(March 09, 2023) Dr Jim McClure shares…
We are very familiar with the festivals of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter that are commemorated each year. In fact they are so popular that the secular and commercial world has largely taken over Christmas and Easter as holidays rather than ‘holy days.’
Even so, as Christians, we do try to focus on the profound spiritual significance and meaning of those events.
We are in the midst of festival of ‘Lent’ that is celebrated each year by millions of Christians throughout the world. It is a 6-week event that began this year on Wednesday, February 22, and will end on Saturday April 8, 2023 – the day before Easter Day. While many churches worldwide observe Lent, some denominations – and Christians – pay little attention to it.
What is Lent and why did it become part of Christian practice? Almost 1900 years ago one of the leaders of the church, Irenaeus, mentioned a time of prayer and fasting for 40 days before Easter. A couple of hundred years later it was generally practised by Christians worldwide. Its purpose was focusing on God, developing a closer relationship with Him and reflecting on the wonderful fact that Jesus Christ rose triumphantly from the tomb.
I am not suggesting that Lent should become part of the calendar of every church and every Christian. I wholly agree with the comment, ‘You could observe 1,000 Lents and it won’t ever accomplish in your life what the cross of Jesus has.’ That is absolutely true.
Nevertheless, I believe that that our relationship with God can be greatly deepened and strengthened whenever we seriously set aside time in prayer and think deeply about what it truly means to be a Christian.
Underlying the Lent commemoration is the significance of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert before He began His ministry and that is why some Christians place a special focus on prayer and fasting during this period.
This momentous event in Jesus’ life is mentioned in three of the gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. It was a time of challenge for Jesus when Satan tried to distract Him from His primary mission – the redemption of men and women and their restoration into an eternal relationship with Almighty God.
During that time in the desert Satan tried to convince Jesus that His life would be much more fulfilling apart from God. Jesus was challenged by, and overcame, the powerful temptations Satan put before Him. And Satan continues to put variations of those same temptations before us today. They are –
(i) Putting material things before God;
(ii) Impressing people to show how wonderful we are;
(iii) Compromising our God-given values to accommodate worldly values.
Christians today are still sorely tempted by these same three things – Satan keeps on using the same old techniques!
Lent is not just a religious festival practised by some denominations. The principle behind Lent is to encourage each of us to do some serious reflection and self-examination in order to develop and deepen our relationship with God. Without personal discipline we can become very apathetic as Christians and God can often be kept at the edge of our lives.
In the desert Satan tried to convince Jesus that living outside God’s will would be much more satisfying and fulfilling. Of course, it was all a lie. It wasn’t true concerning Jesus and it is not true concerning us. We often need a personal spiritual awakening to remind us that apart from God there is a profound emptiness in our lives.
In Psalm 42 we read that the psalmist recognised that apart from God he was empty and he cried out, ‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?’ Can’t you hear the passion in those words?
One of the most significant figures in the history of the church was St Augustine who lived about 1600 years ago. He made a very telling comment about God, ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.’ Or, in other words, ‘We all have a God-shaped hole in our lives which only He can fill.’
People have always tried to fill that ‘God-shaped hole’ with worldly things but that can never work! It is like trying to force a jigsaw piece into a wrong space in the puzzle.’ It just doesn’t fit! In the same way nothing can serve as a substitute for God. And Lent is a time that encourages us to reflect on that truth.
So what steps can we take to restore and revitalise our relationship with God? Briefly I want to make five suggestions.
When John the Baptist began his ministry, the first word he declared was, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 3:2). And when Jesus began His ministry, after His testing time in the desert, the first word He declared was, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17). The Greek word for ‘repent’ doesn’t mean being very sorry for having done something wrong – it means a total change of mind, a turning around, a heading in the opposite direction.
True repentance requires that we acknowledge when our thoughts and actions are taking us in directions that are dishonouring to God and then deciding that we need to turn around and head in the opposite direction. We can be sorry about something we have done, but if we take no steps to rectify the situation, we haven’t truly repented – we haven’t really turned around and headed in the other direction.
Repentance may be described as doing a U-turn. Years ago when we lived in the north-east of England, my father and mother travelled over from Ireland on the car ferry. I had given them directions – ‘When you get to the M1 turn right and that will take you directly to the town where we live.’ When they had not arrived around the time we expected, we began to be concerned. Then the phone rang. My father had stopped at a phone box (it was before the time of mobile phones) and rang me. He said, ‘I think we’re lost.’
They were! They had turned left at the M1 instead of right and they were heading towards Scotland. They were travelling in the wrong direction and they had to do a U-turn to travel on the right route to reach their destination!
When both John the Baptist and Jesus declared, ‘Repent,’ they were like signposts in the road that declared, ‘Turn around!’ And it is our choice whether or not we follow that advice. And this applies not only to non-Christians but to Christians also because we can often find ourselves walking in the wrong direction, that is, walking away from God, either by accident or deliberately.
Do we need to stop and turn around on a road we are travelling which is taking us away from God and start walking towards God again? If we do, we need to repent.
By reflection I mean giving serious thought about the integrity of our Christian walk. Isn’t it true that sometimes we yield to temptation? Isn’t it true we do not bring honour to Jesus Christ in the things we sometimes do and say and think?
Sometimes we may move away from an intimate relationship with God and not even be aware of it. And it is possible that we may even drift so far away from God and be wholly unconcerned about it.
That is what happens when Christians backslide. It is sad to see some Christians, who once were so committed to God, who have now drifted away from Him altogether. And it can happen to us. It begins so slowly, so undramatically, so stealthily that we not even be aware of it until one day we realise that God really no longer has any real place in our lives.
Reflection means being honest with ourselves and examining our relationship with Jesus, genuinely questioning some of the things we have done or are doing, and examining our priorities. And then dealing with the things in our lives that dishonour God. Reflection is an integral aspect of participating in the Lord’s Supper. When Paul gave instructions on celebrating the Lord’s Supper, he said that we should each examine ourselves first before we eat of the bread and drink of the cup (1 Corinthians 11:28).
‘Reflection’ can help to keep us close to God and it can alert us when we may be straying off the path.
In the early days of Christianity Christians were at a distinct disadvantage. They were seen as subversive to the social order and a challenge to the current culture. They were scorned because they did not wholly embrace the social customs and immoral values of the day and they were disadvantaged socially and financially. The ruling authorities were unsympathetic to them and they were no strangers to persecution and execution. Yet they resolved not to compromise their faith and not to discard their faith.
We can learn from them because in these corrupt days, as we are so aware, Christianity is under attack and some churches and pastors have chosen to embrace, and even to promote, current views and morals that stand it total contradiction to basic Christian beliefs.
Now is the time to strengthen our resolve to live for Jesus and not to be embarrassed to affirm that we believe in God and are followers of Jesus. And we can use these weeks before Easter as a time of strengthening our resolve to follow Jesus.
When Paul ministered in various cities, he often encountered opposition, even physical abuse and imprisonment, but despite that he remained faithful to Jesus Christ and to the message he was called to preach. To the church in Corinth he wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:2, ‘I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’
He was not going to surrender to opposition or be swayed by social pressure. He made a conscious, deliberate decision to stand firm for Jesus knowing that the secular world and its leaders would strongly oppose him. Are you prepared to follow Paul’s example? Are you prepared to resolve to be faithful to Jesus in these challenging times? Jesus died for you. Are you prepared to live for Him?
There are two aspects to this matter of relationship…
(i) How important and how relevant is your relationship with God?
Not only on Sunday, but on every day of the week!
Having a relationship with God is so much more than accepting Jesus as our Saviour. It means also that He is a vital and relevant reality in our lives. But that relationship needs to be nourished. If it isn’t, it can easily be lost.
How strong is your relationship with God? If it is not strong, what are you going to do about it?
(ii) ‘How strong are our relationships with fellow Christians?’
Division among Christians is a tool that Satan has effectively used for 2000 years and it still very destructive. Contrary to God’s will Christians sadly often have bad relationships with fellow believers. And this is wholly in opposition to how God wants His people to behave.
The last time Jesus prayed with His disciples before He was crucified, He passionately prayed these words, ‘I pray… for those who will believe in me… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. … may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me’ (John 17:20-23). Could anything be clearer?
Peter also commented on the relationship between Christians. He wrote in 1 Peter 3:8-9, ‘… live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.’
And so I ask, ‘How good are your relationships with fellow Christians?’ This is a critical question and it is an issue that was addressed not only by Jesus and Peter but also by James and John and by the writer of Hebrews. It is vitally important! It’s a matter we can’t ignore. And during this Lenten period we can seek to rebuild bridges that have been broken in the past and in doing so we would receive God’s full approval.
Jesus’ experience in the desert before He began His ministry was not the only time when He was tempted by Satan – it was, however, a time when His total commitment to God was strongly and clearly affirmed. Jesus’ commitment to God never wavered, but ours often does! And sometimes we are not even aware of it!
In Revelation 3 we read a letter that Jesus addressed to the Christians at Laodicea and He had some unsettling things to say. He told them directly, ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.’
While those Laodicean Christians were living very comfortable lives, they lacked the very thing that should have been central to their lives – full commitment to Jesus Christ. And what was true 2000 years ago is also true today – when complacency and self-satisfaction come into our lives, commitment to God moves out. There are so many distractions around us today that it is easy for us to become half-hearted, unenthusiastic and uncommitted as Christians – and often we are not even be aware that this is happening to us!
Jesus’ challenge to those Christians in Laodicea was one of recommitment. And it is important for us also to pause, from time to time, and reflect on our undeserved privilege of an eternal relationship with God, and then, in gratitude, recommit ourselves to Him. That means that we realign our lives so that our relationship with God and His will for us become central to our whole being.
The words of the little-known Old Testament prophet, Hanani, are very sobering, ‘The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him’ (2 Chronicles 16:9).
I have mentioned five things that we can do to strengthen our relationship with God and align ourselves to His will — Repentance, Reflection, Resolve, Restoration and Recommitment.
This requires a response!
As we approach the commemoration of Jesus’ crucifixion and the celebration of His resurrection, we need honestly to consider this: He did all that for you and for me – what is our response to Him?
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible studies, offers them free in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats.
Looking for Answers in a Confusing World is particularly recommended. Questions seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives are welcomed. Link: OnlinerConnect@gmail.com
Amen Jim, to the challenge and encouragement you share. In some Protestant denominations we don’t as you say really make much of the Lent season and it is worth reflecting on its origin and purpose which you have set out so well.