Lent. Growing up, my family didn’t practice observing it, in fact, I don’t know if I ever even heard it talked about. So at first it felt weird. I intellectually got the “whys”, but it just didn’t fit comfortably. I had gone all this time not observing it, so why start? Recently, that is beginning to change, I find observing Lent, observing Christ’s journey to the cross is becoming more and more essential to my observance each year of Easter. For my celebration of Easter to be truly meaningful, I need the observance of Lent.
One of the hallmarks of Lent is all the talk of self-denial. You probably noticed it in our Gospel reading today, Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will gain it.” (long pause)
So for Lent, in self-denial, we don’t eat chocolate for 40 days? We stay off FB for 40 days? We practice spiritual disciplines for 40 days?
Is that what Jesus had in mind?
And then to make things worse…or at least, more confusing, we read in Romans that righteousness come by faith so that it may be by grace alone. That sounds like we don’t have to do anything, just believe that Jesus is Lord.
Sooo, which is it? Are we supposed to deny ourselves or just believe that Jesus is Lord, and that his death makes us right with God?
The answer is, of course, both. These two things are not the opposites they first seem to be.
Let’s look at the faith thing first. What does it mean to have faith that Jesus is Lord? Saying that we have faith that Jesus is God’s Son, and that he is Lord is more than just a truth that we agree to in our heads. It’s not the same thing as saying that we know that 2+2=4 is true. It’s so, so much bigger than that.
One of the things that I can compare it to is that when I say the truth that I am the mother of 4 children. That is a truth I’ve carried in my whole person for over 35 years. My body holds the scars of the four C sections needed to birth them. My heart remembers the miracle of holding each one of them for the first time. The very depths of my soul are etched with the joys and laughter of watching them each grow, learn to roll over, to walk, to talk; it is marked with the weariness of watching anxiously over them when they were sick with multiple ear infections and the many hospital visits we made for a season of their lives. My mind holds the memories of watching each of them get on the school bus for the first time, and the tears I cried. I remember each of them navigating school, friendships, hurts. I have aged as I cried with them, and for them in the hard times of their lives. And my heart is filled with joy as I remember the celebrations, the laughter, the pride of watching each of them take steps away from us into healthy independent lives of their own. When I say I am the mother of 4 children, it is a larger truth than 2+2=4. It is an all-consuming relational truth that continues to shape my life, and will until I die.
And the truth of saying Jesus is my Lord is even larger than that. It is also a relational truth, it’s about my relationship with Jesus; and because it’s relational it’s also transformational. Just as saying I am the mother of 4 children is a relational truth, which has changed me; saying Jesus is my Lord is the ultimate of all transformational truth.
To say that Jesus is Lord recognizes that Jesus was present with God the Father and the Spirit at the Creation of the world; and because of that, he rules over everything. He made it all, and it all belongs to him.
To say Jesus is my Lord, means that I don’t have any rights any more. I belong completely and totally to him.
To say Jesus is my Lord means I must not trash my body anymore, treating it badly, abusing it with food or other substances, having sex with it with whomever I want; because it no longer belongs to me… it belongs to my Lord Jesus. We read just the other week, I Corinthians 6:18-20, 18 Flee from sexual immorality…19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
To say Jesus is my Lord means that my mind is not my own any more… I’m no longer free to pollute it with whatever trash comes across my screens, to entertain thoughts that are destructive to myself or others. When Christ is the Lord of our minds, I wonder if we as Christians should be so quick to say “I’ve made up my mind, this is just the way it is?” Perhaps Christ is calling us to examine other perspectives, other ideas, other ways of thinking about his work and our place in this world.
I Corinthians 2: 16 says, “We have the mind of Christ.”
To say Jesus is my Lord means that my heart is not my own anymore… I’m no longer free to explore shallow false loves that simply entertain me, keeping me from asking what is God asking me to love? To care about? To invest in? My money belongs to him. My time belongs to him. My relationships belong to him.
To say Jesus is my Lord means that nothing I have or am belongs to me anymore. I am not my own, I was bought with a price, and I belong body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ is how the Heidelberg Catechism puts it.
If Jesus perfectly ruled in us, all of this would be true. But it’s not is it? Not even close. It’s hard to begin to even imagine what living this relational truth better in our lives might look like.
And that is where the spiritual disciplines come in.
Spiritual disciplines —reading the Word, prayer, fasting, extending hospitality other others… don’t do us a lick of good, in and of themselves. But if in our practice of these disciplines, we slow down, we allow ourselves to listen for God’s quiet invitation to love him better, if we allow his Spirit to crack open our hearts just a bit, just enough to allow him to get in, to pry loose in us those larger fears we compulsively cover with business, or to begin to satisfy in us that gnawing hunger that is never filled, or to begin to help us name the sins we cling to for familiar protection from our deeper needs… we begin to understand a bit better Jesus’ words, whoever denies themselves for my sake will gain life. Self denial isn’t something silly or trite, it is deadly serious… it means the death of us… so that Christ can live in us. Jesus calls us to take up our cross, to deny ourselves… to give him all.
This is not some mystical self improvement plan, in fact its exactly the opposite, we recognize we are powerless to fix ourselves, and we throw ourselves on God’s grace. We serve a living Lord who seeks to bring life to those places in us we weren’t even aware were dead. He seeks to straighten the bent places in us we are incapable of fixing ourselves. But he won’t force us. He wants us to invite him in. That is the place of spiritual disciplines. They are our cooperation and assent to the work God wants to do in each of us.
Soul Feast says, “ It would be nice if we could simply practice the presence of God in all of life without expending the energy on particular exercises. But the capacity to remember and abide in God’s presence comes only through steady training. If we wish to see, name and love Christ in the flesh of daily existence, we will eventually need some kind of intentional practice of spiritual discipline.”
We serve a God who is able to do all of this for us because Jesus has gone before us—he has suffered-unimaginably more than we have; he has completely denied himself, denied that glory and the power that was rightfully his to become just like you, and just like me. He did all of this, he gave his life up because of his love—because he knows who we are meant to be, and he is at work to bring that about in us.
A new image, a new identity, a new name—in the OT we captured a glimpse of this in Abram’s story: he was no longer Abram but rather Abraham; the father of nations. His wife was no longer Sarai, but rather Sarah, the mother of nations. Just like them, we have no idea of the heritage God has for us.
It is as we practice self denial in the practice of spiritual disciplines, we begin to experience in new ways the truth Jesus spoke, “whoever loses his life for me will gain it.” As we seek to live more and more in relationship with the God who made us, who loves us wildly, we find that as we give up, as we lay down our own ideas about how things should go, as we give up our power to allow the power of God work in us we begin to truly live in ways we never thought were possible. We find we become more truly who we were always meant to be.
Lent is to be a time of self-denial but also praise, because we have one who journeys with us, who will never abandon us. Jesus calls us to step into a life of faith which shapes our lives to be more like Him. And in that life, we will find freedom.