Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 – Blow the trumpet. Sound a fast. Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Tear your hearts, not your garments.
Isaiah 58:1-12 – Fasting as you do will not make your voice heard on high. This is the fast I choose: loose the bonds of injustice, set the oppressed free, share your bread with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into your house.
Psalm 51:1-17 – Indeed I am guilty, a sinner from my mother’s womb. Wash me thoroughly and I shall be clean.
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10 – Be reconciled to God. Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation! We have endured many afflictions. Dying yet alive. Punished yet not killed. Sorrowful yet rejoicing. Poor yet rich!
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 – Don’t practice your piety before others ostentatiously, so that you can be seen. Direct your fasting to God. Your reward is in heaven.
Looking ahead: Lent C
Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.
– Joel 2
March 6 – Ash Wednesday: Dust. Ashes. Mortality. Repentance. Fasting. Don’t show off your piety.
March 10 – Lent 1C: First fruits for the Levite and alien. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
March 17 – Lent 2C: Abram’s call. Faith reckoned as righteousness. Jesus laments for Jerusalem.
March 24 – Lent 3C: Repent, for there is only so much time left for the fig tree to bear fruit.
March 31 – Lent 4C: Lost sheep. Lost sons.
April 7 – Lent 5C: I am about to do a new thing… Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.
April 14 – Palm/Passion Sunday: Jesus entry into Jerusalem as an anti-triumph.
The Prodigal God
If you haven’t done a congregational book study on The Prodigal God, this might be the year. The story of the Prodigal Son comes up this year. It only appears in a Lukan year, and it only appears Lent 4C. Most readers and preachers assume this well-known story is about forgiveness. Timothy Keller, in his book The Prodigal God: recovering the heart of the Christian Faith, says the story is ultimately about the self-righteous moral disease of the older brother. At the very least, this easy read will enhance your preaching, reminding you of the cultural context most of us know, but sometimes forget. However, the publisher (Dutton) also offers a study guide, and a DVD, so this book could make an excellent small group study in Lent (or early Fall) when the story surfaces in the lectionary.
Lent 1 – Chapter 1: The People Around Jesus
Lent 2 – Chapter 2: The Two Lost Sons
Lent 3 – Chapter 3: Redefining Sin
Lent 4 – Chapter 4: Redefining Lostness
Lent 5 – Chapter 5: The True Elder Brother
Palm Sunday – Chapters 6 and 7: Redefining Hope, The Feast of the Father
The texts for Ash Wednesday are the same all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary. So, although we are in a Lukan year, and have just read the Sermon on the Plain from Luke, we now hear a portion of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where Jesus teaches about prayer, fasting and giving, the disciplines of Lent.
On Ash Wednesday we read, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” and then we do just that, by smearing crosses on our heads for all to see.
Jesus does not say, “Don’t practice piety.” (In fact, just a few verses ago in the Sermon on the Mount he said to “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Jesus does not dissuade the practices of faith and piety. He says not to do them in order to impress other people. Piety for the sole purpose of convincing others of how religious you are is pure self-righteousness.
Prayer was important to Jesus. After an exhausting day of ministry, we are told:
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”
Ministry is so exhausting, we need prayer to renew our strength. Isaiah 40 says those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. Prayer is waiting on the Lord. As the psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46)
Jesus says, “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” What does it mean to be a house of prayer for all people? Are we a house of prayer? Are all people welcome? Who is not here?
It was the job of every rabbi to teach people to pray. It is, in fact, the responsibility of every spiritual leader to teach her followers to pray. How are we doing that? How and when does teaching about prayer take place in the life of your community? Lent? New member classes? Small groups? Adult education? Confirmation? Who is teaching lectio divina? Who is teaching journaling? Prayer walking? The labyrinth? Meditation? Contemplation? How are adults invited to enjoy the fruits of prayer?
For that matter, who is teaching fasting and giving? Generosity? Hospitality? People are hungry for an introduction to the spiritual life. It is our privilege to introduce them to these spiritual disciplines, and Lent is tailor-made for this endeavor.
If we teach our people to pray, to reflect, to listen, they will benefit, our congregations will benefit and the world will benefit. Surprising things will happen. A few years ago I offered a 40-day devotional on prayer. www.bishopmike.com/pray. It may be a way to engage in waiting on the Lord.
The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.
– Mother Teresa
Ash Wednesday is a great time to set the stage. Prayer is not just another task. It is the very conduit for our relationship with God. It is an invitation to come away, to get off the treadmill, and spend restful time listening. I believe our lives are chaos without this. One writer said our lives without daily prayer are like a book written without using the space bar:
This is how we live our lives in the modern world, without sufficient space, waiting, pause, prayer. Lent gives us an opportunity to realign this.
Marcus Borg spoke at our Theological Conference a few years ago. One thing that stuck with me is what our people hear when we talk about repentance during Lent and Epiphany. “Repenting is not feeling bad about your sins.” Students of Koine Greek know this. Metanoia means changing our mind, our direction. Paul says in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In Philippians 2 he says, “Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus…” Repentance is about transforming our minds, our world views, our priorities. It is putting on gospel glasses and seeing the world through new eyes. In Lent we are offered a gift. New sight. We are invited to meta our noia.
Here is our gospel text from Matthew 6, an instruction from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as we embark upon our Lenten disciplines:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
I notice that Jesus does not tell them to do these things. He assumes they already are. It is not, “If you fast…” It is, “When you fast.” Prayer, fasting and giving were normal aspects of Jewish life and piety. Indeed, while giving was not as common in Roman society, prayer and fasting were common practices in antiquity.
Let us confess: We live in a society that cannot imagine doing without anything. We think depriving ourselves of anything is unhealthy.
Let us confess: We have too much, too much of everything. We are an obese society gorged on wealth and the need for more. We live in a society that doesn’t believe in the concept of “too much.” We deny that there is a relationship between our insatiable need for more (greed? gluttony?) and others’ lack of enough.
Let us confess that we think a full life means MORE. Deep down, we believe the way to have a fuller is by cramming it with more and more stuff. Less is bad. More must be better. How much is enough? Just a little bit more… So we cram more and more and more into ourselves, and into our lives.
Let us confess: We know that we cannot worship both God and money, but we’re willing to give it a try. We know we should place our ultimate trust in God, but at the end of the day, we trust our wealth to deliver us.
Let us confess: We are full. Full of noise. Full of food. Full of wine. Full of greed. Full of ourselves.
I can’t remember who wrote this, but I’m thinking it might have been George Carlin:
The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less. We buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment. More experts, yet more problems. More medicine, but less wellness.
We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.
We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things, but not better things. We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait.
These are the times of fast food and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom.
We spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.
We think life is found in MORE. We think we will be happier with MORE, but sadly, the opposite is often true. There is an antidote to this disease. It is called generosity. It is called giving ourselves away. Jesus said, those who try to keep their life will lose it, but those who lose it for my sake and for the sake for the gospel will find it.
Here is the truth. This is a mystical truth, it doesn’t sound right at first, but it holds the essence of the universe. Here is is. Are you ready? The fullness of life is found in emptying ourselves. The more you give away, the more you will discover. The universe rushes in to fill a vacuum.
Theology even has a term for this: kenosis. Kenosis is an intentional emptying of ourselves, to make room for God. Mother Teresa said, “God cannot fill what is already full.”
If we want to be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity and so on, cramming more in won’t get us there. Do something completely counterintuitive. Empty yourself.
The apostle Paul said this in Philippians 2:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
And so, at the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and he fasted. He emptied himself. You don’t begin your ministry full of yourself, even if you are the Son of God. You empty yourself and begin your ministry filled with the Holy Spirit. If you are going to do great things, if you are going to do difficult things, you will have to draw on a power source higher than yourself. You do not have the strength on your own to do all that God has called you to do.
Prayer, fasting and giving are taken for granted in the Bible. They are spiritual disciplines that empty us and fill us, cleanse us and bring us closer to God, or rather, makes us more aware of the God who has been there all along. We’ve just been too full, too busy, too loud to notice.
A list of those in Scripture who fasted is like a Biblical Who’s Who:
- Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.
- David fasted
- Elijah fasted
- Esther fasted
- Daniel fasted.
- Paul fasted.
- Jesus fasted.
They fasted and prayed for repentance and forgiveness. They fasted for victory in battle. They fasted for discernment. They prayed for deliverance. They fasted for strength.
We have lost the spiritual discipline of fasting that Jesus took for granted. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “When you fast…” Not if.
Young unchurched spiritual seekers are hungry for gritty spiritual disciplines that actually mean something.
So this is why I fast during Lent. This is why many people fast during Lent. Fasting is a spiritual discipline in which voluntarily give something up for a time, to heighten our spiritual awareness, our spiritual attentiveness.
A complete fast is going without food or water for a period of time. A partial fast is giving some foods up for a period of time, in this case, 40 days.
- Fast to not be a slave to the god of the belly.
- Fast to be in solidarity with the masses of the world who go to bed hungry every day.
- Fast as a means of spiritual training. If we cannot master ourselves in the little things, how will we ever master ourselves in greater things? If I cannot sustain little sacrifices, what will happen if I get called upon to make a greater sacrifice? Whoever is faithful in little things, will be faithful in greater things.
- Fast because it is good for your body. Fast because it is good for your soul.
- Fast because Jesus fasted.
- Fast because God cannot fill what is already full.
- Fast because it is through dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.
Fast because we need to be reminded every day, that it is not by our strength or prowess that the kingdom of God breaks in. We are but vessels into which God pours God’s grace and love. Fast to remember that God’s grace is sufficient for you, because God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
May this Lenten season may be for you a season of emptying, that you might make space in your life for God to act. May it be a season of prayer… fasting… and giving.