Lent–What’s with the Season Anyway?

Lent is almost here.  Yes, the days of ashes and sackcloth, fasting, and mourning are almost here.  As the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). 

After the Fall into sin, God called Adam to remember the earth from which he came, and because of sin, was now destined to return.  Adam (whose name means “soil” or “dust”) would die, for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). 

And we have inherited our earthly father’s “dust.”  We were “conceived” and “born” in sin, into a body destined to return to the dust from which our flesh originally came (Psalm 51:5).  Because of this, God, our Creator, calls us to remember that He is God and that we are not.

And so we find that the remembrance and repentance of Lent are joined at the hip, for both begin with God.  God calls His people to remember, to repent, and to return.  “Return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:13). 

Apart from God’s call, we travel unswervingly down our self-made highways toward eternal death.  But by His call, in the power of His Word alone, we are stopped in our tracks and turned around.  Cold and dead hearts are resurrected (once again), “for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13).

During Lent, fasting is often an outward act of repentance.  We may, or may not, “give up” something of worldly or fleshly value during our 40-day vigil.  Martin Luther teaches us, “Fasting and bodily preparation are, in fact, fine outward disciplines.”  So Luther teaches that fasting is something good, a fine, outward discipline for Christians.

But Luther goes on, “But a person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins’” (Small Catechism).  Luther directs the believer to a spiritual state of faith.  And true faith leads to repentance.  And repentance leads to the outward acts of repentance.  For what one believes changes what one does, right? 

The prophet Joel speaks the Word of the Lord calling His people to rend their hearts, not making a show by tearing their outward garments (Joel 2:12).  Fasting to be an outward show misses the point.  We Lutherans know this well!  But what also misses the point is refusing to participate in spiritual disciplines such as fasting, almsgiving, and prayer (Matthew 6).  Jesus simply expects and assumes His disciples participate regularly in such spiritual disciplines that He doesn’t even command it.  Jesus, instead, uses the word, “when.”  “When you pray … when you fast.”

Fasting is simply a way of giving up of worldly things (food, drink, entertainment, etc.) to remember in more than a mental way that God is the giver and provider of all.  It’s also a way to give up worldly things as a spiritual discipline to help keep our sinful desires from bullying us and leading us into sin.

Ash Wednesday and all the midweek Lenten services are designed to bring us back down to size: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  The services focus on God’s call for us to repent, so He can resurrect us, realign us, and restore us.  It’s a First Commandment issue: “‘Have no other gods but Me.’  What does this mean?  We are to fear, love, and trust in God above all things’” (Small Catechism).  

Whatever it is that gets between you and God, Lent is the time to rout it out.  Why?  Why should you repent?  Why should you rend your hearts in fasting and mourning over sin?  Because He is God and you are not.

Again, it’s a First Commandment issue.  God is everything, and you and I are dust.  But “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?” (Joel 2:13-14).

Repentance, a return to God, is followed by His blessing, His absolution: “grain, wine, and oil”–in New Testament terms: body, blood, and baptism.  “And you will be satisfied” (Joel 2:19).  Even Lent starts with God, not us.  It’s about God–His call, His glory, and His gifts.  

So please join in our Lenten 40-day vigil and midweek services.  It’s a time to help get reoriented with God by repenting and letting God be God.