Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sermon for February 14th: Keeping a Holy Lent

Keeping a Holy Lent

A few years ago a very good friend of mine had a heart attack. Like many people in today’s world, he’d had a vague idea that perhaps his way of eating and his lack of exercise were not good for him, but he’d never cared enough to do anything about it. But his heart attack served as a wake-up call for him; when he got home from hospital he began walking every day, and he began watching his diet carefully. He’d always known he needed to make changes in his lifestyle, but now he was finally motivated enough to actually do something about it.

For my friend, his heart attack was what Christian theologians refer to as a ‘kairos' moment’. There are two Greek words for time: ‘chronos’ and ‘kairos’. ‘Chronos’ is the ordinary world for the passing of time, but ‘kairos’ means ‘a significant time’, ‘a decisive moment’. A ‘kairos’ moment is a moment that changes things.

Lent is meant to be a ‘kairos’ moment for us as followers of Jesus, and since Lent starts this coming Wednesday I want to spend some time with you thinking about it this morning. So often we trivialize Lent. “What are you going to give up for Lent?” we ask, and the answers are things like coffee or chocolate or dessert. Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not downplaying the value of giving up things for Lent. We all know that we can be too self-indulgent, and so practising a little self-control by giving up something for a few weeks isn’t a bad thing. But if the sum total of what Lent means for us is that we don’t take sugar in our coffee until Easter, then I think we’ve missed the point.

To get a bigger sense of perspective, let me quote from the introduction to the Ash Wednesday service from the Book of Alternative Services:

Dear friends in Christ, every year at the time of the Christian Passover we celebrate our redemption through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lent is a time to prepare for this celebration… We begin this holy season by remembering our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ… I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Let’s think for a moment about these two words ‘repentance’ and ‘self-examination’. The word ‘Repentance’ means ‘to change our way of living’. That was what my friend did after his heart attack. His lifestyle was unhealthy, and he had begun to experience the consequences of his unwise behaviour, so he changed his way of life, in the hope that he could look ahead to a better future. That’s what ‘repentance’ is all about; we realise that the way we are living is not good for us, and so we turn away from sin and we turn toward God’s will for us.

‘Self-examination’ is the discipline we practice as we make decisions about what needs to change in our lives. During Lent we ask for God’s help to examine ourselves, so that we can repent and turn to the Lord in a way that will have a positive impact on the future direction of our lives.

What are some of the things we might want to consider? What are some of the Christian disciplines that can help us grow as followers of Jesus? I’m going to choose six important Christian disciplines, and over the next six Sundays, from the first Sunday in Lent all the way to Palm Sunday, I’m going to think about them with you. These disciplines are all based on the Bible and rooted in centuries of Christian tradition; these are the methods that godly people have always used to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Today I want to give you a general overview of these six disciplines, and then over the next six Sundays I’ll examine each one in turn in more detail, concluding each week with some questions to help us think about how we might practice them more faithfully in our daily lives.

The six disciplines are: prayer, study, action, worship, giving, and mission. Let me give a brief introduction to each one today, and then, as I say, we’ll look at them in more detail in the weeks ahead.

First, prayer. Prayer was central in the life of Jesus. In Mark chapter 1 we read about a very busy day at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: he preached at the synagogue and cast out an evil spirit, he went back to Peter’s house and healed his mother in law, and that evening he spent hours healing all the sick people of Capernaum. But then Mark goes on to tell us, ‘In the morning, while it was still dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’ (Mark 1:35). He made this a habit throughout his ministry. He prayed in the desert when he was facing temptation, and he spent a whole night in prayer on a mountain before he chose his twelve apostles. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was staring death in the face. Even on the Cross, the words of the psalms came to his lips as he cried out to his Father: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Not only did Jesus make prayer the centre of his ministry; he assumed that his followers would pray regularly too. In Matthew’s gospel when Jesus gives his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he introduces his teaching with the words, ‘When you pray…’ Hoe doesn’t say, ‘If you pray’, but ‘when you pray’, and he gives us the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for our own prayers. He tells us to pray simply, sincerely, and specifically, to the Father who loves us and wants to hear our prayers.

But despite all of this, most Christians spend very little time in prayer. I don’t know about you, but sometimes it seems to me as if I’d rather do anything else than pray. I have no difficulty finding time to read blogs, read the newspaper, or go and play guitar with my friends. I never say, “I’m too busy to work overtime” or “I’m too busy to go out for lunch with a friend”, but I often act as if I’m too busy to spend time in prayer with the one who loves me the most – God. Do you have that problem too? Do you struggle to find time to pray, and struggle with how to pray when you have found the time? If so, you’ll want to be here next week as we think about the discipline of prayer and how we can grow in it.

The second discipline is study. You might be surprised to see this listed as a Christian discipline, but study is very important to our growth as Christians. Do you remember the most important commandment Jesus gave us? He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). I have absolutely no doubt that loving the Lord our God with our mind is one of the areas we fall down in most often.

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). If we believe lies, they have a major negative impact on our lives. For instance, my friend had swallowed the lie that he could eat just as he liked and neglect exercise without experiencing any negative consequences. His heart attack was a moment of facing the truth; when he came to believe the truth, and to put it into practice, things got better for him. The truth set him free.

So study – increasing our knowledge of the truth – is a vital part of our Christian growth. We study the Bible, and especially the life and teaching of Jesus. We study God’s creation, because, as the psalmist says, ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1). We study the people around us, and we study ourselves too. We study alone, and we study together. We study in books, and we study as we reflect on our life experiences.

Many Christians will spend years of their lives and thousands of dollars paying for an expensive university education to help them earn a living, but they won’t spend any time or money to learn more about the Christian faith. Consequently, they get stuck with the level of Christian knowledge they had when they were children, and when they’re faced with major issues, they haven’t got a clue about how to think through them in a Christian manner.

Is this you? Have you been neglecting the discipline of study in your Christian life? If so, you’ll want to come on February 28th when we think about that!

The third discipline is action. We all know that proper nutrition is only half the battle when it comes to our health; the other half is exercise. And in the same way, it’s not enough for us to study the Scriptures; we have to practice them as well. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). A bit later on in the Sermon, he says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (7:24). You see, it’s not enough just to hear his words; it’s not enough even to hear his words and believe them. We have to go further; we have to put them into practice.

Christian growth is basically figuring out how to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives. We all know what the issues are. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. He told us not to amass lots of possessions, but to live simple, uncluttered lives and to give generously to those who are in need. He told us to tell the truth at all times and to be reconciled with one another. He told us to be faithful to our marriage vows and to avoid lust. He told us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

What are the most important issues the teaching of Jesus raises for you in your daily life? What would it mean for you to put his teaching into practice more faithfully? More about that on March 7th when we think about action.

The fourth discipline is worship – by which I mean primarily the gathering of God’s people to worship him together. All through the Bible it is assumed that we will do this. When people tell me, “I don’t need to go to church to worship God; I can do it on the golf course just as easily”, the only thing I can say in response is that in the Bible a regular gathering for worship is just assumed to be part of the godly life. It was certainly part of Jesus’ life. Luke 4:16 says, ‘When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom’. Jesus went to synagogue on Saturday, but he was raised from the dead on Sunday, the first day of the week, and ever since the earliest Christian times followers of Jesus have gathered on Sundays to celebrate the resurrection and share Holy Communion.

In this area there are two challenges that face us today: being too busy for Sunday worship, and trivializing it into entertainment when we do come. We all know how busy Sundays are: the pressures of the week make sleeping in very attractive, even if we don’t have Sunday sports or other activities planned for the day. The early Christians faced the same challenge; for them Sunday was an ordinary working day, so they met at 6 a.m. for their worship before going on to work! And the other challenge is seeing Sunday worship as entertainment – something the minister and the leaders do for us to make us feel good – rather than seeing it as something we all do together for God. More about this on March 14th when we talk about worship.

The fifth discipline is giving. Throughout the New Testament generosity is held up for us as a fundamental characteristic of Christian disciples, and this stands in continuity with the Old Testament where giving to the poor is one of the fundamental duties of the godly person.

The Old Testament people were told that when they harvested their crops they were to take one-tenth of the produce and offer it to the Lord; this was called the ‘tithe’. Many Christians today believe that this practice is also mandatory for us – that we should give ten percent of our income to God, for the work of his church and the relief of those who are in need. Other Christians point out that tithing is never mentioned in the New Testament. This is true, but before you sigh with relief and go back to normal, consider this: whenever Jesus changed an Old Testament command, he made it harder, not easier! To him it’s not enough not to kill someone: you can’t get angry with them either. It’s not enough not to commit adultery; you can’t even look on someone with lust. It’s not enough to keep your oaths in court; you have to tell the truth at all times. So if that pattern holds, he must be expecting us to give more than ten percent, not less!

In fact, I’m sure Jesus would say that if we’re asking how much we must give, we’ve already misunderstood what Christian generosity is all about. It’s not a matter of how little I can get way with; it’s a matter of my selfish heart being transformed so that giving to others is my greatest joy. Is this a challenge for you? I know it is for me! More about this on March 21st!

The sixth and final discipline is mission. At the end of John’s Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus says to his followers, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The word ‘mission’ comes from the Latin word ‘missae’ which means ‘to send’. The Father sent Jesus into the world to live out the love of God in word and action, to that the world might be saved. Now the message of salvation has been entrusted to us as Christians. God’s plan to change the world includes you and me; each of us has a part to play, and if we don’t play our part, God’s world will be the worse for it.

What does this mean for us in practice? It means looking for opportunities to care for those who are in need, and it means looking for opportunities to speak about Jesus to others and invite them to become his followers. How is that going for you? Do you need help in these areas? We’ll think about that in more detail on March 28th.

When my friend had his heart attack, it was a ‘kairos’ moment for him. It prompted him to change his way of life, and today his life is better as a result. I want to close with that thought. God’s plan for us is a good plan. God gives us Christian disciplines so that we can have a better life, a life aligned more closely with his will for us. This Lent can be a ‘kairos’ moment for you and me. We can examine ourselves, think about these disciplines, and make decisions about the changes we need to make in our lives.

Let me close with the words from the Book of Alternative Services that I quoted earlier on:

I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

May it be so for us this Lent. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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