Did you know that the word “Lent” comes from an ancient Germanic word that means “To Lengthen”? (Lenten -> Lengthen) It was originally used as a term for the season of Spring– referring to the lengthening days of the season.
Lent is not mentioned at all in the Bible. So, it is not really “Biblical” in the strictest sense. Which is why many Protestants, such as the Puritans and their descendants (including us) did not observe it until just the last few decades.
And yet, Lent is deeply rooted in the Bible. Its 40 day duration is very deliberate, consistent with how the number 40 is used throughout the Bible. (Well actually, Lent is 46 days long, if you count Sundays. But, Sundays are already devoted to our relationship with God. So, Lent is about finding God is in the rest of our week as well!)
In the Hebrew Scriptures, we read of the 40 days and nights it rained during Noah’s great flood, cleansing the Earth. We are told Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai, seeking God’s will and direction for his people. We know the Jews wandered for 40 years in the desert to free themselves from the presumption that they knew better than God. And, Elijah spent 40 days wandering in the desert before reaching that little cave on Mt Horeb where he encountered God. In this morning’s story from Matthew, Jesus fasts and prays in the desert for 40 days before his encounter with the Tempter.
In the Bible, the number 40 is used to represent times of contemplation, judgment and preparation. Its metaphorical significance thought to originate in the 40 weeks of a human pregnancy. And this is why the 40 days of Lent are devoted to fasting, to meditation and to other acts denying us of things we are used-to. It’s devoted to transformation. Lent breaks us out of our normal routines. By doing so, by breaking away from our normal lives, we open ourselves to God’s Word and the working of the Holy Spirit within us.
So, Lent was a very intentional creation by the Early Church. It is intended to help us to examine ourselves, and our relationship with God. It is meant to give us the space and time we need to discern what is really important in our lives, and in our faith. Lent challenges us to grow.
Now, Christianity is not a faith of stagnation. Our faith teaches that the only sure thing in life is God’s grace and love for us. Everything else we think we know changes as our walk with God deepens and grows. This is precisely what Lent is intended to help us do. Every Spring, Lent stirs up our faith to prepare us for new growth; just as the whole world is beginning to wake up to new life as the days lengthen.
This view of Lent connects to the whole “God is Still Speaking” slogan of the United Church of Christ. That concept was central to the theology of the early Pilgrims as well; although they didn’t express it in quite the same way.
Our faith cannot be stagnant if God is Still Speaking. We can never rest on our past achievements. We can’t attain a pure and perfect faith, since – if God is still speaking – then the goal line for what that means is always moving. Our faith is never “good enough.” And so, if God truly is Still Speaking, then we need to always still be listening. Lent is intended to help us do just that. It helps us listen for what God is saying to us here and now, and to challenge ourselves to change because of it. Lent ensures we are “fertile ground.” It prepares us to receive and then grow the seeds of blessing and grace that God has planted within each and every of of us.
And so, what do we do with all this? Lent seems like a nice idea, but how does it tie-in with all that is going on here in Dalton, or in Massachusetts; or in the US; and or in the World for that matter?
As I see it, God is still present. God is still Listening. But, where is God in the ICE’s arresting a parent for Immigration Violations while dropping their kids off at school in the morning? Where is God in the dismantling of our Government’s ability to protect the innocent and unheard? What do we do about those who are warping our political system to ensure themselves of power, so that they can safely ignore the voice and will of the people? What about Global Warming? The Zika Virus? North Korea? Terrorism? For many or most of us, wheat’s going on in the world around us is very scary, and getting scarier.
But, I must ask a hard question here: Are we hearing God? Are we listening?
Now, it is easy to assume that we are hearing God, since we “know” that what we do and believe is “right.” Like anyone else, I am convinced that everything I stand for and believe are good and correct things; and so, obviously, they must be sanctioned by God; right? Things like social justice for all; or being a good caretaker of God’s Creation. Loving my neighbor, and doing all I can to help those who are being silenced, so they can be heard. These are all good things.
But, am I listening for God in living out what I already know to be true? Or, am I assuming that it must be God just because I see the pain, and I know the pain. Am I assuming it must be God just because I find lots of justification for what I already believe in our faith tradition and in the scriptures?
It is very, very, difficult to keep what we already “know” to be true from obscuring what God is speaking to us here and now. Our own biases, the trajectories we’ve been on throughout our lives, our own pains and challenges and experiences, create an inertia that is almost impossible to bend in a new direction. It is really, really hard to get our own selves out of the way, to set aside what we already know to be true, so that we hear what God is speaking to us right now. It is really hard to admit that we might actually be wrong, that we might be blind and deaf to what God is showing and telling us.
To hear God, we must be willing and able to listen to what God is saying. If we don’t listen, we won’t hear. If all we do is look in the mirror, we will never see the world around us as it truly is: we’ll only see a reflection of ourselves.
And besides, what is wrong with the world is not the point or question of Lent. Lent’s question is “what is wrong with us?” What are we not hearing? What are we not seeing? In what ways are our own flaws and biases preventing us from hearing and doing God’s will? Once we see our true selves, we can work towards changing ourselves for the better – with God’s help. Once we are changed, we can in turn change the world for the better – as God intends.
But in the end, Lent recognizes that we are part of the world; and the world is part of us. The world cannot change unless we change first. The flaws of the world are rooted in us, which is pointed out right there in the third chapter of Genesis, which we just read: all evil begins with our own choices.
So, a major lesson of Lent – and indeed of the entire Bible – is that changing the world begins with changing our own hearts, not with changing the hearts of others. Lent helps us see that we are intimately connected to the problems and challenges the world faces. We are the root of the problem; but also, God intends us to be part of the solution as well.
To see the world as it truly is requires that we first see ourselves as we truly are. Only then can we confront and change ourselves, and then the world.
“…. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.
“…. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Thank God that finding and destroying the evil that lives in every heart, starting with our own, is why Lent has been given to us.
With thanks to Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette for the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quote.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, March 5, 2017 (1st Sunday of Lent).
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.