The Matter of Lent and Why It Matters

By Pr. Rich Futrell

Such a strange time Lent can be.  For the non-Christian, all kinds of religious activities are taking place, which few can explain.  For Christians, unless they are Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Eastern Orthodox, Lent may be as much a mystery to them as for the unbeliever.  Some may also consider this season as a hallmark of being trapped in “tradition.”

Let me try to unveil some of the mystery.  First, Lent is a cycle of the Church Year when Christians prepare for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  The Lenten season starts on Ash Wednesday, this year on February 14, which is 47 days before Easter.  Perhaps, you may recognize hearing the term “40 days of Lent.”  The Sundays in Lent do not count, so the season is a week longer on the calendar.

The solemn season strives to turn us away from our sins, recognizing our complacency, and learning again to trust in Christ Jesus.  Does someone only go to the doctor for a checkup once?  So also does the Christian benefit from a “checkup” on his faith.  All this is to remind him who he is as a baptized child of God.

To focus well on something means we must also learn to concentrate less on something else.  Today, our lives are complicated.  So some aspects of how we live need to change so we can escape the perpetual “hamster wheel,” on which we find ourselves running.  This “reboot” is a sliver of our Christian tradition handed down to us from the earliest days.

A season to “give up” something is what many recall about Lent.  Roman Catholics are the ones most think of for doing this.  Still, others, like Lutherans, embrace this when done in a way, which doesn’t attempt to make ourselves righteous to God.  Several practices link themselves to Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (a work of mercy toward others).

Of course, these observances can lead to a “climb your way to heaven” mindset.  Remember, our sinful nature can distort any deed we do.  The answer is not to avoid doing something because of its potential abuse.  For if we did think this way, soon our hands and hearts will find themselves doing nothing, from the fear of what can go wrong.  No, the solution is to repent which, in a twist of irony, is the focus of Lent!

The historic Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday includes these words from Jesus.  “Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets, to be applauded by people” (Matthew 6:2).  “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.  For they love to pray standing in houses of worship and on street corners so others may see them” (Matthew 6:5).  “In praying, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine their gods will listen to them because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

In each case, Jesus tells us not to do these things as a show.  For works-righteousness isn’t part of the Christian faith.  Still, Jesus assumes we will be doing these acts—“when you… give… pray…fast.”

By giving up something in one area, you can focus more on others.  The attention, however, isn’t on the giving up, but on freeing time and energy for other things.  First, this is on Jesus Christ, who gave up everything for us, including life itself.

The gifts of God come to us, not from within, but apart from yourself.  For faith comes from hearing (Romans 10:17).  So, during the Divine Service, you receive God’s Word read to you, which enters your ears from the outside (1 Timothy 4:13).  The Lord’s Supper and Baptism are more gifts from God, and they, too, come to you from outside yourself.  So, the faith stirring inside you is a gift of God, which He graces to you in the ways He chooses (Ephesians 2:8).

On Lent’s first Wednesday, ashes, which represent our repentance, are placed on our foreheads.  Here’s why—turning away from sin isn’t something you can achieve on our own.  No, the Holy Spirit enables you to veer away from your sinfulness back to God (John 16:8; Acts 5:31, 11:8).  How Lent-like!

Today, we live in an overindulgent culture, which thinks we “deserve” stuff and are entitled to it.  In our lives, I find little evidence of an inclination toward works righteousness in our current culture.  Do you not agree we can use a little less indulgence and a bit more restraint?  Allow Lent to help you in this.

Remember, the focus is not on what we are doing but on receiving our Savior’s gifts.  Next, we follow our Lord as His changed people, which includes praying, fasting, and helping others.

So I challenge you in this time of Lent.  Try focusing more on doing less, to free up more time for Jesus.  Part of this involves making time to receive Jesus in His preached Word, which is why we offer Wednesday services.  Focused again on Jesus, live out the Faith.  Choose not to take the second helping, drink less so you can pray more and help those in need.  Amen.