The Season Of Lent
March 06, 2011
In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.’ Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,’ says the Lord. ‘You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why?’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on human beings and animals, and on all their labors.’”
Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the Lord their God had sent him; and the people feared the Lord. Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord’s message, saying, “‘I am with you,’ says the Lord.” And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“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 underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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. 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.”
You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why? declares the Lord Almighty. Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. (Haggai 1:9)
This coming Wednesday is known in the church calendar as Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of the church season called Lent. The observance of a period called Lent was old even in the days of the apostolic fathers, and in the fourth century the time was extended to forty days and finally fixed to begin on Ash Wednesday, forty days—exclusive of Sundays— before Easter. Its continuing purpose is to inspire in us a deeper self-examination and self-humbling in preparation of mind and heart for Easter.
One practice that became quite common, and in some communions still is quite common, is the giving up of some external thing for this forty-day period. It is my belief that this ritual does not really serve a useful purpose, for usually it involves the temporary giving up of something that is admittedly potentially harmful to the person, only to be resorted to again after the period of Lent is over.
What would more adequately serve to promote spiritual growth would be making an effort to recognize and give up some wrong way of thinking or feeling, with the intent of giving it up permanently and thus establishing better personal habits. If the period of Lent is used to gain a deeper awareness of our weaknesses and needs and a higher view of the real purpose of life, it cannot fail to bring a blessing to us. One of the basic teachings of our church is that the Lord in his providence looks only to those things that are eternal.
The Scriptures teach that God is the life of the universe. He created the heavens and the earth, the world and its people. All creation lives only by its connection with God, the only source of life. We read, “In him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The primary mission of the church is to bring us into right relation with God. In its broadest and most relevant and penetrating meaning, the church is the Lord’s kingdom on earth.
The rise and fall of our fortunes on earth has always been directly dependent on our relationship to our creator. And because of this, God has always revealed himself to people on earth by one means or another, sending his prophets “since the world began.” And our acceptance or rejection of these revelations has determined our progress or decline. Those who have accepted divine revelation and have been governed by it have constituted the church on earth, the living center of human history from age to age. Each age, in turn, has had as its center and source a specific spiritual dispensation or church era.
This should not be hard for us to understand or accept. We know, for instance, that when we hear such names as China, India, Ethiopia, Italy, or England, we think not only of the geography of those countries, but also of the character of the people, the state of their arts, their civilization, and especially the nature of their prevailing religions. There is a tendency in the world today to argue that religious beliefs matter very little, yet it should be obvious that nations are partly viewed as advanced or backward according to their religious beliefs and the type of life they produce.
We are primarily concerned with the Christian church. And we should note that the word “church,” as we use it in everyday conversation, has various meanings. It may simply mean a building set apart for public worship, as when we say, “This church is on West Street.” Or it may mean a body of Christians holding the same creed and acknowledging the same ecclesiastical authority, as the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Baptist or Methodist Church. Or it may mean the collective body of Christians, as when we say, “What is the church doing about war, or crime, or poverty?”
There are still other meanings, and we can’t consider them all. But there are two which it is vitally important for us to recognize and distinguish. The Christian church is for all of us, first, a body of teaching about the Lord and his way of life, and, second, a body of receivers of that teaching, the collective body of those who acknowledge and worship Christ. In the first of these two aspects, a system of truth revealed by the Lord in his Word as a way of life, the church is perfect. But in the second, as it is perceived by us and lived by us, it is very imperfect.
It is this second aspect of the church, the church as composed of men and women, that is our primary concern. The apostle Paul said, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16) Unless the teachings of the church are embodied in human hearts and minds, they are mere abstractions; they exist only in the imagination. And if there were no individual worshipers there would be no collective body. It is this collective body that is “God’s temple,” the church.
The Lord came to Earth to establish the Christian church. In order to do this he called his disciples, taught them, and sent them forth to baptize nations. Part of their message was that men and women are created for the purpose of learning and doing the will of God so that they might have his joy fulfilled in themselves and be coworkers with him in the establishment of his kingdom. Imperfect as we are, the progress of civilization depends on us. The church—this body of teachings with its receivers—is the means by which the Lord joins himself with all of humanity.
Because of its human limitations and weaknesses, many people stay detached from the church; some may say that they can worship better alone. Yet every business, every profession, every institution has these same faults, and we do not turn away from them. Worldly people demand to eat, to work, to walk, to talk, to play with others, but the one thing they do not demand is to worship with others. Although it is not readily admitted, the reason for this may be that subconsciously such persons may fear the power of united worship to disturb their self-centered course. On this most important plane of life, they imagine that they can stand by themselves, even though they may acknowledge that the church exercises an influence for good in the community and serves to further their personal safety and well-being, knowing that without public worship a community will in time deteriorate, because without public worship, knowledge of God will in time be lost, and with it knowledge of private and public morality.
We may deceive ourselves into thinking that security and happiness can be obtained by external reforms alone, but secular institutions—although necessary— are not sufficient in themselves. However complicated and extensive the machinery of government may become, it is only a machine, and it will not run itself. Like any machine, it needs suitable people to tend it, and “suitable people”—in this sense—are made only by acknowledgment of God and obedience to his laws.
The Lord came into the world when it was in much worse condition than it is now. The worst forms of slavery that ever stained the pages of history prevailed throughout the world, and private and public virtues were merely reminiscences of the past. Yet despite this, the Lord left questions of economic and social reform untouched. Why? Because he knew that what people needed first was the power to see and overcome their sins; for if this could be accomplished, all the rest would follow; and without this, no amount of ethical or external reform would significantly benefit the human race.
It has always been true—and always will be true— that our greatest personal task is that of regeneration. And to regenerate, we need the help of others, and we need to help others in their tasks. God does not ask us to fight personal evil singlehandedly. Also, there are community as well as individual evils that cannot be overcome except by combined efforts. The church links the individual with history, and gives us a part in directing the life of the world. A good life is primarily of the heart and mind. The church, as the Lord gives it to us, is pictured in Scripture as the bride, the Lamb’s wife, to teach us that the church is our spiritual mother, by whom we are born again and thus become truly children of God; which is just another way of describing the purpose God had in mind in founding the church.
If we realize and believe this to be true—that the church is God’s chosen means to prepare every one of us for an eternal life in heaven—for that purpose and for that alone we would be wise to become part of the church, of the body of Christ. We need to support the church—to support it with our money, with our attendance, with our personal service, and with our missionary efforts. But above all we need to support it by so living the Christian life individually that we lift up a standard for the people, so that the hearts of the people may be turned to the Lord because of the example that we set, not turned away from the church by our shortcomings. We are advised, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Mt.5:16). The upcoming season of Lent is an ideal time to do just this. Amen.
O Spirit of God, brooding over the formless world: brood over my spirit.
O Spirit of God, giving form to the formless: fashion my spirit.
O Spirit of God, giving life to the lifeless: give life to my spirit.
O Spirit of God, inspiration of the prophets: speak to my spirit.
O Spirit of the Lord, inspiration of the prophets: speak to my spirit.
O Holy Spirit, author of holiness: sanctify my spirit.
O Holy Spirit: knowing the deep things of God: move in the depths of my being.
Fire of the Spirit! Burn all that is not holy.
Fire of the Spirit! Shine with thy light.
Fire of the Spirit! Kindle with thy warmth.
Fire of the Spirit! Generate in us power.
Fire of the Spirit! Inflame us with love.
Wind of the Spirit! Breathe in us thy gentleness.
Wind of the Spirit! Blow in thy strength.
Let us pray for the gift of the Spirit.
The gift of the Spirit is wisdom and understanding, resourcefulnes and spiritual strength, knowledge and true godliness, and holy fear. Grant us thy sevenfold gift, O Holy Spirit.
Let us pray for the fruit of the Spirit.
The harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, good temper, gentleness, goodness, humility, and selfcontrol. Produce in us thy harvest, O Holy Spirit.
- G. A.
Rev. Dr. William R. Woofenden