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Lenten Discipline

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4: 1 – 11

First Sunday of Lent

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Prayer:  Loving God, as you went with Jesus out into the wilderness,  go also with us into this season of Lent.  Journey with us to those places    where we go to confront all that stands in the way  of our being your followers. Minister to us as we seek to be your ministers in this world that you love. Amen.

Don’t bother looking for “Lent” in your Bible or in your Bible Dictionary, because there was no such thing back then.  The practice of spending the 40 days of Lent as a time of prayer and preparation did not arise until much later – in the Middle Ages in fact.  The word “Lent” comes from the early English word for lengthening, referring to the lengthening of days in springtime as the sun gives us a little more sunlight each day.

The church did, however, turn to the Bible for some clues as to how to spend this time.  They noted that Israel had spent 40 years in the wilderness learning to trust in God.  Elijah spent 40 days in a place by himself before hearing the still, small voice of God.  Moses spent 40 days listening to God give the law and the 10 Commandments.  And there was this story in the Gospels about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness – a period of preparation between his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry – during which time he was tempted and put to the test.

So the church announced a season of Lent, 40 days stretching from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, not including Sundays, as an invitation to grow in faith and in our relationship with God.

Forty days to nourish the spirit, to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone, to recall the stories of suffering and faith in the life of Jesus and the history of the church.

Think of it as an Outward Bound experience for the soul.  No one has to sign up for it, but if you do, then you give up the illusion that you and you alone are in control of your life.

Of course, as a child, I didn’t know much about Lent, except that it was a time before Easter.  My Catholic friends in high school had Lent, but we Protestants didn’t put very much emphasis on it.

One Wednesday, my friends, with their foreheads marked with ashes, told me about the party they had Tuesday night and how much they ate and how they got to stay up late, and I wished we had Lent so we could eat all that food and candy and stay up way past our bedtime, but that was before I heard about “giving up” something for Lent.

It wasn’t long before they were asking me what I had given up.  Of course, I didn’t know what they were talking about.  When they told me they couldn’t eat chocolate or ice cream or cake or whatever they had “given up”, I was horrified.  They gave up eating something wonderful until Easter morning.  What on earth would they do that for?

Then they said that I was in danger of being sent to hell and damnation unless I gave up something for Lent.  Well, then I began to get worried and nervous.

So I asked my mother about this giving up something for Lent thing.  She said, “No, I didn’t have to ‘give up’ a thing”.  She said that Jesus had already “given up” his life for us, and that was enough.

So, the very next day I told my friends that I didn’t have to give up anything.  Then they got me confused.  They asked how I was going to remember Jesus.  I said that I hadn’t forgotten Jesus!  They laughed and said that they remember Jesus every time they don’t eat chocolate or whatever it was they gave up for Lent.

My mother said that we remember Jesus all the time, not just during Lent, and if my friends want to “give up” something for lent, they shouldn’t talk about it all the time.  They should just quietly not eat what they had “given up” and take their sacrifice seriously.  I thought they were taking it very seriously.  After all, they talked about it all the time.

 The next few days we got into what I can only call dueling Bible passages.  It all began when one of my friends said that “giving up” something for Lent was in the Bible.  My mother told me to get my Red Letter New Testament and look up Matthew 6.  I did and it was about being a hypocrite if you fast and brag about it all the time.

When I read Matthew 6 to my friends, they said that I should read Joel 2.  Horrors!  I ran to my mother and told her that God does want us fast after all, and all this time I wasn’t fasting while my friends were.  Did that mean I had to stay in purgatory for a longer time than they had to?  And did Protestants even go to Purgatory anyway?

My mother gave me that look which says “What now?” and asked me to read the passage out loud to her.  So I read, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with FASTING” (of course I read the word “fasting” in a very loud I-told-you-so voice), with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing”.

That’s it, my mother said, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing!”  Sometimes I just did not know what my mother was talking about.  She tried to explain that I could fast if I wanted to, but it should be a private matter – something between me and God, an act of worship, an act of prayer.  She said I shouldn’t show off, like the Pharisees who told everybody about their fasting.  Instead I should examine my heart.

Well, I looked up the word “rend” in the dictionary and found it meant “tear”. Tear your heart instead of your clothes!  That didn’t make any sense to me!

Well, the next Sunday in Church, guess what?  One of the scriptures which the minister read was “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing”.  I elbowed my mother and said in a whisper “see!”  She just smiled.  The minister began the sermon by asking: “What does God mean by that?”  I elbowed my mother again, but she just shushed me.  When the Sermon was over, I couldn’t remember a lot of it, and a lot of it I did not understand.  But what I have never forgotten is this:  God asks us for a fasting of the heart, a “giving up” of whatever it is that keeps us from loving one another, a “giving up” of whatever it is that keeps us living only our own stories instead of living God’s story.  Then the minister quoted what I later found out was a passage from Isaiah.  He said the kind of fasting God wants is this: to work for justice, to help the oppressed, to share with the hungry, to help those in need.

That was my introduction to Lent.

So all through my life I have never felt the compulsion to give up something for Lent.  I hope that I am living my life all year in the knowledge and love of God.  However, Lent is still a time of preparation – a time of journeying toward the Great Week-end – the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Easter.  I often find that a spiritual discipline helps me prepare for Easter.  I try to spend more time in contemplation – often listening to music – like Bach’s Mass in B minor or St. Matthew’s Passion.

So what I want to suggest to us today is that we try a spiritual discipline during Lent.  In fact, despite what I have said so far, I want to suggest that we give up something for Lent – but not any food or temptations.  I want to suggest that we give up one minute each day for Lent.  And let our fasting be a prayer.  What I am asking each of us to do is to offer a one minute prayer every day during Lent.  Let’s agree that at 12 noon every day, we say a one minute prayer.  Just one minute.  No matter where you are, at work, at home, in the shopping mall, in the car.  Just stop, sit down or pull over, and for a brief 60 seconds say a prayer.  The prayer could be for this congregation, for someone you know, for peace in our world – make it your prayer for 1 minute.  You know something – there are 1440 minutes in a day.  During Lent, take one of those minutes and offer it to God at 12 noon, or whatever time you may choose.  No one has to sign up for it, but if you do, you might be surprised by the experience.

If you would like to let me know how this is going for you, I would be more than happy to hear about it.  We will check in now and then on Sundays.

You might remember that last Fall in a sermon on prayer I said that

to pray for something – a person, a place, a country, peace talks, famine relief – is to see the person, the place, the situation held in the hands of God.  Such an act of praying – to see the person or cause held in the God’s hands – is the simplest and at the same time the most powerful thing we can do.   We do not understand what God will do, nor how our prayers will be translated into human action.  We do not understand God, but we may contemplate God.  Our prayers keep our hearts chasing after God’s heart, and we do this so that we will not lose heart.

The former Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who is getting frailer, said recently that he was aware that people all over the world were praying for him and he could feel those prayers.  I wonder if we could feel the prayers of those in this congregation if we just agreed to pray for each other for one minute each day.  Let’s give it a try.  Maybe the combined strength of our prayers, joined with the prayers of others around our world will have an effect on the movement to preserve peace.  Let’s see what happens.

Forty days of Lent, not including Sundays.  Forty – one minute prayers.  Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.  Let these forty days be our preparation time for Easter.

Let’s share in the Lenten Discipline of a one minute prayer each day.  And let us do these things as a way of preparing for the celebration of the Feast of New Life, the story of resurrection, and the joy of Easter.

Amen.

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