The sermon for tonight didn’t start out as a sermon.
It was going to be my presentation for this month’s women’s group. When the women’s group got snowed out, I posted it on my blog. Some of you have read it.
But it says what I want to share with you on this Ash Wednesday, as we begin the often misunderstood and misused season of Lent.
But, even if this is a re-run for you, you may notice things you didn’t catch when you read it on the blog.
Plus, like a DVD of a movie or TV show, there are a few added special features. In any case, I hope you find it helpful.
Many people use Lent to align themselves with Christ. They do this through the adoption of what are called spiritual disciplines. Lenten disciplines can be good, strengthening faith and helping us to love God and love others more faithfully.
But like many good things, we human beings have a way of messing up the whole idea of Lenten disciplines.
"I'm going to give up chocolate," some will announce.
"I'm not drinking beer during Lent," others might say.
"I've decided to give up cussing until Easter," they might say.
But, here's the deal: If something is getting in the way of our being Christians, isn't it also worth asking God to help us get rid of it, not just during Lent, but through our whole lives? Why is something bad during Lent, but not bad the rest of the year?
And, if something we add to our lives as our Lenten discipline helps us grow closer to Christ and to live in a more Christ-like way during Lent, can't it do the same things all year long?
If, this Lenten season, you're giving up chocolate just to lose weight, or giving up beer to please a spouse, or giving up cussing to make yourself more acceptable to some people, your "giving up" is meaningless from God's perspective.
Under such circumstances, you're not undertaking these disciplines to honor God, but as part of a self-improvement kick!
Self improvement is fine. But we shouldn’t claim anything we do just for self-improvement as a spiritual discipline, as something we’re doing for God.
Otherwise, we risk being the kinds of people Jesus condemns in tonight’s Gospel lesson:
- People who practice piety just to be seen as pious, religious people;
- People who give to charity to be seen by others as generous;
- People who pray so that others will think they’re faithful;
- People who fast in order to get kudos for others for being heroically self-sacrificing.
Our Ash Wednesday liturgy mentions four disciplines most closely associated with Lent. These four disciplines might be ones you'll want to consider adopting this year.
But don’t adopt them with the attitude that, "I'll give them up after Lent." Use Lent as a time to integrate these disciplines into your life, for keeps.
The first Lenten discipline the liturgy mentions is repentance.
Repentance gets a bad rap. It's often seen as a humiliating exercise in which we make ourselves miserable for our sin.
Confession and sorrow for sin are parts of authentic repentance, but the main words used in the Bible for repent tell a fuller story. Simply put, repentance is changing the direction of our lives, changing our minds to think more like God. We refuse to walk away from Christ and instead, turn around to walk toward Him and the way of life He has pioneered for us. [See Hebrews 2:10-13 and Hebrews 12:1-2.]
Knowing that Christ has died to save us from paying the price for our own sins, we ask God for the power to live a life in which the will of God is our highest priority.
Repentance can be a painful thing because it means owning up to our sins, imperfections, and need of God.
But repentance is also a joyful thing because through it, God gives us forgiveness, fresh starts, and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us live the life God has made for all who believe in Jesus.
Christians who choose repentance for their Lenten discipline would do well to adopt the prayer of King David, found in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God...See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” When we repent, we ask God to show us our errors and change the course our lives are taking, steering us toward Christ and new life!
A second discipline mentioned in our Ash Wednesday liturgy is fasting. Fasting can mean simply doing away with things that get in the way of our following Christ or living life God's way. It may also mean doing without some things that aren’t bad in themselves--things like food, hours on the computer or watching TV, going to sporting events, window shopping at the mall--that keep us from prayer, worship, reading Scripture, attending to our primary relationships, or serving others.
I always suggest replacing the thing from which a person fasts with a positive, God-honoring activity. When we vacate a bad habit, it leaves a hole in our lives and schedules. It’s too tempting to indulge the behavior from which you’re fasting if you don’t have something good to take its place. If you've decided, for example, to give up watching television one night a week, you'll be able to follow through on your discipline and imbue it with some meaning beyond being a forty-day stunt of your will, if you use your usual TV time volunteering at a food bank.
A third discipline mentioned each Ash Wednesday is prayer. Prayer is conversation with God. Of course, believers should, as the Bible teaches, "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). But focused times of prayer, at set times each day, become our special appointments with God, deepening our faith, giving our lives both peace and direction.
One point about these special prayer times I would make is to be certain that you always begin your prayers by reading a chapter from the Bible or a devotion based on a passage of Scripture. Since prayer is conversation with God, it's good to let God get in the first word. Otherwise, our prayers can devolve into monologues about our wants and our feelings.
Psalm 37:4 gives us the priority our prayers should reflect: “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Put God first. When you do that, your desires will change. God’s priorities will become your priorities. What you pray for will change. God and you will be moving in the same direction. And you’ll find God empowering you to do things outside of your comfort zone.
My buddy Steve Sjogren has a new book out called, Heaven’s Lessons. There, Steve tells about his going to a Best Buy one day, looking for an accessory for his iPhone. He saw a sales clerk who, Steve says, didn’t look different from anybody else there.
But some time before this shopping trip, Steve had been praying that God would help him to do whatever God wanted him to do. Steve assumed that God would help him to do things he was comfortable doing.
As he stood in the Best Buy though, he sensed God telling him, “If you approach that salesman and offer to pray for him, I’ll give you one of my prayers to pray.” That seemed crazy to Steve, walking up to a stranger and offering to pray with him! But then he thought he was probably never going to see this guy again and if things got weird, he could just skip going to Best Buy and shop online for a few months.
Steve walked over to the guy and said, “You obviously don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but sometimes I pray for people, and good things happen. I feel like I’m supposed to pray for you for ten seconds. Would that be all right?”
The guy looked around, evidently to see if the coast was clear, and told Steve, “Yeah, go for it.” Steve closed his eyes and touched the guy’s arm. As he did, he got a clear mental picture of this Best Buy employee sitting in a medical school classroom, wearing a white smock, his initials embroidered on the pocket. Steve prayed, “Lord, on his first day of medical school, show him that he didn’t get there by his own hard work, but by the favor you gave him as his grandmother prayed for him.”
The prayer was over. But when Steve looked up at this guy, “his eyes were wide open. His jaw had dropped. His nose was running, and tears dripped down his cheeks.” “How did you know about me trying to get into medical school?” he asked. “Who are you?” Steve explained, “I’m just a guy who sometimes prays for people.” This young man later became a Christian, a member of Steve’s church, and a doctor.
We aren’t all going to be used by God in the exact same ways God uses Steve when he prays. But when we pray God’s way, delighting in the Lord, putting ourselves at the disposal of God for His purposes and not our own, God will give us the desires of our hearts. And what could anyone desire more than to be a partner with God in fulfilling His plans for the world?
A fourth Lenten discipline is doing works of love. Jesus says that whenever we have cared for those the world regards as "the least of these,” we actually serve Him (Matthew 25:31-46).
There is no place in the world that can’t be made better by the love of God. And there’s no end to what God will empower us to do to pass along the love God gives through Jesus Christ.
One work of love we may undertake is reaching out to a family member who has been ostracized from the family.
Another might be participating in a kindness outreach.
Another, picking up groceries for a homebound neighbor.
It might be doing something many of you often do, sending a card to a shut-in.
Whatever the work of love you do, if it's done in the Name of Jesus Christ, you'll find that what started out as something you thought you were doing to benefit others will, miraculously, benefit you, freeing your from your slavery to yourself, turning you out toward the wider world. You will feel and you will be more alive for it.
Jesus says, "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).
Now, if in what I’ve said (or ever said) I've come across as some "expert" either on Lenten disciplines or on being a Christian, let me close by saying that I am a sinner in daily need of Christ's forgiveness and help to live as the human being I was created by God to be.
I am, like you, a disciple. That word disciple translates the Greek New Testament word, mathetes, and it means student. I’m a student learning what it means to follow Jesus.
And if you’re like me, a sinner learning to follow Jesus, you might consider adopting one of these four Lenten disciplines--repentance, fasting, prayer, works of love--this year.
Your Lenten discipline could do a lot more than reshape your waistline; it could reshape your soul.
It could change your life not just your Lent, but for eternity. Amen