Ash Wednesday is February 22nd this year. It is one of those holidays, you know? A big day. Lent starts! We have a special church service. It is one of the most moving services of the year, what with the Imposition of the Ashes, with all that entails, and the heavy preaching of the Law involved in just that act, and the reception of the Lord's Supper as the Lord's answer to that Law - and our comfort in the face of it! We will be looking once again this year at the Passions of the Passion, those powerful emotions that were at work in the Lord Jesus and in those who participated in one way or another in the great Passion of our Lord. Those who cannot join us in the services can follow the Lenten Series this year, just a day or two behind the congregation, at www.lcmssermons.com and read or hear the sermons (or both) and share in our Lenten observance.
Lent, of course, is a season of repentance. That is why we begin with such a powerful preaching of the Law on Ash Wednesday. We know that life of a Christian is to be a life of repentance - Luther made that point with the first of the 95 Theses that he nailed on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, which began the Reformation - or at least the Lutheran Reformation. One of the problems with that on-going repentance has proven to be the fact that anything we do every day becomes, well, everyday, ordinary, and loses its punch, so to speak. So, it has proven useful to have special days and even seasons in which we renew our focus on repentance. Lent is particularly such a season.
Lent is particularly appropriate for such penitent mediation because it is the season leading up to Easter. We join with the church, throughout literally thousands of years, in preparing for the joys of Easter by considering why the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus was necessary, and how that fills Easter with a particular joy, by practicing repentance in a particularly deliberate way. We try to echo the forty days and forty nights of our Lord's testing in the wilderness, following His baptism, with our own observances. Many customs have sprung up over the centuries to aid the faithful in doing just that. Some customs have come and gone, but some of those that we continue to use in the Church in the twenty-first century include omitting the Hallelujah's and the more upbeat songs of praise in the worship services (such as the Gloria in Excelsis in TLH), dressing the altar in penitential purple (or violet), special hymns and music for the season, the mid-week Lenten services with special focuses on Lenten themes, special prayers, such as the Suffrages and the Bidding Prayer, Holy Week observances, and special fasts.
All of the customs are devotional, that is, they are intended to help the Christian keep in mind the penitential nature of the season and remember the cause of the Lord's sufferings and death - our sin. The point of this is not to feel miserable about sin, but that without a consciousness of sin, forgiveness is no big deal, and people begin to turn religion into a self-help society with the purpose of aiding us in feeling good about ourselves. The Gospel doesn't really make any sense to those who are secure in sin or feeling particularly self-righteous.
If you are tempted to wonder if it really makes that much difference, look around you at the world, and particularly so-called Christian churches that focus on self-esteem and positive thinking. They all seem to begin with a seemingly-worthy goal of being uplifting and helping people approach life in a positive way, but they very quickly devolve into places where God's Word is denied and rejected, and the heart of the message is diametrically opposed to the proclamation of the Christian Church throughout the ages. Norman Vincent Peale was the name (or one of them) in the fifties and sixties, then Robert Schuller with his Crystal Cathedral, and today it is Joel Osteen. They all preached the essential decency of man, the rejection of the category of Sin, and some version of the self-actualizing, feel-good-about-yourself gospel that turns Jesus into some sort of teacher of positive (or possibility) thinking. Their 'Jesus' is just a man, not a Savior, and their "salvation" ranges from pulling-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps works righteousness to denying the possibility of sin and judgment and condemnation; the sort of preaching that the adversaries of Jeremiah were so expert at in Jerusalem in the days just before Nebuchadnezzar's Army's final visit.
The list of happy-faced false teachers above is by no means exhaustive. Today we have the "Emerging Church", and a seemingly-endless cadre of TV preachers, and their ilk, busy telling us that God is just delighted with us, and we just need get out of His way to permit the blessings that God really wants us to have to flow, and everything will be right with the world. The thing that they all have in common is that they reject the clear teaching of the Word of God - both of the Law and of the Gospel. They deny the Law in as much as they want to ameliorate its utter severity, and they deny the Gospel by trying to tell their listeners that they can do something - anything - to fix the problem all by themselves to any degree at all.
Lent (which all the happy-faced crowd tends to completely ignore) comes along every year to remind us just how complete and thorough-going our corruption in sin really is, and how helpless we are in the face of who we are to do anything to save ourselves or prepare ourselves to be saved by Jesus. It would be depressing if Lent did not end with Easter. But we observe Lent in context of the Gospel, knowing and believing that Jesus has redeemed us, rescued us from sin, death, and hell, and poured out His grace upon us even though we are unprepared and undeserving of such a salvation.
I say that it is in the context of the Gospel because we know the Gospel already. It is not like Lent comes along and wipes our hearts and minds clean of faith and grace. It simply reminds us annually of how desperately we need it! That is why the Sundays during Lent are not actually part of Lent! We pause every week to celebrate Easter! We focus on sin and repentance all week long, and then we come up for air, as it were, in the bright sunshine of the Gospel. We hear the absolution, the Pastor preaches the Gospel (both Law and Gospel) if he is faithful, we receive the Lord's own body and blood, once given and shed for our redemption, and with it, the forgiveness He purchased and won by His Passion and death and resurrection. The week of somber penitential exercises - which is the point of Lent - serves to highlight our appreciation and thanksgiving and joy in the celebration of grace which our Lord Himself hosts each Sunday. That is, in point of fact, why we call it "celebrating" the Lord's Supper.
The objective is to learn that God is not simply delighted with us. He is delighted with Jesus Christ. He loves us. That is why He sent His Son to suffer and die in our place and on our behalf. For Christ's sake, He counts us - those who believe - as righteous with Christ's righteousness. Those who reject Him and refuse to take Him at His word and trust in His promises, have been purchased, but have set themselves at odds with God and declined His grace and refused to allow God to save them from themselves. Why they do that is between them and God. Some don't want to take anything they have not earned. Others cannot conceive of the love of God and will not permit themselves to be dealt with in any way of which they cannot conceive. It has to make sense to them. God must deal with them their way or not at all, and so it is not at all. For many it is slavery to the one who rules this world against God, and for the rest, I suspect it is just pride.
Many people simply will not humble themselves enough to repent. They cannot confess that they are what they are: sinners, helpless before God in their wickedness, and utterly corrupt and without value before God, except in the light of His undeserved grace. That is why their preachers talk about the only true sin being a low self-esteem, and why they preach silly ideas like; all that they have to do is 'name it and claim it' and everything is possible and within their reach, or the odd notion that God really wants to bless them with the blessings of this world, but they are stopping Him (stopping the Almighty God) by failing to pray the right prayer or by accepting their lives as they are today.
It is true that unbelievers are missing out on what God wants for them, but they haven't stopped Him. He redeemed them in Christ on the cross centuries ago. They are simply refusing His gifts, already purchased and poured out for them. They don't think they need it, or they believe that it is their actions and decisions that determine their eternal destiny. God must wait for them, in their opinion. Their works, not God's will make the difference. Water cannot work forgiveness, and bread and win cannot communicate God's grace. They cannot imagine how God would work the Sacrament and give us His body and blood, so they refuse to receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation God has placed there. Their spiritual poverty is lived out in the midst of the riches God pours out for them, and they starve for the grace of God which He offers freely to them in His holy meal.
Of course, we are no better. We are just like the unbelievers, except for the grace of God which we have received, and except for the working of the Holy Spirit in us and among us through the Word and the Sacraments. Because we have a history of faith, we often wrongly imagine that we have the ability to believe within ourselves. And that is where Lent (and the other penitential holidays and seasons) come into play. It is something akin to the Church "biffing" us - a gentle tap along side the head to remind us of who and what we really are. Lent is a call to repentance, daily and sincere repentance. It is that devotional preparation for seriously considering the Passion of our Lord, and our need for it, so that when Holy Week draws to a close and we celebrate Easter, we really celebrate!
Sadly, we are often tempted to make light and make less of Lent than we should. It is so familiar, and we have so much to do. It becomes all too easy to skip the services, after all they take up so much time, each Wednesday. Some congregations have suspended the practice of mid-week services because so few bother to pay them any mind any longer. Even when we attend, it is easy to pay less attention to the penitential aspect, and become literary critics of the sermon, or music critics of the hymn choices. Some even tune out and miss the sermon, although that is harder to do when attendance is as small as it gets at some services.
That is where customs, such as the Lenten Fast, can be of some help. I have been told that the Lenten Fast is a Roman Catholic custom. I cannot speak to that. I have been a Lutheran all of my life, and my earliest memories included "giving something up for Lent". It is true that my mother was raised in the Roman church, so that may account for it. When I was a kid, everyone I knew gave something up for Lent, except the Jewish girl in my class. Of course, the neighborhood I grew up in was predominantly Roman Catholic too. But the Lenten Fast was a way to keep Lent in the front of one's mind all week long.
Sometimes we gave up a food item, like chocolate. Other times we give up something else, such as a favorite TV program, or some activity we liked to do daily, but did not need to. Once, the fast was to do a certain chore each day that we did not ordinarily do, to please our parents and to remember Lent was upon us. That one did not work so well. My mom made that chore a regular part of my life after Lent that year - which made me repent of that idea that year! The idea, however, is to pick something that will bring Lent into your mind every day - it could be as simple as saying a particular prayer every morning or evening for the six weeks of Lent, or reading a Psalm every day before bed - if that is not already your custom. It might add something to your life, rather than giving something up, but it is still the Lenten Fast if you designate it as yours for Lent.
The idea is to make Lent part of your consciousness all season long, to aid you in fixing your heart and mind on repentance. We need to repent daily, but the real goal is to remind yourself not of the need, but of the desire to repent and so deliberately take your place under the grace of God, receiving what we need so dearly and finding our true joy in forgiveness and salvation, or, as we say in the Catechism, "the Old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drown and die with all sins and evil lusts and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever." You know, use our Baptism as we should.
Yours in the Lord,
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