Culturally, most American Christians know one thing about Lent… It’s that time before Easter when we are supposed to give up something. Occasionally, someone will rebel against this assumption and insist Lent can also be about taking on a new good habit, not just trying to break an old bad one.
Okay, fine. Break bad habits or take on new, better ones. Yes. Lent can include plans and practices like that. But Lent is so much more.
Today, I’d like to invite you to know more of the stories behind our purpose and practices of Lent. We don’t do Lent because of Lent itself. Lent was designed to help us remember and honor two great stories of Scripture. If we pause a moment to reflect on these two great stories, we might get a better sense of WHY we do Lent, and WHAT Lent is meant to do in us.
First, the Exodus, the people of Israel were called away from slavery toward Promised Land. That Exodus journey is said to have lasted forty years. Also, in the midst of that journey through the wilderness, Moses went off by himself for forty days, up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Lent is forty days to commemorate the people’s need to move from slavery toward promise, and to remember the communal rules necessary to survive the journey together and arrive safely at God’s promise.
Second, after Jesus was baptized but before he started his public ministry and movement from Galilee toward Jerusalem, he went off by himself into the wilderness for forty days to pray and to test his resolve against great temptations. Lent is forty days to commemorate Jesus’ wisdom to retreat, plan, and prepare so he could survive the temptations that arise on tough journeys and have the tools to not give up.
These stories of scripture are the foundation of Lent. Lent is meant to remind us, we too are called to move from where we are to where God wants us to be. In order to move, we have to leave where we are and enter a middle space, the wilderness. We need to prepare, get moving, and not give up.
In the wilderness/middle-space, things are neither like they used to be nor like we hope they will become. In the middle space, we have to leave behind where we are. In the wilderness, we can pause to rest but we have to keep moving. In that middle space, we can sit to eat but cannot collect and keep more things than we need. We have to trust each day we will find “daily bread” or manna. That’s why he taught us to pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread.” Jesus wants us to practice trusting and stay on the move toward the promise.
The challenges of wilderness are stressful on us, and we might get afraid we will starve, or die of thirst. We will miss our old life, its routines, and comforts, and will likely make significant mistakes under the grief of losing what we once had, and under the pressure to keep going. We will have to negotiate new rules and may have to sacrifice personal choice or freedom in order to support the traveling community. And, when we are brutally honest with ourselves, we know some who start the journey may not finish it, may never make it all the way to the promised land.
The wilderness does not feel as safe or as dependable as where we used to be. The wilderness feels difficult, and we will be tempted to question if there are any shortcuts we could take. We might even feel tempted to give up or turn back. A voice in our head will suggest the hard journey through the middle space isn’t even worth it. That voice is dangerous, evil. We cannot avoid its whispers, but we can respond to it with wisdom and truth.
The people of God felt all these things when they moved from slavery through the wilderness toward Promised Land. The Lord our God, Jesus of Nazareth, felt these temptations when Jesus moved from Galilee to wilderness then Jerusalem. He used those 40 days in the wilderness, Lent, to prepare for his journey from Galilean carpenter to crucified, dead, buried, and resurrected Christ.
This is why we do Lent, not just to lose 30 pounds or to give up caffeine. We do Lent as a humble confession to not be complacent or content with where we are. We do Lent to encourage us to leave behind our former and current life full of traditions, rituals, and habits, and start a new journey together to something that looks more like the Kingdom of God. We do Lent to prepare for the temptations and struggles that arise as soon as we take our first step and to prepare our response so we will not give up.
If you were to pause for a moment and imagine your life five years from now, what do you see? Do you see a reconciled relationship with a loved one? Do you see laughter, shared memories, special moments? Do you see one new project you’ve put off for years, but that will finally be started? Lent is the season to pray, prepare, plan, and begin taking the first steps toward that holy vision. Lent is a time of grief because we are leaving behind what was. Lent is a time of struggle because we pack lightly and keep moving. Lent is a time of worry because we cannot carry enough with us to guarantee we will have what we need, and a time of practicing trust what we truly need will arrive each day.
This Lent, I wonder if you would enter this season with a perspective of preparation for the journey ahead. Listen and look for the seemingly impossible life God promises. Compare that to where you are. Pray, plan, prepare, and pack lightly. Then take that first step into the wilderness. That is Lent. Lent will be strange and difficult, but it leads to promised land and resurrection.
Blessing, Laughter, and Loving be yours,
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert