Lent and the joy set before us

For the joy set before [Jesus] he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Every Sunday during Lent is to be celebrated as a mini-Easter in anticipation of Resurrection Day, Easter Sunday, when we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. An important part of Lent is a looking forward to the life that comes out of death. The death of the cross in Jesus is followed by his resurrection life, shared by all the faithful, all believers beginning in this life, the culmination in the resurrection of the body and of all creation in the life to come.

So we don’t fast (if we do) or practice penitential sorrow for and confession of our sins during Lenten season only for their own good reasons. But we do so in anticipation of the joy set before us in Jesus, and we press ahead in the way of the cross so that like our Lord we can embrace and live fully in that joy to come.

Of course this process is ongoing in this life, even if punctuated with emphasis during Lenten season. It is to a major extent about joy, knowing the joy of the Lord which is our strength. As we continue to press on in this world as God’s resurrection people in Christ in the way of the cross.

Lent and sacrifice

At the heart of Lent is sacrifice. Lenten season is about following the one who gave his life as a once for all sacrifice on the cross. At the heart of such giving is sacrificial love. And it’s a love that is of God in Jesus and by the Spirit. And so as we take on the “fast” of Lent, we do so as those who would deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow our Lord in the way of love.

Of course this is not our natural bent. We naturally want to look out for ourselves, or we succumb to our fears and revert back to our default position, which is to save our lives. I think sometimes, maybe often, we may need to simply bow down so to speak and take the brunt of the waves of fear or whatnot that comes over us, and continue on following. In time the Lord will help us share in his joy and love. The peace that passes all understanding will come. But during Lent we can hopefully enter more deeply into the same kind of sufferings and death of our Lord. That we might know him more fully in his resurrection life and power.

Lent and fasting

I am not that well acclimated to either Lent or the practice of fasting. Scot McKnight’s book on fasting is the best treatment I know on the subject in which he makes the case from scripture that fasting is essentially a response to something, perhaps one’s sins, some happenings, or anticipation of God’s promises being fulfilled in a given situation. It has been a while since I’ve read my copy, but this gets at something of the summary of his scripture based suggestion, which actually is different than how it has been and is taught. Just an all around good book, which covers the angles from scripture, as well as gives words of warning and advice to those who maybe shouldn’t fast at all, and to the rest of us.

I have to acknowledge that I’ve not practiced fasting, at least for many years, and I’m hardly acclimated at all to the practice of Lent. We are creatures who not only need food for physical sustenance, but we enjoy the fellowship that can come with it, whether (preferably, I say) at the table, or in our chairs in the same room. But there is a season for fasting as well as feasting.

I particularly see fasting as helpful during a time when I want to be in engaged ongoing prayer over a matter, usually of grave concern. Since I’m not used to the practice, I try to make up for it in other ways. One way or another I want to give myself to the matter at hand in prayer to God. And keep on praying until I have some sense of release and peace on the matter. Not meaning that I won’t continue to pray about it.

There is no getting around the fact that Lent itself is to be a season of fasting of some sort. Just how we’re to practice that is often not prescribed, unless you’re part of some circles, and today compared to the history of the church, is relatively lax. It amounts to a period of 40 days of fasting, some giving up meats or what not (chocolate?), with the goal of somehow or another participating in Lent as we think of our Lord’s sufferings and death for us and look forward to his resurrection. Knowing that Jesus’ death and resurrection is not only our salvation, but that salvation takes us into something of that reality in this life.

Lent and spiritual warfare

Anyone who thinks that Lent and spiritual warfare don’t go together has another thing coming. Anyone who dismisses spiritual warfare altogether has another thing coming, as well. One way or another the enemy will be trying to get us off track, out of the grace that is ours in Jesus and away from the way of the cross which amounts to their defeat. The victory of God is in the cross of Jesus, which refers both to his death and resurrection. And his followers are to follow suit, to walk that same path into resurrection power and life in and through him.

Yes, there are spiritual entities out there, not flesh and blood, but often behind flesh and blood. Not that humans can’t be evil, we all have evil in ourselves. But they stir up the glowing ashes and pour fuel on the fire. And they seek to undermine God’s work in Jesus, which in essence is always the way of death and resurrection. We see a prime example of this after Peter’s great confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (those two terms being synonymous at the time, Son of God not yet bursting through to its full Trinitarian meaning I’m guessing).

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[e] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

Jesus addressed Peter as Satan, but that thought is not far removed from the idea that Jesus was addressing the entity behind Peter’s words as well. Satan means opposer, but it is also the prime name for the devil. And we might as well face it: we in Jesus are in a spiritual battle. Yes, the war has been won in the victory of Jesus at the cross. But we won’t do well if we fail to accept the reality of this battle. It is something we have to face and from time to time live in as in walking in the muck and the mire, which is anything but pleasant. And Lent is prime time (as much as any) for this to be to the fore. To be forewarned is to be forearmed to a significant extent. We need to be ready and to accept it as part of our following of Jesus in this life.

in dismay continuing to follow

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

The disciples of our Lord must have wondered from time to time why in the world they were on the journey to Jerusalem. Jesus told them three times that they were to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer many things, be killed and be raised to life after three days. They couldn’t comprehend it, but they understood enough that it was past their understanding. It just didn’t make sense in their world or understanding of things, including their understanding of the scriptures themselves. And we read in other places, they simply weren’t ready to understand.

How true that can be for us as well. We may have had a habit of holding on to things in a certain way which runs counter to trusting in the Lord with all one’s heart. We can’t say for sure just what those things might be; they can touch sore spots so to speak, areas we don’t want touched. Of course the enemy comes in looking for a hay day in which they can run us through anything which distracts and detours us from God and God’s will in his grace for us in Jesus.

The disciples kept following; the Lord had already designated them apostles, only one was to fail, Judas Iscariot. But the rest both made good and confirmed the Lord’s calling for them. Even in the midst of not understanding well if at all what was going on, they continued on day after day. Jesus himself had a lot to do with that. He knew how to guide them and indeed they were a fellowship. We shouldn’t forget the women who helped them along the way, so that they could continue on in the Lord’s ministry.

To deny oneself, take up one’s cross and follow surely should be the goal of every disciple or follower of our Lord. By the Spirit we are surely in training for this. It is the grace in which we’re to live. In doing so, we entrust ourselves fully to the one who is trustworthy. Not only are we to accept by faith the truth of who he is and what he teaches us, which is the essential starting point. But we must follow through to see that truth worked out more and more fully in our lives. So that we might fulfill his calling to us, a calling to full identification with him as we share his gospel to the world.

single-mindedness

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

An important consideration during Lent is simply just how single-minded we are in devotion to God and how that plays out in our lives.

All too often I’m afraid we can be all over the place. We have this and that going, and something else over there on the side, not to mention what might be on the back burner. And that can be true even concerning good, religious things. We can be occupied with things as kind of an end to themselves, forgetting that everything actually has one end. And that’s where single mindedness comes in. To be single minded is to be simple in the sense that life is boiled down essentially to one thing: following the Lord.

The disciples were certainly scattered in their thoughts and were kept physically on track only because our Lord was not scattered in his. Jesus had set his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. He knew he was going there to suffer and die, yes on a cross, and on the third day to be raised to life. Many details not only had to be taken care of along the way, but were front and center as they would come up. Jesus dealt with them with a singular focus in the love of God and on the way of and to the cross.

Surely in that, the disciples themselves were being trained. To learn to see life the same way, getting rid of what is not only hurtful, but not essential. Learning to take up their own cross and follow. Becoming single-minded. Something we can meditate on and pray about during this Lenten season.

in the dust

My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

The psalm of these lines, while certainly expressing something of what the psalmist or others in their day went through, is fulfilled in scripture plainly through our Lord’s suffering. Note its  opening lines:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Death is ordinarily not something we look at in the face. In fact in our culture it is well hidden until it forces its way into the open. But at the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, it’s at the heart of the ceremony. The priest or pastor smears ashes on the forehead of the participants as a sign of both their mortality and repentance.

Lent is a time of looking forward to the climax of the Christian calendar in our Lord’s death and resurrection. During the forty days leading to Easter Sunday, we even embrace something of death, knowing that for us through our Lord, it is the way to life. By faith and baptism we are taken into Jesus’ death and thus brought through into his resurrection life.

During the season of Lent the ceremony lends itself to living in something of this death in order that we may live in something of the fullness of this life in and through Jesus our Lord. Lent underscores what is to be a way of life to us in Jesus.

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

bumbling followers

To follow Jesus doesn’t mean we have to have it all together. In fact I would like to argue that part of truly following him is not to have it all together at all. One of my favorite films is about a brother now with the Lord, whose music I not only esteem, but the man himself. I esteem him as a true follower of Jesus. The film is entitled, Ragamuffin, and it presents one part of the life of Rich Mullins: God’s grace meeting him in his brokenness. Give it a watch, and like us, give a copy (or more) away.

The disciples in the gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are far from having it all together. And even after Pentecost, we see some missteps along the way even from Peter himself. While Paul makes it clear that he hasn’t arrived. At the same time, while true followers don’t have it altogether in both their brokenness and sin, they are truly following. Oftentimes the light shines the brightest through darkness, but the light also changes us. And in a sense through the light of the world, Jesus, we become lights of the world in and through him, made evident by our deeds, our good works.

And so we continue to follow our Lord, come what may no matter what, even in all our stumbling and bumbling. We follow the one who loves us and gave himself for us. To the cross.

one way journey

Sometimes we joke about taking a one way ticket to such and such a place, be it some haven of beauty and rest (and hopefully warm in temperature for those of us experiencing Arctic cold kind of weather) or some out of the way place where tourism would not exist. In our following of Jesus it is a one way journey, a journey with, in and through Jesus to the cross. Of course on the other side of that death is resurrection. In fact the glorious resurrection comes only through that hideous death.

To truly follow Jesus as did the disciples of old, there truly is no turning back. We follow and continue to follow in spite of all our weaknesses and sins along the way. And there may be even a point when our faith is wavering. I think of Thomas of old, after our Lord’s resurrection. On the way, Thomas’ pessimism is apparent, when he suggests that they too should go to die with Jesus. Or at least I read it that way, although it could be an expression of faith. And perhaps to some extent I identify with Thomas who needed to see to believe. But sight of the risen Christ was not necessary for the faith of others who personally did not see. At the same time the eyewitness accounts of the risen Lord, and there are many, are part of the gospel and present for our faith. This isn’t some fairytale or teaching for a faith not rooted in real life. What took place in Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred in time and space, bringing into the old world, the new world. Through his resurrection, the new creation in Jesus had come.

After Pentecost, things certainly did change. Yes, the disciples who lived with Jesus lived a unique experience, important for us all in their witness of faith and of the gospel. On this side of Pentecost after the Holy Spirit came with new life and power, we get to experience by the Spirit the resurrection life of Christ in our following. While at the same time not yet being glorified. Positional wise we are glorified already with our ascended, glorified Lord, seated with him in the heavenly realms. But experientially we are not there yet. Only through the resurrection of all things in and through the resurrection of Christ, will that be completed.

And so Lent is a one way journey so to speak as we look ahead to Good Friday and Easter. To our Lord’s suffering. And his death and resurrection. And as we identify in our lives with him more and more in that.

Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

(Luke 9:21-27).

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

(Luke 9:57-62)