Why Lent?

1 Cor 2:1-12

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

Matt 5:13-20

13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

So our Epiphany season has ended. We put away the crib. Our gaze moves from the God who came to live among us as Jesus to what Jesus did for us. As the Candlemas prayers – which are traditionally used around this time – say: we turn from the Crib to the Cross. In a few weeks’ time, we enter the season of Lent – a time of preparation for Holy Week and Easter. But why do we keep Lent? How do we keep Lent? And what might Lent look like at St Paul’s? In these few in between Sundays, we are going to spend some time thinking about Lent and why it is an important part of the church year.

But what is Lent? Lent is a season in the church that lasts from Ash Wednesday until Easter Eve. It represents the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted. However, those amongst us with an eye for detail and a head for numbers might work out that there are more than 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Eve. You are right – there are 46. But the Sundays don’t count – I’ll explain that more in a minute.

Lent is a time of preparation. While in the wider world, Christmas is the big celebration of the year, for Christians, Easter is the pinnacle of our year, and so we take our preparations for it seriously. However, instead of preparing our houses and our fridges as we do before Christmas, before Easter we prepare our hearts.

Traditionally, preparations for Lent involved three activities – or disciplines as they are also known. They were prayer, fasting and giving to the poor. So during Lent, Christians might make a special effort to spend more time with God in prayer. It can be a simple thing like having a prayer on your bedside table and praying it every day before you get up or before you go to sleep. You might decide to try a new way of praying, or join with a friend to pray. At St Paul’s, we offer Lent groups which are a chance to meet each week with other to read the Bible, pray and think about how we live out our Christian lives.

Fasting is traditionally when people entirely or partially give up food for a period of time to focus on prayer. In times gone by, people tended to give up sweet foods, meat and dairy throughout Lent. In some ways this made a virtue of a necessity – by this stage of winter, there wasn’t much nice food left in your average peasant’s store cupboard, and so Lent was a good way to eke out their supplies until Easter. But Sunday was never a fast day – Sundays as far as the church is concerned are all mini-Easters, so we do not fast on a day which is always a feast. That is why Lent is 40 days and not 46 – see?

Nowadays, even though food supplies are less precarious, Christians still fast during Lent. They might remove a particular food group from their diet, or perhaps miss lunch once a week. Remember this will not be healthy for everyone, so consider your health before changing your diet too much! Some fast from other things. Some people give up social media. Others might watch less TV. Or, in the same spirit, some people might take up a positive habit – fasting from busyness by making time to relax each day, or fasting from disconnection by contacting friends and letting them know they are thought of, fasting from the sofa by getting outdoors and walking every day. The point is to do something different throughout Lent that takes a little effort, that reminds us that we are in a season of preparations and which points us towards God.

Lastly, giving to the poor or alms-giving remains an important part of Lent. No man is an island as the great poet John Donne said. We cannot prepare our hearts and be insensitive to the needs of others – what sort of religion is that? Certainly not the sort Jesus encouraged. So our Lent preparations need to involve a growing love for others, however we might enact that. Whether it is giving time, talents or money, how might we think of other during the Lenten season? Some churches have Lent collections. Others might have Lent lunches where there is simple fare and people give the money they might have spent on a lunch out to charity instead. Some people might cut out something from their diet and use the money they save to buy for foodbank instead. It depends very much on your circumstances I know, but God knows too – so help if you can, how you can.

But why is Lent so important? Well, this brings me belatedly to the readings for the day. They are very different readings, but have – I think – a theme in common. As Christians we are to be distinctive, we are to be different to the world around us. Now I am not suggesting we become irritatingly smug goody-two-shoes – Jesus wasn’t a huge fan of that sort of religion either! But like salt gives food its flavour, like a light brings comfort and guidance, like the wisdom that is not born of book-learning, but of a life following Jesus, is inspiring and hopeful and kind – we are to be different in those ways. Ways that make people look at us and go you know there might be something about that Jesus bloke after all…

But it is hard to be different. Life happens to us all and knocks us out of shape. So Lent is a time of self-examination. It is a time when we look at our lives and think, what might I need to change to help me be a little more like Jesus? What might I need to do to make my life a little more Jesus-shaped? What practices of prayer, fasting and giving might help me become little by little the person Jesus calls me to be?

Because then, when we get to Easter morning, when Jesus once again gives us that gift of new life, new hope and never-ending love, we can offer back to Jesus ourselves. Not perfect, no – never that this side of heaven. But the best we can manage. A heart prepared by time spent with God, by practices that point us towards God and after loving others as God loves us. That is why we keep Lent. So before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, give some thought to how you might use Lent this year to prepare your heart. Amen.

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