The First Sunday in Lent
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

 

The season and practice of “Lent” dates all the way back to the 4th century. The church “season” started out as a spiritual “tithe” (forty days, or nearly one tenth of the year) that the soon-to-be-baptized underwent as preparation for their entrance and initiation into the church at the Easter Vigil, the Easter celebration. It climaxed the three years of teaching and training they had undergone to become Christians!

When infant baptism pretty well replaced adult baptism, “Lent” as a season of self-discipline and preparation shifted to the whole congregation. All of the baptized, not just the baptismal candidates, were called to renewal and rebirth during Lent. Everyone in Christ needed time to “tighten” things up–to “regoal” themselves according to life in the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, the practice of a forty-day fast had plenty of scriptural precedent. Moses had spent forty days on Mount Sinai in preparation to receive the Law; Elijah had spent forty days in the wilderness to prepare to hear the “still, small voice” of God; and Jesus had spent forty days and nights in the wilderness seeking the will of God for his life, while also doing battle with the Devil.

None of us, I dare say, has a quarrel about the need for renewal. None of us contest the need to “re-goal” on the things of God verses staying stuck in all sorts and conditions of sinfulness. So what sort of “self-discipline and preparation” should we aim for in this penitential season? What kind of tithe will we make for the forty days and forty nights of Lent?

The answer, of course, is personal—the individual’s decision and task to work out in fear and trembling. But there are three disciplines that I might suggest to you this morning.

One is to strive to be in attendance at all worship services during Lent and Holy Week, and at the Easter Sunday celebration that is the climax of all our Lenten and Holy Week preparation. Easter is the goal of our Lenten work, and the promise of our faith and our God, brought to us by the work and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is the culmination of any and all small sacrifices we might make during Lent in recognition and thanksgiving of Christ’s great sacrifice and his victory over death. Prepare and discipline yourself this Lenten season by attending worship at every opportunity, and praying that God might make us worthy of Christ’s gift, and of his grace.

A second suggestion as a Lenten tithe is to nurture your capacity to be insurgent—rebellious. Why does so much of life today look the same? Why do we live in such a spirit of sameness, following for the most part the same patterns, the same routines and the same desires? We’re addicted to sameness—our routines, our roles, our rigidities.

In fact, the greatest addiction of all may be our addiction to personality. If we were to list the addictions of those who live in modern society in order of popularity (prevalence), the lineup would likely be competition, stress, work, status; And then maybe violence, food, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and all the things we normally associate with addiction.

Whatever our idol or addiction, Lent offers a time to change appetites. To move from the “appetite for sameness” to an “appetite for newness.” And not simply newness for novelty’s sake. But a freshness of thought and action that has its genesis in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are challenged to make our mantra for Lent nothing less than Paul’s clear call to new life in and through the indwelling of Christ Jesus: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
Seek that way.
Seek that transformation.

Finally, the third suggestion for a Lenten discipline is that we nurture our capacity to live in the ordinary world with extraordinary grace, which is hardly in line with our human nature and its penchant toward selfishness.

Like the story of the man and woman who go to the movies together. He says to her, “Can you see all right?” She says, “Yes.” He says, “Is there a draft on you?” She says, “No.” He says, “Is your seat comfortable?” She says, “Yes.” He says, “Would you mind changing places with me?”

This orientation of self-concern is ever-present in our world. It is readily apparent in any crowded parking lot, including our own church parking lot. It never fills up from the farthest to the closest places, showing a selfless last-shall-be-first mentality. Even the able-bodied snag the closest places they can find, leaving the other “less able” to fend for themselves. Parking lots fill up from the front to the back.
And so it is in life—in the world.
Most of us really have bought into a “me first” (or at least, “mine first” way of life—way of being.

And while a self that is centered is something downright positive, self-centeredness is a life-robber. It has little to do with authentic empathy, of getting outside oneself as Christians are called to do—if we are to live in harmony and peace and happiness with God. The abundant life that we are promised has nothing to do with “having,” but depends on our learning to give and live in grace.

George Bernard Shaw made the point in a most unforgettable way, when he declared, “This is the true joy in life: being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”

Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty, the “Chicken soup for the Soul” people tell us, and maybe that is as good a place as any to start living out your Lenten assignment of newness of life.

Live in the Spirit.
Pray. Fast.
Draw close to the Body though worship and community participation. And then, live out of the Spirit.

Get out of the squirrel cage of me (and mine), and into the landscape of others. Be used for a purpose beyond yourself. Participate in extraordinary grace—especially being there for those who can’t “repay” you.

Meister Eckhart, the noted 14th century writer on the spiritual life, made just this point in his teaching on prayer. He said, “If you are in rapture in the seventh heaven and you hear of an old lady who is hungry, descend from your mystical experience and bring this child of God a bowl of soup.”

For forty days and nights, focus on worship and prayer and service. Move from the dull familiarity of “me” to the rebellious realm of “other.” Live in and by and through the ever fresh wisdom of the Spirit. Be a nonconformist for the sake of Christ, and maybe, just maybe, Lent this year will be one of the most significant times of your life.

Live and serve…In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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