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What is Lent?

As you may be able to tell from the graphic, we are stating our new sermon series coinciding with the season that is called “Lent”.  Some of you may already have realized that Lent had started when co-workers or friends showed up at work or at school last Wednesday with a mark of ash on their foreheads. 

So what is lent all about and why observe it? Is there any value in it?

According to an article written by Ted Olsen for the Magazine, Christian History

“Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Like all Christian holy days and holidays, it has changed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same: self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter. Early church father Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200) wrote of such a season in the earliest days of the church, but back then it lasted only two or three days, not the 40 observed today.

In 325, the Council of Nicea discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting, but it's unclear whether its original intent was just for new Christians preparing for Baptism, but it soon encompassed the whole Church.

How exactly the churches counted those 40 days varied depending on location. In the East, one only fasted on weekdays. The western church's Lent was one week shorter, but included Saturdays. But in both places, the observance was both strict and serious. Only one meal was taken a day, near the evening. There was to be no meat, fish, or animal products eaten.

Until the 600s, Lent began on Quadragesima (Fortieth) Sunday, but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) moved it to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to secure the exact number of 40 days in Lent—not counting Sundays, which were feast days. Gregory, who is regarded as the father of the medieval papacy, is also credited with the ceremony that gives the day its name. As Christians came to the church for forgiveness, Gregory marked their foreheads with ashes reminding them of the biblical symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes) and mortality: "You are dust, and to dust you will return" (Gen 3:19).

By the 800s, some Lenten practices were already becoming more relaxed. First, Christians were allowed to eat after 3 p.m. By the 1400s, it was noon. Eventually, various foods (like fish) were allowed, and in 1966 the Roman Catholic church only restricted fast days to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It should be noted, however, that practices in Eastern Orthodox churches are still quite strict.

Pastor Mark Roberts adds: Historically, many Protestants rejected the practice of Lent, pointing out, truly, that it was nowhere required in Scripture. Some of these Protestants were also the ones who refused to celebrate Christmas, by the way. They wanted to avoid some of the excessive aspects of Catholic penitence that tended to obscure the gospel of grace. These Protestants saw Lent, at best, as something completely optional for believers, and, at worst, as a superfluous Catholic practice that true believers should avoid altogether.

Some segments of Protestantism did continue to recognize a season of preparation for Easter, however. Their emphasis was not so much on penitence and fasting as on intentional devotion to God. Protestant churches sometimes added special Lenten Bible studies or prayer meetings so that their members would be primed for a deeper experience of Good Friday and Easter. Lent was a season to do something extra for God, not to give something up.

So in summary, Lent is a time of fasting and spiritual renewal in preparation for Easter.  Different Christians at different times and in different churches have celebrated it differently, and some not at all.  Pastor Roberts points out the danger of Lent: that it can be viewed as a means of earning God’s favour – of kissing up to God, rather than viewed as other spiritual habits of the heart in which we throw ourselves upon God’s strength to grow in His grace.

I’m calling this series: that we’ll do up until Easter “Re:lent”, with the following significance:

1)    Perhaps this is the first time in a while that we as a church have even thought about or attempted to practice Lent.  So we are Re-Lenting.

2)    The word “relent” is interesting to me.  One of its definitions is “to yield”, and really that sums up very well what my prayer is for this series: that we all, individually and collectively might be more yielded to God and his will in our lives.  This is not about earning God’s favour, but about yielding to his love, and his will, and his life.  Another definition of “relent” is also applicable: to relent is to become more lenient, more compassionate, or more forgiving.  I see these two definitions as going together: the more I yield myself to God, the more my character is shaped by him so that I become more lenient, more compassionate, more forgiving.

3)    Finally, I hope this will not be simply a sermon series for us, but that you will consider truly observing this season. 

How do we observe Lent?:

At the heart of the observation of Lent is the fast.  The forty-day fast of lent is modeled after Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness.  We are going to read that passage, Matthew 4:1-4, for in that passage we get a very, very important insight into the value of fasting and the value of Lent, and we get a correction so that we might not do this whole thing wrong – yes, you can fast wrong.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Did you ever think about why we eat?  Why do we eat?

1)    Nourishment.  Yes, but if that were the case we would only need the minimal amount of calories and nutrients to keep us alive and healthy.  Why else do we eat?

2)    Social: Who we eat with is important.  That’s why its hard to stay on a diet during the holidays – cause you are meeting and eating with family all the time.

3)    Pleasure: It tastes so good.

4)    Comfort: Psychological “comfort foods”. The food-mood connection and craving comfort food was studied by Cornell University researchers, headed by Economics and Management Professor Brian Wansink. They recruited participants to watch either a sad movie ("Love Story") or a happy one ("Sweet Home Alabama"). They found that the participants who watched "Love Story" ate more buttered salted popcorn than those who watched "Sweet Home Alabama" – those people ate more grapes. The researchers speculated that happy people want to maintain their positive mood, so they consider the long-term consequences of craving comfort foods. Their craving for comfort food is moderated by their mood; they choose healthy, nutritional foods. Sad people are craving comfort food to overcome their feelings. One reason food is comforting is that a snack filled with sugar and/or fat can give them a fast "bump of euphoria" which makes them feel good. When eating gets out of control, an eating disorder can develop. Craving comfort food: links to happy memories People link comfort foods with happy memories, people they love, or feelings they want to recapture. It's not the food itself that provides comfort; it's the feelings that the food stimulates. If your mom always fed you homemade chicken soup or freshly baked brownies when you were ill or upset, then you 'll be craving comfort foods when you're sad.

Only a portion of what we eat is actually for our nourishment.  The rest of what we eat we eat for companionship, pleasure, or comfort. 

So Jesus was led by the Spirit to go out into the wilderness for forty days.  Now, humans can go this long without food, so he was not, as some have thought, miraculously preserved, but he was, at the end of the forty days, very hungry.  But when the devil tempted him to turn the stones into bread, what was his answer? I have already eaten.  I have already eaten.  “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  It reminds me of another time in John 4 when his discipl            es came back from buying bread while Jesus was ministering to the Samaritan women and the people of her town.  They were concerned that he eat, urging him, “Rabbi, eat.” Verse 32: “But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about . . . My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”

Jesus knew that fasting is not about depriving the body of nutrients, or companionship, or pleasure, or comfort.  It is not about torturing yourself, and especially not about losing weight.  It is about feasting on God, on His word, on His will. The fast is not about what you refrain from, it is about what you replace it with.

To not understand this will mean that your fast will end in failure: let me explain.  Let’s say you fast from food.  So you deprive your body of nourishment.  But as we saw before, that’s not the only reason we eat.  So in depriving yourself of the nourishment of food, you’re also depriving yourself of the social aspect of food, the comfort aspect of food, and the pleasure aspect of food.  So when you fast – if you don’t keep this in mind – you are going to become more tempted to find your pleasure in something else, more tempted to find your comfort in something else, more tempted to take your mind off of your hunger through relationships, even destructive ones. You think you’re fasting from food, but what you’re actually doing is opening doors of temptation in many areas your life.  That is why when you fast it is such spiritual warfare, and you fail because Satan sees those points of weakness.  It’s like the alcoholic who gives up drinking only to become obsessed with sex and cigarettes.  He’s just exchanged one vice for another, like musical chairs.  So we have to understand what Jesus knew: The fast is not about what you refrain from, it is about what you replace it with. “Man does not live on bread alone – but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  What I fast from is not the issue – the issue is whether I am feasting on God.

It does us no spiritual good to abstain from food, or television, or video games, or whatever it is that your purpose in your heart to abstain from, if we are not replacing that time with time spent with the Lord, reveling in his presence.  If we are not deriving our pleasure from Him, we will feed ourselves with lesser pleasures.  We’ll just find another comfort food or comfort activity and our fast will be useless to us and to God.  The value in fasting is to show us those false idols that we feed on, and to instead feed on Jesus.

RE:Lent: forty days to feast on God

So it is my encouragement to you to take the next forty days, stating tomorrow, to feast on God.  We are going to take some time at the end here and ask the Holy Spirit to show each one of us what we can fast from and how we can feast on God.  Then I’d like you to take what the spirit shows you and talk to your spouse, maybe take a couple of cards home and talk to your kids, talk to your roommates, friends, and small groups to get prayer support and help to stick to it. 


1)    You Can’t Mandate Others’ Fasts: Parents work through the card with kids, but don’t say – we are fasting from video games.

2)    You Can’t Fast From Your Responsibilities. Twitter: I’m giving up church for lent.  Husbands, if its your job to do the dishes and your fasting, it’s still your job (Dan!)

3)    Remember, It’s Not About Fast, But About Feasting: Ask the spirit to show you how to replace thing thing you’re fasting from with a focus on God and his word.

4)    If You Fall Down, Get Back Up Again.

5)    Be Supportive of Others: Small groups, family. 

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