This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. – Isaiah 58:6 (The Message)
It is unnatural for Christianity to be popular. – Billy Graham, 20th century
Can we be honest? The Season of Lent, which we have just entered, is not an easy Season for us as modern followers of Jesus living as citizens in the United States of America. It is not a very popular season.
The reason for this goes to the very nature and purpose of Lent. Lent is the period before Easter when we prepare our hearts to celebrate the glorious resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Originally, Lent was the time when converts to Christianity were instructed in the faith and prepared to make their commitment to become followers of Jesus through the Sacrament of Baptism.
Part of their preparation was instruction so they understood the repentance that was required to embark on this new way of life. To follow Jesus in the first century, and in every century since, including the 21st century, calls for a turning from the predominant ways of the surrounding culture to embrace a way of life that is clearly countercultural. I don’t know if this is what Billy Graham understood when he uttered the words quoted above, but it is why I felt those to be appropriate words to lead into this reflection. It is unnatural for Christianity to be popular. The way of Jesus is not the way of making America great again, at least not in the way we are being told currently. The way of Jesus does not lead to higher profits, a rising stock market, greater military and border security, especially if that must take place at the expense of any human beings and their life and welfare.
Over the centuries Lent became a season of spiritual practices for all Christians in order to prepare our hearts for Easter. Those practices acknowledged that we have a continual need to examine our lives, our practices, our walk with God and to repent and return to a more faithful walk. Just as a marriage or a friendship needs constant attention and cultivation to be healthy and beneficial for both partners, the same is true for our relationship with God.
One of those spiritual practices is fasting. But too often we have trivialized fasting by making it only about food. Typically we “give up” or “fast” from treats or sweets, luxuries which we might miss but which do not truly inconvenience us or lead us to reflect on deep changes that we maybe need to consider making in our lives. The prophet Isaiah in the words above call us to consider the fact God truly desires as a sign of sincere repentance and renewal for our lives.
Yes, Lent is tough! And one more reason it is tough is that it reminds us that we need help to walk the way of Jesus. It is not a stroll in the park. It is a hard path that calls for serious sacrifice, and serious service for others, and involves picking up and carrying a cross. Jesus knew we could not do it alone. He knew he could not do it alone, which is why he called others to join him and he created a community. It is why he never sent his disciples out to engage in ministry solo, but always in pairs, with a partner.
And it is why God did not stop with creating Adam, the human being, but then created Eve, a partner. God created us for relationship with God and with each other. God never expected us to go it alone and God fully expects us to “need help” from God. That is why God is gracious and always ready and willing to help us and save us. As Tony Robinson put it in a Lenten Devotional recently published: As we accept grace ourselves, we become gracious to others.
Yes, Lent is tough. But I commend it to you as a season for growth. And I encourage you to not go it alone, but come and join with others as we seek to grow in our faith and in our walk with Jesus.
R. Steven Hudder
Pastor, Christ Congregational United Church of Christ
Palmetto Bay, Florida