THE HEART OF LENT
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON February 21st, 2010
Luke 4:1 “Jesus, full of the Holy Sprit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit for 40 days in the wilderness.”
A priest had been appointed to a new parish in the Midwest, a county parish full of farms. In order to get to know his parishioners he decided to visit those who had farms. One property particularly impressed him. Everything about it was first rate: the animals, the crops, the buildings, even the fences. Everything was near perfect.
The priest remarked to the farmer that God had truly blessed him with such a beautiful property. The farmer had a smile on his face. “Oh yes, we are grateful, very grateful, Father,” he said. “But of course, we’ve been here 25 years. You should have seen it when God had it all to himself.”
Our lives are rather like that.
Each of us has the gift of our life from God. What we are is a reflection of what we have done with that gift – and what we are still doing with it. And so Lent is a time to take stock of that gift our life. To look again at that gift that God has given us, and how we are using it.
It was the same for our Lord when he went in to the wilderness for those 40 days, straight from his baptism. After Jesus heard the voice of our Father saying, “Thou art my beloved Son,” he goes into 40 days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness near Jerusalem. He does this not only to contemplate who he really is, but what sort of life lies ahead of him. What is he going to do with this gift of his life?
Like that Midwest farmer, Jesus now has to consider what to do with this gift. For on it depended the redemption of mankind..
Lent is the Church’s imitation of Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and fasting. As we come to Mass on this First Sunday of Lent, there is something rather stark confronting us. The Church is less bright and beautiful in appearance. The music is more subdued, and we sing less. No flowers, no Gloria. And perhaps if we had started Lent seriously, we are also less bright and more subdued? And the emphasis on fasting can seem a little dreary sometimes.
In fact, for years people have been saying instead of giving things up, Christians should be taking things on. It seems to have been the mantra in the Church for a couple of decades now. Forget about giving up, take something on. That’s well and good – but it seems to me that it’s part of a modern trend to make religion easy and more “happy-clappy”.
The problem is that we do take things on. We take things on all the time. People work longer hours and have less spare time with their families, so as to accumulate more wealth and possessions. Meanwhile unemployment is still at a record high.
And we all eat and drink far too much. Meanwhile in Haiti the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” has a difficult ring to it. Not only that – there are more gadgets to amuse us, more choices in the stores and super markets, more things to do to entertain us and more things to tempt us. The world has been taking on things rather than giving up for a long time.
I say enough of taking more things on. Let’s go back to the spirit of Lent and give up things. Self denial, self sacrifice….traditional words. And self sacrifice is not a popular part of our culture. Once again the true Christian Faith, the tradition we have received, is counter-cultural. It does not fit in with the worlds’ trends to be self sacrificing. For the world is all about more for the self, not less.
Yet our Lord said, “If anyone would come after me let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow Me.” But he didn’t say for just the 40 days of Lent. It was the life-style he offered to those who follow him – a contrast to the life-style of our world.
It is certainly not trendy or politically-correct to practice self denial. And yet it is part of modern life. People go without some food in order to lose weight. Many go to gym or do jogging or often punish their bodies so that they will be fit, or more beautiful.
Others sacrifice their individuality in order to fit in at work or in a group. Our teenagers are perhaps the best example of that. They all look alike, dress alike and talk a language which most of us don’t understand! How sad it is that they repress their individuality to be accepted.
It is not as if self sacrifice is not practiced. But it’s not like Christian self sacrifice. For to the world Christian self sacrifice seems to have no purpose or no good result. To the Christian, of course, anything done in self sacrifice for God is never without purpose or a waste. Because it’s an offering to God, an offering for his gift to us of our lives.
For instance, we worship God purely because he is God and deserving of our worship. And we pray not to manipulate God (though so often our prayers are a cry for his help) but we pray because he is our friend, and that’s how we remain his friend. And we give our offerings not because it’s our Church but because it’s God’s Church.
Above all, Christians practice self denial because the world is focused on the self and we need to challenge that by the way we live. And Lent reminds us of that.
Our Lord’s call to follow him is drowned out by worldly commercialization and a focus on what we need to have. Although it’s mostly not what we truly need.
Just as when the farmer applied himself, worked hard, and made some self sacrifices the results showed up in his fine property. Yet 25 years before, he started out with no more than opportunity and potential. Something we all have too. And something offered to us again this Lent – opportunity and potential.
Lent is God’s gift to us for a season that we may rejoice in the Resurrection of Christ at Easter. Maybe as traditional Episcopalians, our response to that gift is to remind the Church of the true heart of Lent.
And certainly need to contemplate Luke 9.23:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”