Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why I Love Lent

First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2012
I love Lent because it’s about victory. Lent is a solemn time, there’s no question. Some don’t do well with it at all because it can be downright depressing for them. And when we think of victory, we would normally think of Easter, what with the victory over the grave in Christ rising from it. But make no mistake, Lent is all about victory. And I love it.

I love it because it doesn’t take a Pollyannaish look at the Christian life. It takes a hard look at it. It’s real in its assessment of it. It’s gritty and not afraid to get down in the dirt with the hard questions of Christianity and the challenges of living the Christian life. Through this all there is the victory that Lent ultimately is all about.

Lent is a paradox in a world that wants easy answers. Lent doesn’t hide behind beautiful pictures of the Christian life that so often are promised to people who are hurting. Lent steps right into the world of hurt and embraces it. Lent doesn’t ignore very real threats to the Christian life and our often fragile faith, such as temptation. Lent meets temptation head on and spurs us on to duke it out with Satan.

I love Lent because it goes against so much of what our society values. I love Lent because it forces me to examine what it really means to be a Christian, to live in society, to have to wait until God calls us to His eternal home. When society tells me that I have rights Lent cuts me down to size and reminds me that when all is said and done I am a poor miserable sinner. There is something immensely freeing in seeing things as they really are rather than as I would like them to be but with no hope of them ever being that way. There is something enormously gratifying about knowing that even as I live in society I am not of this world; of knowing that even as heaven is my home that I nevertheless am called by my Lord to take up my cross and follow Him, to serve Him in many ways in society with my time, my talents, and my treasure. There is something tremendously fulfilling in knowing that even as my culture will tell me that I am a rugged individual that I am always reliant on my Lord who went it alone to the cross so that I may not be alone but serve others with all the many gifts God has given me.

Lent is above all a time of repentance. And I love that. Why? Because I need that. I love it because what I really love the most, in my heart of hearts, in my inner being, at the core of who I am, is myself. When God says “You shall have no other gods,” He says it because He knows that I am first and foremost my own one true God. Repentance shatters all that. And it’s only in repentance that I can see myself for who I was created to be—God’s own child, a new creation, a person redeemed by Christ. No, repentance is not fun. I don’t love Lent and repentance because it’s fun, or even particularly enjoyable.

But it’s real. It’s substantive. It’s lasting. Unlike my own thoughts, and desires, and wants, and needs, and basically everything else that has to do with me, Lent points me outward. It points me to something other than myself and my inborn sin, my wretched nature. It, at its essence, points me to Christ. That’s why I love Lent. Lent shows me Christ. It teaches me Christ. It teaches me that temptation is not something to be ignored. Or underestimated. Or dealt with on my own. It teaches me that Christ is the one who is the Victor, I am a poor miserable sinner. I am one who listens to the voice of Satan and succumbs to temptation.

But that’s why I love Lent. Because it shows me what I can’t know within myself. That there is something else. Someone else. That something, that someone, is Christ. Lent shows me that. Lent shows me victory where I end up in defeat. There is a reason the First Sunday in Lent always has as its focus the Temptation of Christ. Temptation is real. It’s hard-hitting. Don’t ever let anyone fool you into believing that Christianity is easy, that it’s a glorious life, that you’ll come to a point where you’ll overcome sin, and perhaps above all, that you have reached a point where you are more spiritual, or a more faithful Christian, than some of those other Christians you know. You are nothing else than a poor miserable sinner. And Lent tells you that. That’s why I love Lent.

Lent doesn’t allow you to skip right to the Resurrection. There is no resurrection without the cross. And really, there is no cross without Lent. Jesus didn’t come down to earth and step right up to the cross to be nailed to it. He was born. As we see in our Gospel reading today, He was Baptized. As we also see, He was tempted. As we further see, He proclaimed the Gospel, He carried out the holy ministry. Jesus in a fashion went through Lent. Before going to the cross He went through the desert, the wilderness. He endured temptation at the hands of Satan. Lent shows me that He did all of this for me. Specifically, for victory.

If I am under the illusion that my Christian life is an easy ride, then I ignore much of what Jesus has done. Jesus met head on with the pain and suffering and discouragement of people’s lives. He met head on with the thing we cannot withstand, the temptation of Satan. All you really have to do is look at Adam and Eve. They were sunk the moment they gave the serpent an audience. They went it alone and they got nailed. Only God can crush Satan under His feet. We get strangled by Satan’s lies. That’s why Jesus met Satan’s temptation head on.

Mark doesn’t say much about the temptation. It happened, that’s about as much as we get from him. But even so, we do get an amazing context, in that Jesus was Baptized, anointed by the Holy Spirit, declared the Beloved Son of the Heavenly Father, and then is immediately driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The stunning development is that He is driven into this mess of temptation by the Spirit! What kind of love is being shown here by the Father and the Spirit?

This is what Lent is about. It’s why I love Lent. Lent shows us that even as the love of the Father and the Spirit never wavered for God the Son, the love of Father, Spirit, and Son, was always and fervently focused on the brothers and sisters of Adam and Eve. That’s you and me. That’s what Lent is here for. Its purpose is to get you and me to focus on why the Holy Spirit was driving Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Make no mistake—it was an ordeal. It was a trial such as you and I could not imagine. This was not a no-holds-barred tackle football game between friends. This was an assault by Satan on the one who came to be Savior. Would He survive this assault? The victory is in Jesus not fighting back of His own power but relying on God the Father and the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ temptation, the angels came and were ministering to Him. Our only hope of enduring under temptation is to rely on God, not seek our own path.

I love Lent because the victory is true victory. It’s not a bait-and-switch. It’s not a promise of a pleasant life, but of actual hope and real strength in time of need. Our Lord, having withstood temptation and secured victory over Satan, gave us these words to pray: and lead us not into temptation. Many a Christian has puzzled over those words. Does the wording suggest that God might lead us into temptation? That we’d better pray He doesn’t, lest He does? I have my own thought of why He worded it that way but it’s nothing more than conjecture, so take it for what it’s worth: I think He might have done it simply to capture our attention. It’s all too easy to take things God tells us and quickly pass them by. But when things are worded in such a way, it really forces us to think about them; forces us to go back to Scripture where we continue to learn what God wants us to know and where He increases our faith. Be that as it may, the Bible makes it absolutely clear that God tempts no one, as we heard in our Epistle reading. So, no, God is not going to be leading us into temptation.

But when we do pray that petition of the Lord’s Prayer—lead us not into temptation—might we turn our focus to the place where our Lord Himself was led into temptation? Driven, even? Might we see in our Lord’s words of what to pray—namely, lead us not into temptation—an amazing comfort, an amazing promise? Specifically, that our God, the Holy Spirit Himself, drove our Lord into temptation, and therefore we can know that He did this in our place. That He will never lead us into temptation, He did so with Christ so that the victory could be won.

This is why I love Lent. Because with me, there’s only defeat. My sinful flesh conspires with Satan to bring me down. The world is all too happy to join in with Satan to kick me around and kick dust in my face. But Christ, He was victorious. He defeated Satan. He brought him down. He kicked him around.

And if that weren’t enough, He finally crushed Satan under His feet by destroying death with His own Suffering and Death. He finally put an end to the lie that we are our own gods and that acting on our sinful desires will bring us fulfillment. He gained this victory putting sin and guilt to death in dying for the sins of the world. And if that weren’t enough, He showed that His power knows no bounds because the grave could not hold Him. Satan has no power over one who willingly gives His life and actually is able to take on the sin of the world. He has no chance against one who by His own power can bring Himself back to life. Satan gave everything he could. He had no chance. That’s why the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. That’s why I love Lent. That’s why I love to confess in the Catechism the meaning of the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Lead us not into temptation:

“God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.” Amen.


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