The answer to these questions are found in how we look at the season of Lent. If all it is to us is a time to give up chocolate or some other indulgence to show God how much we love him we’re missing the boat completely. Then it’s no wonder that the significance of the season is being lost and the worship attendance on Wednesdays is decreasing across the entire country. If it’s only about what I’m doing, and given the fact that what I have to do is ever increasing, then my sinful nature is going to lead me away from the practice and away from my relationship with the Lord.
Lent, just like all worship, is not about what I do for God but what God is doing for me in Christ Jesus! Proper understanding and practice for this season leads us to see who we are, who God is, what He’s done for us, and then how we are to respond to his gifts of forgiveness and salvation. Lent is often called a “penitential” time. That word comes from the same root as penitentiary, or prison. Lent is not a time to be imprisoned but rather a time to reflect on our guilt and the punishment that we deserve due to our sins; disobedience and rebellion against God. Now you may think to yourself that; “My sin isn’t all that bad, there are plenty of people who are worse than me.” If that’s your attitude you probably need to take the Lenten practice of penitence a little more seriously. Scripture clearly tells us that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) And, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) The truth is that all sin is an abomination before the Lord our God and all is punishable with both temporal and eternal death. In God’s eyes we’re no better than anyone else! Lent gives us the opportunity to search the depths of our sin and then experience the heights of God's love. You might liken it to the feeling you would experience when your doctor announces to you that you have terminal cancer, and then the feeling of having him announce that you’re cured! Sin is a cancer that we all have, and left untreated it always leads to death. The only cure is the grace of God given to us in Christ His Son, who takes on our sin and guilt, dying in our place to satisfy God’s righteous judgment and wrath against sin, and rising again to life to justify us before God the Father. The chemotherapy, that which delivers the cure, is faith, and that faith only comes to us from outside ourselves, as another gift of God the Holy Spirit working in the Word, Holy Scripture. Lent enables us to experience the depth of our depravity in order to better understand the heights to which God lifts us up in Jesus Christ.
With that as our foundation the season of Lent also afford us the opportunity to test the sincerity of our discipleship. Jesus calls us to follow him, denying ourselves and taking up our cross. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.” (The Cost of Discipleship) The people of Jesus’ day knew that a cross was the place of death, the most horrifying and shameful death imaginable. Being a disciple of Christ means dying to that which the world offers and rising to a new life of faith in Christ and obedience to him. Not that our obedience earns us anything before God, but as a natural response to being forever joined to the life of Jesus.
In that obedience Lent gives us motivation to reach out to our neighbors in love. On the night before his death Jesus gave his disciples, which now includes us, a new command; “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) The love of Jesus is always self-sacrificing, and not limited to just those who treated him well. Christ calls us to love even our enemies.
With a proper understanding of what Lent is and what a gift it is for us, we can be empowered to come and receive the gifts that God freely offers to us, and to more completely experience the joy of our Easter celebration.