2022-03-06 Lent 1
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
Lent has arrived again. The royal purple once again fills our midst. It’s a very heavy color, really. You know what happens if you spill a glass of Merlot on a white table cloth or carpet, right? If you don’t act quickly, that color will be with you for quite some time! There is a depth and darkness to that color we don’t find in any of the other seasons of the church. My favorite description of Lent is that it is a “bright sadness” – there is all this awareness of our sin, the reality of death, the continual darkness of Satan and yet, there is a brightness of the Light of Christ that assures us that He is with us, His forgiveness, life and salvation are indeed for us. And so, Lent embodies a certain richness and complexity we don’t see in the other Church seasons.
Part of that richness comes in the fact that Lent has it’s own special and unique hallmarks. I ran across a website that said “Lent has many themes, but the three major motifs are denial, prayer, and reflection.” But historically, the hallmarks of Lent have been prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Lent, more so than any other church season, really focuses on discipleship and the root of disciple is discipline. So, to be a Christian, to be a disciple, is to be spiritually disciplined. It means to train, much like an athlete does. Can you imagine if the Riders would decide to forgo training camp? What if they just skipped training all together? How successful would they be? How many games would they be truly prepared and ready for? It goes without saying. If you don’t practice and you don’t train and your don’t discipline yourself, you’re probably going to lose.
The season of Lent drives this point home for us. Spiritual disciplines help to get us ready for battle. I’m not talking about football games, but spiritual warfare. Look at our Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel. This is His Exodus that was spoken of on the mount of transfiguration. Just like Israel journeyed in the wilderness for 40 years after her “baptism” in the red sea, immediately after He is Baptized, He goes into the desert for 40 days and does battle with Satan. And, in the process, He shows us the Lenten disciplines that helped to prepare Him for this. Jesus, the Son of God, the most disciplined one of all is fasting. He’s not eating. Anything. For 40 days! And, ultimately, Jesus is victorious. He overcomes temptation by His fasting. His hunger, which would have been ravenous, does not overcome Him. Rather, our Lord controls His flesh. And our Lord’s 40 day example is the foundation of our 40 day Lenten fast.
But why do this? Why subject ourselves to a lack of food?! Well, here’s a little story about just that. A wealthy business man went on a retreat to a monastery to draw closer to God. When he arrived at the monastery, he was warmly greeted. Later, he was brought to the Abbot of the monastery for spiritual direction. While he was visiting with him, the Abbot asked the man if he would like a glass of water. The man responded “yes, please” with a smile. The Abbot poured the man a glass of water, but as the glass became full, the Abbot didn’t stop pouring! He kept pouring and pouring until the water overflowed the rim of the glass, ran onto the table and then drenched the man’s expensive suit. Jumping up in a frenzy the man yelled at the Abbot “What are you doing?! Look what you did to my suit!” Turning to the man, the Abbot said, “You are much like this glass of water. You are so full of concerns–concerns for riches and other troubles of the world. You are completely full. There is no space for you to hold anything else inside. There is no room for God in your life. Before God can dwell in you, you must empty yourself and make room for Him.”
Fasting, then, is precisely the way to empty ourselves from the cares and concerns of the world - the day to day anxieties we all face and have to deal with. Fasting is a discipline that prepares our hearts to grow closer to our Lord in prayer. It’s not some magical formula or the like. In fact, it is more than just abstaining from certain foods, or eating less food than we usually do. True Christian fasting involves emptying ourselves of sin, gossip, hatred, gluttony, and every other evil which rages in our flesh. Much like these trendy and popular cleanses you can do for your physical health, fasting allows us to be cleansed and then refilled with the Gospel. By removing the spiritual obstacles that get in the way, and fill us with all the wrong things, we let God once again become the true source of our nourishment and life. As Christ replied to the devil when He was tempted “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
Fasting is an amazing spiritual discipline because when we are hungry and feel those sharp stabbing reminders in our stomach, it reminds us that we have a need. We have a need, not for a Big Mac from McDonald’s, not for a whole box of chocolates or another U.S. gallon of ice cream. We have a need for God. We have a need for His Divine life and fellowship. We have a need for His care and company. His forgiveness and rescue from a life of sin and death. The spirit uses the body to draw closer to God and His love for us. It physically reminds us to pray, and that’s a good thing!
The last Lenten discipline is that of alms giving. In our culture, we’re familiar with “giving something up for Lent” like coffee, coke or cookies. But really, that’s become a caricature of what Lenten fasting is supposed to be. When you fast, either by giving up food altogether or restricting your diet to certain foods, ideally we should have saved some money not having to buy the food we usually eat. Make sense? So, fasting then gives us another opportunity for more spiritual growth and discipline: to give money away! We can afford to be generous with our alms!
A saint of the church was walking down the street when he was approached by a man wearing shabby clothes. The man begged for money, so the saint told his purse bearer to give the man 6 gold coins. The beggar thanked him, went quickly and changed clothes, then went back to the same saint and asked for money again. The purse bearer realized it was the same man and nudged his master. “Give him 6 gold coins” the saint said. As he left, the purse bearer whispered “this same man has received alms twice from you!” The saint pretended not to understand. Soon the same beggar came again, asking for money. The purse bearer looked sternly at his saintly master, to which the saint replied “Give him 12 gold coins, for perchance it is Christ putting my faith to the test.”
The world looks at this and sees a foolish old man wasting money on a no good shyster! But God looks upon him and sees a highly disciplined Saint who lives the very Kingdom of God. His generosity doesn’t judge or discriminate. His prayer makes his mind clear and focused. And his fasting draws him closer to every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This is the power of the Lenten disciplines in action. It follows the path of Christ in His journey to the cross and the victory over sin, death and the devil. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.