During this Lenten season many of us have, of course, taken on special fasts and disciplines.
Lent is appropriately understood as a season of self-denial, and I think most of us experience that pretty well. Whether it be reaching out for that offered chocolate chip cookie only to remember you gave up sweets, smelling some savory meat dish as you pass one of your favorite restaurants on Friday or dragging oneself out of bed an hour early to keep a special prayer time, the disciplines of self-denial and self-sacrifice often heightened for us during the Lenten season. And it is certainly my experience that I learn a great deal from these private temptations, private victories, and private sacrifices. These things teach all of us more about our desires own desires, our love of pleasure and the difficulty we sometimes have moving away from pleasure towards sacrifice.
But it is also true that after years of Lenten practice, the disciplines can grow stale and start to seem “same old, same old.”
Or maybe the fasting was fresh and spiritually enlightening for the first couple of weeks, but now that there are only a couple of weeks left it seems like you have learned all you could possibly learn from not having that morning cup of coffee.
What I want to do today is just briefly suggest a few ways of thinking about the fasting and disciplines of Lent – ways of thinking that are, in fact, especially appropriate to the last few weeks of the season. These are not new or original or clever. But they were very helpful for me as I thought through them and served to reinvigorate my own Lenten season. I hope they will do the same for some of you.
First of all, Lent can be not only a time of private discipline but also a time of corporate understanding, understanding who we are as the People of God.
Take Jesus’ forty day fasting in the wilderness (the model for our own Lenten fast). It is clear that in that fast and in his temptation, he was thinking beyond himself.
When he answers the devil’s first temptation, for instance, by saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” he is identifying with the People of God and their wanderings in the wilderness, quoting from this passage in the book of Deuteronomy:
And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. Your garments did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the Lord your God chastens you.
Jesus’ is identifying in his hunger and in his temptation with the hunger, temptation and discipline of the entire People of God during their wandering in the wilderness.
And when you read the gospels and the encounter the controversies that swirled around Jesus’ ministry, it is clear that the issue of feasting and fasting was an issue of group identity, a serious consideration in living out what it meant to be the people of God in that day and time.
At one point the disciples of John come to Jesus and ask, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Other groups of Jews in Jesus’ time considered his feasting inappropriate. He gained the reputation of one who “ate and drank with tax collectors.” And it wasn’t just the company he was keeping that bothered them. It was the fact that he was not fasting in a way that others considered essential to a people who were still in exile, who still were not experiencing the fullness of the promise God had made to them.
His answer to those disciples of John is illuminating not only for what he was doing, but also for what it might mean for us to fast in the twenty-first century.
“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” he asked them. “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
What does that answer mean for us and our fasting?
We live in the light of the victory of God over death. We have become the body of his Christ. We are full of the Spirit of God. The bridegroom has come.
And yet, we are a still people “between feasts” so to speak – between the feasts that Jesus held with his disciples inaugurating a new way of Kingdom life and the feast that he will one day preside over again, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
We live as a people in a time between times.
We live between the Jesus’ victorious “It is finished” of the cross and his promised “Behold I make all things new” of Revelation.
With its self-denial and self-discipline, Lent is an excellent time for us to look forward together to the time when he will truly be all in all.
A second thing we might meditate upon during Lent is closely related to this.
Lent can be a time not only of sacrifice but of deep, joyful hungering, longing and anticipation. When we do consider that we are, as the people of God, in a time between times, it should fill us with longing for what God has in store for us and for his creation, for what is at the end of the road we are on.
Here are two familiar passages from the book of Revelation, but perhaps we can hear them afresh in the context of Lent and this reality of living in a “time between times.”
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
So Lent can be a time when, looking forward to Easter and beyond to all that Easter promises, we are filled with longing and joyful anticipation in the midst of self-sacrifice and self-denial.
Finally, Lent can be not only a time of self-denial, but in that self-denial and self-discipline a time of preparation and readiness for action. For even in Lent, when we remember that the Easter victory follows the Lenten fast, we can also be mindful that Pentecost follows hard upon Easter.
This time of sacrifice is not only a time of testing and not only a time of stirring up longing in us for the complete victory of the Lord, but also a time to strengthen us for the Pentecostal work to which God has called us.
In the forty days of Lent and in the Passion Week, we enter into Jesus’ sacrifice. In Easter, we enter into the victory of his Resurrection. And in Pentecost we are commissioned in the fullness of his Spirit to do his work in the world – not only to wait for the fulfillment of all things but to work for it.
In fact, it is the very things that we are filled with longing for that we ought to prepare to enact in the world.
As we wait for God to wipe away every tear, we ought to be a people who wipe away the tears of the world.
As we wait for the day when there will be no mourning, crying or pain, we ought to mourn with those who mourn, weep with those who weep, and heal those who are in need of healing.
As we wait for the tree of life to be restored, we ought to bear the fruit of life in our world.
As we wait for the time when night will be no more, we ought to strengthen ourselves to be a light in the darkness that still is.
As we wait for the City of God to come down, we ought to work to be that city on a hill that Jesus spoke of.
So Lent offers us an opportunity not only for sacrifice and discipline, but also for fellowship, for joyful longing and for training in the work of the Lord. And perhaps in the next two weeks, we might look for ways as a people to fill our Lenten disciplines up more and more with the spirit of the Lord.
May the Lord pour out his blessings upon us the remainder of this Lenten season, teach us to long for Easter in its fullness and prepare us for the work ahead.
Amen, come Lord Jesus.