It meant nothing to Him whether He was talking to a Pharisee or a beggar. Jesus did not play the political games the Pharisees and the Sadducees kept designing to trip Him. While others were fighting for position, Jesus was wrapping a towel around His waist and washing everyone’s feet. Jesus would go on to touch lepers and eat with prostitutes and sinners, because power no longer mattered to Him.
Jesus was free from the need for safety and security. Jesus would not keep quiet because of fear. Jesus would not shy away because He thought people might choose to kill Him, or stone Him, or even crucify Him. He would not call the truth a lie, or a lie the truth, to save His own life. Jesus would offer love and forgiveness to people, even to people who would reject Him and laugh at Him.
In the wilderness Jesus touched rock bottom, everything was stripped away, and it set Him free. His wilderness experience stripped away all the non-essentials.
But Lent is not just about subtracting things, it is equally about adding to our lives. The wilderness strengthened Jesus’ focus on His Father. Only one thing mattered, and that one thing was that He was doing the will of the one who sent Him.
God’s opinion mattered most to Him.
In the end, the devil left and the angels ministered to Jesus. Is that not the place we want to be? FREE. FREE. FREE.
No longer hiding from our demons, but having defeated them and being ministered to by God. Maybe we miss that intimacy with God, because we avoid the wilderness and we avoid the soul cleansing that happens there. We don’t get any holier because we avoid the scrubbing brush. Making we take Job’s wife’s option. It seems easier in a wilderness to curse God and just die than to cling to the God who loves us and live free.
For us today, anyone who wants to follow Jesus all the way to the cross needs the kind of clarity and unwaivering commitment that is found only in the wilderness. If there are no green shoots of spiritual growth, maybe it is because we have avoided the wilderness.
In Lent we choose to give up some things we are perfectly capable of having. But it can’t stop at chocolate or meat or sugar. We have to strip away as many things as we possibly can which build a wall between us and God.
I don’t have a problem with alcohol, so giving up alcohol for Lent has no impact on me. I have a lousy relationship with food though. When I get worked up I go for counselling to Mssrs Frigidaire and Kelvinator to make me feel better. The problem is that I should be going to sit with God, to explain to Him how I feel, what is stirring in my spirit, and to wait there long enough for Him to change my outlook.
Instead of praying, my fridge becomes my crutch, and it gets in the way of my relationship with God.
If you cope with stress by taking headache tablets, or a drink, or a steaming hot piece of bread, the wilderness challenge of Lent is to deny yourself that escapism, and go before God instead. Spend time with the Father exploring why you need to escape. Let God search the hidden closets of your life.
If you are on antidepressants, don’t stop taking them, but stop hiding behind them. Draw a battle line with the issue which makes you need to be on them in the first place. Deal with the root problem.
Lent is all about refusing to hide from our demons, but to face them head-on and to tell them our God is bigger.
When a person has been sexually abused, they usually develop two personas. They have a public persona which is just a mask to keep everyone at a distance, and a hidden persona which is afraid and lonely. For a person in that situation, the wilderness challenge of Lent is to drop your outer guard for a while so that your inner persona can tell someone about the trauma you have suffered, so that you can start to come back to life.
Lent is not about punishing yourself, and it is not about missing a few chocolates, it is about inviting God into the deeper parts of your soul.
The wilderness challenge of Lent is not to wait until your world falls apart, but to consciously choose to address the attitudes, the habits, the bad behaviour and our self-righteousness which leaves us feeling that there is a wall between God and us.
The reality is that none of us can switch off our coping mechanisms and be totally exposed to God free in a few minutes. It takes time to wean ourselves off the emotional and spiritual pain killers that we employ to keep us happy, and to start to rely on the still, quiet voice of God.
Take courage, the voice of the devil gets a lot louder before he goes away and the angels minister to us. Maybe that is why Lent is forty days long, not twenty minutes.
When Jesus came out of the wilderness, He was changed forever, He was disconnected from the things which would hold Him back, and He was radically connected to His Father.
The hope of Lent is the same for you.