Observing a Holy Lent
Observing a Holy Lent
by William Klock
Brothers and sisters, how do we observe a holy Lent? This season comes around every year. Even amongst people who observe Lent in their churches, I’ve observed that most people don’t actually “do” anything to keep Lent themselves. A lot of people do take on some kind of discipline as Lent begins. There are all sorts of things that people will do. Yesterday I started seeing quite a few people changing their profile pictures online and putting up messages saying: “Off Facebook for Lent”. I’ve heard people say they were giving up chocolate or soda. I heard someone comment last week that she was giving up T.V. for Lent. I’m pleased when I hear people say that they’re going to embark on some particular set of Scripture or devotional readings for Lent. Whatever we do, it should be something that makes an impact on our Christian growth that lasts longer than the forty days of Lent.
And yet, the point of the season is penitence. Penitence is when we recognise our sins, when we mourn them, and when we ask God for his forgiveness through the work of Jesus as the cross. Lent should be a time when we acknowledge our sinfulness and learn to lean ever more heavily on Jesus and the grace he offers us to make us holy. I fear that a lot of the common Lenten disciplines often do the opposite—they put our focus on our good works. “I managed not to eat any chocolate for forty days!” “I didn’t turn on the T.V. for forty days!” “I stayed off the Internet for forty days!” And we pat ourselves on the back for our self-control and think that we’re holier than we were forty days before. But friends, that’s not the point of a fast. The point of fasting in the Bible wasn’t to do some good work and feel better about ourselves; the point in the Bible was to take time to think on our own sinfulness, on how we have offended God, and on our need of a Saviour. Look at our lesson from Joel 2, beginning at verse 12:
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:12)
“With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Those are the external signs of a heart that is sorry for its sins. Sin in the penitent heart leads to mourning, because the desire is for righteousness. The penitent man or woman has experienced the love of God and knows that obedience is the way we are to return his love. Mourning for sin leads to weeping and then to fasting.
Not many people fast anymore, and yet when we do hear about people fasting we hear them more often than not talking about the superficial kind of fasting I mentioned before. A heart that mourns its sins doesn’t weep and say, “I’m going to give up chocolate or TV so that I can lose weight or feel like I’ve accomplished something at the end of forty days.” No, it weeps for sin and fasts as a way to focus its attention on the grace of God. We don’t often see this kind of fasting, but we don’t see this kind of fasting because the truth is that most of us aren’t really mourning and weeping over our sins. We’re casual about our sins. We’ve learned to compare ourselves to others who have bigger and worse sins that we do so that we can feel good about ourselves. We excuse our sins. We think they’re not that big of a deal. We rationalize them. We justify them. Sometimes we even twist Scripture and claim that when God condemned our particular sins he wasn’t really saying what it looks like he was saying. But I think most commonly, we become so set in our ways and so comfortable with sins like selfishness, bitterness, discontentment, anger, gossip, dishonesty and things like that, that we no longer even see them in ourselves. This is why we need to take sin seriously. We need to desire holiness and mourn our sin. People who desire holiness and who mourn sin actually search their hearts looking for sins they’ve missed so that they can root them out.
Through Joel, God calls us to rend out hearts, not our garments. Don’t go through the external motions of penitence unless your heart is in it. If there’s a condemnation of keeping a superficial Lent—or restricting the externals of penitence to just forty days of the year—this is it.
In the ancient world, people who mourned theirs sins would put on sackcloth and ashes, they would walk through the streets wailing and would tear their clothes. It was a dramatic scene. And yet lots of people went through those externals the same way a lot of modern people go through the external motions of Lent every year. God points to that dramatic image of the penitent who grabs his collar and violently tears his tunic open with his hands as he weeps—that’s what your sins should make you do, but more important than the externals is that your heart be rent like your garment. Charles Simeon wrote, “who can conceive of a heart torn, and rent as it were to pieces, by distress on account of sin? Yet this is the experience of one who is truly penitent and contrite: this is what God requires of us; and anything short of this he will utterly despise.”
Through Joel, God goes on in verse 13:
Return to the Lord your God…
To sin is to rebel and to walk away from God. If we are truly penitent we will turn from our sins return to him. In verse 12 he called to us: “return to me with all your heart”. With all your heart. On Sunday Carl was telling us about the Severn River near Bristol and how, once a year, the tide from the sea causes the river to flow in the opposite direction—to flow inland. I had that image in my mind as I was reading this passage. When the tide causes the river to flow backward it’s not just a little current here or a little current there. Little currents don’t make rivers run in reverse. It’s the whole current of the river that changes. It goes from running wholly in one direction to running wholly in the other. It’s powerful and dramatic. And just so some little partial change in our hearts won’t cut it. The whole thing needs to change. To quote Simeon again, “All our faculties, whether of body or soul, which have been used as instruments of sin, must become instruments of righteousness unto God.”
And just as it’s no small thing to change the direction a river flows, it’s no small thing to bring that kind of change in our hearts. Penitence is painful. It means admitting that we have a problem—a big problem and one with serious eternal consequences. It means admitting or rebellion against God. And yet Joel gives us encouragement. He goes on in verse 12:
…for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.
We can read a lot of stories in the Bible about God striking down sinners. Sometimes he strikes them down for what seem like small things to us. Nadab and Abihu were struck down for offering “strange fire” on God’s altar—for doing something in their worship that was different from what God had commanded. Uzzah was struck down instantly when he tried to steady the Ark of the Covenant so it wouldn’t fall in the mud. Ananias and Saphira told a simple lie to Peter and God struck them down. Scripture makes it clear that God hates sin. And yet we also know that the “norm” for God is to be full of grace and mercy and to be slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The fact is that he doesn’t just punish sin in his wrath. In his anger over sin he’s sent his Son so that sin could actually be done away with.
Yesterday I saw a quote from John Piper that, I think, makes this point well. He said, “If all mankind had been eternally damned, it would not testify of God’s hatred for sin as much as does the death of Christ.” God hates sin so much that he sent his Son to take it way from us—to deal with it so that we don’t have to fall under his wrath. Brothers and sisters, we are sinful, but God wants to make us holy and to do that he sent his own Son to take the punishment for our sins. Through Jesus we are declared holy and righteous. As we trust in his sacrifice at the cross—as we trust that he paid the price for sin for us—the Father no longer sees our sin when he looks at us. Instead he sees the glory and holiness of his Son.
And yet our redemption isn’t just from the consequences of our sins. Jesus gives us new life and puts his own Spirit in us so that we can turn from sin and put it behind us. He is a loving Father. He still tests us. He still allows us to be tempted to suffer the temporal consequences of our sins, but he does that so that we will learn better how to lean on his grace and so that we will learn better how to turn from sin and resist the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And friends, so long as we are in Christ, he is always ready to receive our penitent hearts. So take the opportunity given by Lent 2012 to focus on the love and grace that God has shown you through Jesus. Meditate on the deep, deep love of God and then search your heart and ask if you are showing your love for God in return by being obedient to him. Mourn the sin that’s still in your life, weep and fast, and learn to lean ever more on his grace as you turn from your sin and back to God.
Let us pray: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are pentitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.