Posts Tagged With: Lent

 
 

Lent and Fasting

“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it? Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in” (Isaiah 58:1‒12; all Scripture citations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

For much of my adult life, I ignored Lent. It seemed to me like a legalistic ritual. I thought it provided nothing for salvation or spiritual growth. You get some ashes smeared on your head one Wednesday; for the next 40 days, you give up chocolate. What makes this spiritual? Where is God in all of this?

The truth is that some people will go through Lent and get nothing out of it. However, that is not because there is a problem with the season or the traditions associated with it. It is a problem with how that particular individual is approaching the situation. We can take legitimate ways of approaching and worshiping God and do them without His presence. Even the holiest acts can be worthlessly mundane if we merely go through the motions.

God is not impressed if we just go through the motions of Lent or fasting. The true worshipers of God will serve Him in Spirit and truth, not merely in outward rituals. What God says about fasting in the above passage is just as true about all spiritual disciplines and practices, including Bible study, prayer, praise, worship, and serving others.

(For those of you who believe fasting is a purely Old-Testament practice that Christians can ignore, I urge you to read my article, “Principles of Fasting,” at https://darkenedglassreflections.com/2011/12/04/principles-of-fasting/. Jesus assumed that His disciples will fast, and in Matthew 28:18‒20 He told them to teach later generations of disciples to obey ALL that He commanded them.)

It is helpful to remember that one goal of any fast is to give up something physical or natural so that we can devote our attention to things that are spiritual. Many people will give up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, along with a favorite kind of food and/or hobby for the entire season. Others may be more ambitious (perhaps going on a full no-food fast for a day here and there), while others may do something simpler (perhaps giving up only one food). However, whether we give up a lot or a little, we need to fill the gap with something spiritual. If you give up food, without adding prayer or other spiritual disciplines, you are dieting—not fasting.

So, here are a few suggestions for those who observe Lent:

  • While giving up food, add prayer. The time devoted to preparing and eating food can be used for additional prayer and Bible reading.
  • While giving up a hobby or activity (television, Facebook, etc.), add praise and worship. The time you would normally spend on your hobby can be spent playing favorite worship songs on a musical instrument, or listening to favorite praise and worship music on a CD, Spotify, or Pandora. (Yes, this can include songs you actually enjoy listening to in your favorite musical genre. “Holy and spiritual” does not have to mean “boring, tedious, and painful.”)

Let us take it even further, as Isaiah advises in the above Bible passage:

  • Let us give up anger and develop a lifestyle of patience.
  • Let us give up greed and develop a lifestyle of generosity.
  • Let us give up selfishness and develop a lifestyle of compassion and love.

Okay, I admit: That last list may be a little less fun than perpetually streaming a playlist of your favorite Christian contemporary musicians. However, this is what God is really seeking. He is not interested in creating a club of people who eat fish on Fridays. His goal is to mold us to be more like Him.

Therefore, let Lent be a season of self-examination and reflection. Take some time in the coming weeks to read Galatians 5:19–23. Take a look at the deeds of the flesh: Which of these have the most impact on your life? Where are your weaknesses? Next, take a look at the fruit of the Spirit: Which are most abundant in your life? Which would benefit most by a season of growth.

At its core, Lent is not about meatless Wednesdays, fish on Fridays, or 40 days without chocolate, coffee, or donuts. Like every other day or season of the year, it is a time that the Lord has made for us to worship Him (Psalms 118:24). Let us devote this season to a searching and fearless moral inventory. Let us confess those parts of the carnal worldly life to which we continue to cling, release those defects to God, and yield to Him so that He may manifest His holiness within us. Then shall our light break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up speedily. Our righteousness shall go before us, and the glory of the Lord shall be our rear guard. We shall call, and the Lord will answer.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Triumphal Entry, Worship, Betrayal, and Abandonment

And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:7–10, ESV)

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Scene from a Passion Play in Trafalgar Square, London, UK, on Good Friday in 2010, re-enacting the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Stephen Craven – geograph.org.uk/p/1782823

Most churches celebrate Palm Sunday by distributing palm fronds to the congregation. Some churches may process, marching around either inside or outside their building. Others will simply wave the palm branches while singing a song with “Hosanna!” (a Hebrew word meaning, “Save!”) in the title or lyrics. In doing so, we join our worship with the exuberant celebration of the crowd that greeted Jesus and His disciples as they entered Jerusalem in preparation for the Passover celebration nearly 2000 years ago. We now refer to this as “the triumphal entry,” but we can easily forget how quickly things changed in Jesus’ life within a week.

On Sunday, the crowd shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” By Friday morning, many of these people were in a mob shouting, “Crucify Him!” (Luke 23:18–21).

Judas Iscariot was part of the group entering Jerusalem with Jesus. Perhaps his cloak was on the colt’s back, providing a saddle for Jesus. By Thursday evening, he would betray Jesus.

Peter was there too. I can imagine him leading the way, announcing that the Messiah Jesus was coming and urging the crowd to cheer for Him as He entered. On Thursday evening, he vowed he would stand by Jesus no matter what happened (John 13:37). A few hours later, he tried to fulfill that vow—relying on his natural impulsiveness and machismo rather than the virtues Jesus had taught for the last three years—by whacking someone’s ear off during Jesus’ arrest. After that, it was all downhill. Probably less than 12 hours after declaring that he would die with Jesus, he denied three times that he even knew Him. In Jesus’ greatest hour of need, His so-called “best friend” left Him hanging (John 18:15–18, 25–27).

Ten of the other disciples, all of whom (like Peter) swore they would remain faithful to Him, ran into hiding as soon as He was arrested. As He stood trial and was crucified, the only disciple who stayed with Him was John. He was accompanied by a few women, including Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene.

Christians know the story so well that we can miss the point. We can learn a lot from the disciples because they are terribly human. They are a lot like us. Sometimes, they show us heroic faith that we hope to imitate. At other times, they show us just how badly we can fail. People were willing to stand by Jesus when things seemed to be going well. When times got tough, they turned on Him or abandoned Him. Sadly, none of us are immune to that temptation.

We may worship Jesus when we are in a crowd with others who are shouting and singing His praises. Do we continue to praise Him when the establishment and the culture revile and reject Him? Or, do we join in rejecting Him: If not in word or deed, do we reject Him in our hearts?

Do we sell Jesus out when financial gain is a possibility? Will we compromise our faith or ignore His commands when there is money to gain.

We can boldly profess our faith and devotion to Jesus in a church or Bible study. Do we continue to do so when surrounded by those who have not accepted Him, or do we suddenly hide our light under a basket (Matthew 5:15) and pretend we are not Christians?

Holy Week ends Lent, a season which many Christians devote to self-examination. As Easter approaches, are we ready to share the resurrected Christ with those around us? Are we willing to remain faithful to Him?

Let us prepare our hearts to sing Christ’s praises in good times and bad, when others join in song and when they refuse Him. As we wave our palm branches, let us continue to lift Jesus up so that He may draw all people unto Himself (John 12:32). As we shape our palm branches into crosses, let us take up our crosses to follow Him.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3).

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Jesus fasting and praying: “Christ in the Wilderness,” by Ivan Kramskoi [1837-1887, Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Those who fast during Lent reflect on Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness for 40 days after His baptism in the Jordan River. As Jesus prepared to begin His public ministry, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, and ate nothing for 40 days. At the end of those 40 days, Satan tempted Him to use His divine power for personal gain, daring Him to turn stones into bread. Jesus responded, as He would to each temptation, by quoting Deuteronomy, responding to the first challenge by saying “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).

That verse highlights one of the lessons learned during fasting, a lesson God taught the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering after they escaped from Egypt. Fasting calls our attention back to God, and reminds us of our need and His provision.

The wilderness wanderings were a time for the Israelites to learn how to live out their covenant relationship as the people of God. It did not start well. Even though God protected them during a series of plagues, until Pharaoh let them leave, they grew fearful as soon as they saw the Egyptian chariots chasing them at the Red Sea. Despite God’s previous signs, they would not believe that He would rescue them this time.

After God parted the Red Sea so they could escape, they complained at the waters of Marah, believing God would not provide clean drinking water. He provided it anyway (Exodus 15:22–27).

Soon thereafter, they complained that they did not have enough food, and accused Moses of leading them into the wilderness to starve. God provided bread from heaven, “manna” (Exodus 16). Before long, a miraculous (and free) supply of bread was not good for them; they demanded meat, so God provided quail (Numbers 11:1–15, 31–35). However, the quail came with divine discipline, as God sent a plague among the people while they were eating.

Much of this was probably on Jesus’ mind as Satan tempted Him. Jesus answered all three temptations by quoting from chapters 6 or 8 of Deuteronomy. He probably spent a lot of time during those 40 days meditating on the first few chapters of that book.

God had tested the Israelites, to give them a chance to trust Him. They failed each test. Every time, God provided opportunities to remember how He had provided for them in the past. Every time, they failed.

Many Christians can relate. How often do we immediately worry when a problem arises? Do we have faith to cast all of our cares upon the Lord, knowing that He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7)? Do we remember the times He has been faithful in the past: the times He answered our prayers, healed our illnesses, or provided for our needs? Or, do we anticipate a catastrophe and forget that He even exists?

God wanted His people to learn to look to Him for all their needs, and to recognize that every good and perfect gift comes from Him (James 1:17). The testing was designed to prepare them to remain grateful all of their days (Deuteronomy 8:11–18), so that they would remember to thank Him for all that He provides.

Yet, they failed the gratitude test. Manna was not good enough for them; they demanded meat. God’s provision was not sufficient: It was too boring, the same thing day after day. They wanted something exciting, something new, a change of pace. So, they told Moses that God could do better.

Ingratitude, distrust, and disbelief showed they were not ready to claim the promised land. God extended a trip that should have taken less than two weeks and forced them to wander for 40 years.

As Jesus prepared for His ministry, He must have reflected on these lessons. He had to remember who He was, why the Father had sent Him, and what He would do. He would look to the Father to protect, provide, and direct over the next few years. Every step in His ministry would be guided by the Father and would bring Him glory. At no point could Jesus afford to grow impatient or seek an easy way out.

For those of us who participate in a Lenten fast as we follow Jesus, the following questions are significant. Let us each reflect on them:

  • When difficulties arise, do I trust God or gravitate towards doubt, unbelief, fear, distrust, and anxiety?
  • When has God met my needs in the past?
  • Are the things He provides sufficient for me, or do I crave more? Do I demand more from God than He provides?
  • What mission, passion, ministry, or calling has God placed on my life? How can I pursue it His way, rather than trying to do things in my own strength?
  • Will I be grateful for His goodness?
  • Will I remember God’s mercy in good times, or will I forget about Him when life gets easy or comfortable?

Not long after His season of fasting and temptation, Jesus would travel with His disciples through Samaria, where He would minister to a woman with a troubled past and, most likely, a questionable reputation (John 4). When His disciples arrived with food, He did not have much of an appetite. It was as if He had already enjoyed a feast. He knew a satisfaction in the soul that natural food could not meet.

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

As Jesus’ soul was nourished by doing the work that His Father required, may we be satisfied in His blessings, provision, and the joy of serving Him.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transfiguration, Glorification, and the Christian Life

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead (Mark 9:2–9).

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,… (II Peter 1:16–21).

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“The Transfiguration,” by James Tissot (1836–1902).

Some denominations celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on the Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday (others do not observe it at all, whereas in some churches it falls on August 6). As I have recently reflected on the Christian’s call to reflect the light of Jesus (see my recent posts here, here, here, and here), I believe this can provide a good focal point for my Lenten observances this year.

Christians in many denominations commit to some kind of low-grade fast during Lent. Many will abstain from meat (allowing themselves fish) on Wednesdays and Fridays. They may also give up a favorite food and/or hobby during the season. Ideally, we should find a way to fill that void with things that will draw us closer to Christ: Perhaps we will devote more time to prayer, Bible study, worship, or service to others in Jesus’ name.

The goal, however, is not to lose weight or go on a self-improvement program. (Those may be secondary benefits, but not the primary goals.) The goal is to draw closer to Jesus, removing some of the obstacles that keep the life, glory, and light of Jesus from shining through in our lives.

It is easy to focus on the fast itself. Many of us can obsess about what we will not eat until Easter. Let us look deeper, though: We have been called to live as partakers of the divine image (2 Peter 1:4) and the seed of God abides in us (1 John 3:9). Those who have come into a living relationship with Jesus Christ by faith have the Holy Spirit within them. We hear this so often that it can almost sound trite or insignificant. Perhaps this Lent can be the time when some of us begin to more intimately comprehend what God is truly offering us.

Instead of a detailed discussion of the Scripture, I will just take this opportunity to encourage each of you, between now and Easter, to reflect on God’s promises to glorify His children. Perhaps the great lesson of Lent is that we miss out as we continue to devote our time, resources, and energy to trivial things, when God is eager to pour out His blessings upon us and conform us to His likeness. We are His children: may we come to look more like Him as we lay aside the things of the world and grasp a foretaste of our inheritance in Him.

I encourage you to reflect on some of the following passages in the weeks to come:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (II Corinthians 3:18).

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:30).

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:11–14).

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (I John 1:5–7). (Better yet: Just read the entire book of 1 John. It is a short letter of exhortation, but it has a lot to say about walking in the light of Jesus and living as children of God.)

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent, Christmas, and Parallel Universes

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Science fiction characters like Mr. Spock and Capt. Kirk may find themselves in parallel universes. Christians may feel like they are living in parallel universes during Advent and Christmas. Photo from Wikipedia.

A popular theme in science fiction is the parallel-universe story. In one example from the 1960s television series Star Trek, several crew members from the USS Enterprise are accidentally teleported onto a version of their star ship in another universe, populated by more malicious versions of the crew members (meanwhile, their duplicates from the other universe find themselves on the regular Enterprise). The two universes look identical, at first glance, but differences between the two worlds soon become apparent.

Christians can often sympathize with the person who travels between parallel universes. We seem to do it all the time. This is most obvious during “the most wonderful time of the year.” Over the next month, we will be bombarded with “holiday savings” ads, Christmas songs on the radio (ranging from “Oh Holy Night” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”), “Keep Christ in Christmas” social-networking memes, etc. Many of us feel torn between the church’s message (Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus), a secularized variation of that message (the reason for the season is family, friends, love, peace on earth, and good will towards men), and the commercialized brand of Christmas that says we have to max out our credit cards and buy tons of fruitcake to prove that we care about people.

In the coming year, I hope to devote some posts to discussion of significant dates on the church calendar. That calendar started today, with the first Sunday of Advent. The mere mention of Advent highlights the differences between the secular world’s view of Christmas and the Christian view. Yet, Advent is almost totally ignored by the world, and if Christians are easily wrapped up in a worldly brand of Christmas, we will miss the significance of the season. Without Advent, Christians will miss the reason for the season.

For one, most of us are saying that this is the “Christmas season,” but from a historic Christian perspective, that season lasts 12 days, from December 25 (Christmas Day) until January 5. We are currently in Advent. The following chart shows the flow of the 2017–18 Christmas season, from a secular and Christian perspective, to clarify the differences between the two (in each calendar, I provide an American viewpoint; I realize other nations and cultures may differ):

DATE

SECULAR CALENDAR

CHRISTIAN CALENDAR

11/23

Thanksgiving: Americans gather to eat a large feast, watch football, and kick off the “Christmas season.”

Thanksgiving: American gather to eat a large feast and give thanks to God.

11/24-26

Black Friday: The same people who previously “gave thanks” for their blessings will now go on a spending
binge at department stores. (Deals and insanity continue throughout the weekend, including “Small Business Saturday” at small local stores.)

Some radio stations will begin playing non-stop “holiday music.” Televised Christmas specials take over the airwaves and cable.

Nothing special

11/27

Cyber-Monday: Follows up on Black Friday with online shopping.

Nothing special.

11/28-12/2

Shopping, television specials, etc., continue the “Christmas season.”

Nothing.

12/3

See above.

First Sunday of Advent. A new church year begins. Christians are encouraged to begin a time of reflection as we seek a closer relationship with Christ, in anticipation of the Christmas celebration and preparation for His second coming.

12/4-12/23

Continued “Christmas celebration” as we all go into debt. By now, my ears bleed when I hear jingly bells at the beginning of a song.

Some people think the “12 Days of Christmas” begin on December 14 and end on December 25.

Advent continues. Let us continue to reflect on the meaning of the season and our need for a Saviour.

12/24

LAST CHANCE TO BUY PRESENTS. Road rage and hostility reign supreme as we rush to buy THOSE LAST FEW GIFTS.

Christmas Eve. We prepare our hearts for a deeper awareness of the presence of Jesus in our hearts.

12/25

Christmas Day: Open presents and celebrate.

Christmas Day: Also known as “Feast of the Nativity” or the “First Day of Christmas.” Open presents and celebrate. If you really want to keep Christ in Christmas, you go to church.

12/26

Well, that’s it. Christmas is over. No more blasted Christmas music. Radio stations dump Wham’s “Last Christmas” and start playing “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” again.

Second day of Christmas. Also known as the Feast of St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr).

12/27-30

No more Christmas.

Third-sixth days of Christmas. Includes a few more feast days. Still celebrating the birth of Jesus.

12/31

New Year’s Eve. Get drunk, sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Prepare to watch a shiny ball drop.

Seventh day of Christmas.

1/1

New Year’s Day. Nurse hangover.

Eight day of Christmas. Also known as the “Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus” since, as a Jewish boy, he would have been circumcised and “officially” named on the eighth day.

1/2-1/5

Nothing. Life is back to normal, until credit card statements arrive.

Ninth-twelfth days of Christmas.

1/6

Nothing special.

Feast of the Epiphany. Celebrates the coming of the wise men. Begins a new season on the church calendar.

As you may notice, there are only a few dates in that stretch where the Christian and secular “calendars” coincide at all: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. The world thinks “the Christmas season” runs from Thanksgiving until December 25. The church recognizes most of that time as Advent, beginning shortly after Thanksgiving and ending on Christmas Eve. The “12 days of Christmas” run from December 25 until January 5, although the secular world acts as though Christmas ends when midnight arrives on December 26.

So, here is the challenge for Christians, many of whom are trying to live in two parallel spiritual universes at the same time. How can I devote myself to reflection, perhaps even renewed repentance, while the world calls us to commercialism and celebration without spiritual preparation?

For those seeking to “keep Christ in Christmas,” a renewed appreciation of the meaning of Advent and the church’s rhythm of the holidays will transform the holidays. Anticipation through Advent will lead to a climax on Christmas, gradually transitioning to a new spiritual norm while the world crashes away from Christmas with more material accumulation, greater financial debt, and minimal spiritual impact.

Adventskranz 3. Advent

By Liesel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Christians and Culture, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

No Easy Way—James 1:2–4

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4, ESV).

Comedian Yakov Smirnoff would tell a story about the joy of finding instant products in stores when he came to America. One could buy products in powdered form and prepare them instantly by adding water at home. In one aisle he found powdered milk: just add water and you have milk. In another aisle, he found powdered orange juice; again, he could just add water to have orange juice. Then he came to another aisle and saw a package that really excited him. It said “baby powder.” What a country!

We live in a society that craves quick solutions to everything. We have not found a way to speed up the baby-making process by just adding water to a powder, but scientists are probably working on it. One or two generations ago, most housewives would spend hours preparing dinner every night, but that is no longer the case. Now, we eat food purchased at fast-food drive-through windows. If we eat at home, it is often heated quickly in a microwave, or it might be an “instant” meal that can be cooked quickly. We expect instant gratification everywhere: entertainment, health, relationships, etc.

2010/365/77 That Old Semi Instant Gratification

An early Polaroid instant camera, which was not as “instant” as today’s cameras. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

When I was growing up, one popular new technology was the instant camera: You no longer need to send a role of film to a developer or spend hours in a darkroom. Instead, the photograph would develop within one or two minutes. Now, with digital cameras and cell phones, we can enjoy our pictures mere seconds after taking them, and freely delete the blurry shots. Instant is not fast enough!

The same instant-gratification urge prevails in Christian circles. Many of us expect instant everything. Forgiveness and salvation may be immediate, but spiritual growth takes time. We want instant sanctification, or instant deliverance from sin, bad habits, and addictions, but this does not exist.

In recent weeks, I have come across the story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17–27; Matthew 19:16–30) several times during my Bible reading. He wanted an instant fix to his spiritual dilemma. “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). The Greek could be more directly translated as “Teacher, what one good deed can I do to immediately have eternal life?” Jesus’ offered no quick fix. It would be a complete change of his life’s direction from that day forth. He could make an instantaneous decision to follow Jesus, but it would have to continue for the rest of his life.

The Bible offers no easy spiritual growth. James 1:2–4 tells us to count it all joy when we face trials. These trials will test our faith and produce steadfastness, making us mature and complete in Christ. Most Christians would prefer something instantaneous. Maybe we can go forward for prayer at church, and the pastor or evangelist can lay hands on us, and voila! We are now perfect and complete, lacking nothing, within five minutes. You do not even need to add water!

Others may realize this instant fix does not exist, but we still hope for an easy way. We think that if we just pray, read our Bibles, and go to church, we will become holy and spiritual. It is true that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), but Scripture speaks much more about how that faith is forged, purified, and strengthened in fiery kiln of trials and temptations:

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5).

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7).

There is really no way around it. If you want to grow spiritually, you will have to go through something that will test, stretch, and expand your faith, forcing you to trust God to work in your life. That may not be popular in our instant-gratification society, but it is how God works.

During Lent, I have been praying specifically for growth in three of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:23–24): gentleness, patience, and self-control. Patience is an area where I definitely need to grow, but praying for it leads to opportunities to exercise it. For example, I try to be a safe and careful driver, but as a typical New Yorker, my to and from work can drive me bonkers! I can become Boanerges on the highway, ready to call down fire from heaven upon those who tailgate me or cut me off, and calling people idiots as they drive like NASCAR racers to the next traffic jam. My drive time is a good opportunity to determine if there is any growth in my patience.

I have to admit that, while I pray for patience, the other drivers are not changing. They may not have gotten any worse, but they have not improved either. However, I am becoming more aware of temptation. As I pray for the fruit of the Spirit, God seems to allow the same temptations to come: but with the temptation He provides the way of escape, reminding me to pray again for gentleness, patience, and self-control. (Sometimes, He has to remind me to ask for immediate forgiveness.)

Count it pure joy when God allows trials and temptations to come your way. It is your opportunity to experience true growth in the fruit of the Spirit.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Feasting Daily on God’s Word

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, ESV).

The Holy Bible

The Book of Common Prayer‘s Daily Office readings leading up to Ash Wednesday this year included the above passage from Deuteronomy. Reflection on passage can remind us that, as we fast during Lent, we should feast upon the God’s Word and His love. If we fast without feasting on the things God has for us, it is truly an empty ritual.

Let us take that term “feast” seriously. We are not supposed to merely look at or ponder food. We are supposed to eat it. It is supposed to become part of us. The same is true of God’s Word. We read it in such a way that we are ingesting it, receiving it in our hearts so that it becomes a core part of who we are.

Jesus referred to Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as the first and most important commandment:

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And 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.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).

Every other commandment God gave, in the Old and New Testaments, is an outgrowth of these two commands. To show us how to develop and manifest that love, God gave instructions regarding His Words in Deuteronomy 6:6-9. God’s Word should come into our minds, go down into our hearts and fill our souls, so that it guides our might and strength to righteous action. God’s Word must move beyond our minds and into our hearts to accomplish God’s will.

How does this happen? First, we feast on God’s Word in fellowship with others. Moses instructed the Israelites to teach God’s Word to their children, and to discuss it wherever they went. Those who do not teach the faith to their children suggest, by their actions, that Jesus is not important, so that the next generation does not follow Him. We should keep God’s Word and presence central in our homes, providing a link that keeps our families connected. As we discuss it with other believers (through informal conversations, Bible study groups, etc.), we can benefit from their study, meditation, insight, and experience. Those who read the Bible on their own, without connection to other believers, are prone to begin worshipping a false Jesus of their own making, formed in their own image.

Second, we feast frequently. Moses said we “shall talk of {God’s words} when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Scripture is not restricted to just one day of the week, or to a quick “quiet time” in the morning. We receive God’s Word into our hearts every day, throughout the day.

About 25 years ago, I preached for the first time about a concept I called “three spiritual meals.” Most Americans eat three meals per day, and Jesus compared God’s Word to bread (Matthew 4:4); therefore, one can suggest it is wise to partake of God’s Word three times per day. Since then, I have been introduced to the Book of Common Prayer and its four Daily Offices of prayer [morning, noon, evening, and compline (night-time prayer, shortly before going to bed)]. This provides a structure for starting and ending my day with prayer, taking a brief intermission during noon to recharge spiritually, and ending my night with prayer. Whatever it takes to keep God’s Word on your mind throughout the day, do it.

Finally, we feast with focused reminders: “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Some Christians keep Scripture reminders present throughout the day: a Bible verse taped to the bathroom mirror; a cross over the door; plaques, posters, and other decorations with Scripture verses, pictures of Biblical stories or persons, or other reminders of the faith.

So, if we want to please God by loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we need to feast on His Word. Read and reflect on God’s Word with family and faith-filled friends. Ingest it into your heart and soul frequently, throughout the day, every day. Keep it present before you.

I would like to close with a final thought about end-time prophecy. Some Christians focus heavily on the second coming of Christ. They may fixate on the “mark of the beast” described in Revelation 13:16-17. This is some kind of “mark” on the right hand or forehead. Keep in mind that the book of Revelation alludes frequently to the Old Testament, and this is one of those cases. The mark of the beast is actually a demonic counterfeit of the Word of God, which is a mark of our covenant relationship with God; God’s Word should be like a sign on the hand or frontlets between the eyes (Deuteronomy 6:8). If we have God’s Word in our hearts and we are living in that full love for Christ, we will not be led astray by Satan, no matter how cunning his deceptions may be. Let us keep our eyes on Jesus.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday: Fasting to Celebrate Christ

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, ESV).

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (from the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, from the Book of Common Prayer).

I have posted several articles about Ash Wednesday and Lent on this blog over the years. I find this season helpful in my spiritual journey. It is easy to grow complacent and just go through the motions of the Christian life: go to church, read the Bible, pray every day, and try not to get caught doing anything too bad.

Lent is a season of fasting with a purpose. The ceremony of imposing ashes on a believer’s forehead imitates the ancient Jewish custom of covering oneself in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning or penance (Jonah 3:6; Job 42:6). While using the ashes to mark a cross on the forehead, the priest or minister will usually say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This statement reminds us that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and the wages of sin is death.

That soul-destroying sin is washed away through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and death is conquered in His resurrection. While Lent begins with acknowledgment of our sin and need of forgiveness, it ends with Good Friday and Easter, when we celebrate our new life in Christ. From repentance to rejoicing; from sin to salvation; from death to new life.

I expect Lent to take a slightly new angle in 2017. I can get into a rut with spiritual disciplines and lose focus on a greater goal. I have pretty much done the same things every Lent over the last few years, but in addition to “more prayer” and things like that, I hope to renew some aspects of my relationship with God that may have been pushed aside by busyness in recent years.

Fasting works best when it goes beyond denying oneself of food or pleasure and opens one up to drawing closer to God. I will cut back significantly on Facebook (I spend too much time online these days, and it has become a virtual wasteland). I will also add some activities that have slipped by the wayside: My guitar and bass have been collecting dust lately, so I plan to spend some time worshipping the Lord through song. Instead of focusing only on things to give up for 40 days, I will also look for renewed ways to spend time with my Lord during this season.

If you have never observed Lent before, I urge you to give it a try. For 40 days (not counting Sundays—most traditional churches recognize Sunday as a day to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, not to fast) between March 1 and Easter Sunday, make the following simple commitments:

  • Give up one food-related pleasure. In the past, I have given up coffee (that was a tough one!), Snicker’s bars, or other favorite snacks.
  • Perhaps devote one or two days per week to a more intense fast. Many Catholics abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. You can go that route, or choose one or two days a week for a more extensive fast that works for you.
  • Give up a hobby, or an activity that really has become an unproductive waste of time for 40 days. Most of us have something that weighs us down. I mentioned Facebook. Some people may benefit from giving up sports, or television. If you are willing to be honest, you will think of something that you would benefit from giving up for a while.
  • Do it in communion with others. If your church does not observe Lent, perhaps you can find some friends (such as a Bible study or prayer group) to embark on the fast together. Accountability and camaraderie have a way of strengthening us.
  • Most importantly, in the midst of “giving stuff up,” fill the empty space with more of God’s presence. As you abstain from physical bread, feast upon the bread of life, which is Jesus Himself. Spend extra time in prayer and Scripture reading. Read some of the devotional classic writings that will renew your zeal for the Lord. Find new ways to worship and serve God.

If you are thinking that it’s too late to commit to Lent: do it anyway. The Ash-Wednesday-to-Easter schedule is purely traditional. Feel free to do a 40-day (or whatever length) Lenten-type fast whenever the Spirit moves you. God is not bound by the calendar, but we are freed to experience His blessings and power when we surrender our hearts, souls, minds, strength, and time to Him.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Lent: A Time of Renewal

(This is a slightly updated version of post that I originally wrote in 2011.)

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Ash Wednesday, which falls on February 10 this year, begins the season of the church calendar known as Lent. Many Christians think of Lent as a time of fasting. We may give up a favorite food or hobby. In some churches, people give up eating meat on Fridays during Lent (some churches urge their members to give up meat on Wednesdays as well at this time). However, Lent is not just about fasting. It should not be a season for meaningless ritualized self-denial, but a time when we renew our dedication to Christ. This is a prime time for strengthening our devotion to Christ so that we can walk with him throughout the year.

In the early church, the 40 hours preceding dawn on Easter Sunday were set aside for fasting, to commemorate Jesus’ time in the tomb. This eventually led to the 40-day fast that we now know as Lent. This time period is associated with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2).

In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches that observe Lent), the 40 days include only weekdays and Saturdays. Sundays are always considered “feast days” (in celebration of Christ’s resurrection), so fasting is not required on those days.

In the early church, new converts were usually baptized on Easter. Lent served as a time to prepare for baptism, and the Lenten fast was a significant part of that preparation. For mature believers, it is a good opportunity to renew our baptismal vows or reflect on the significance of our new life in Christ. So, even though Lent call us to reflect on our sinfulness, mortality, and need for a Savior, it should also remind us of our new life in Christ and the ways that we are being transformed from glory to glory.

Many Christians receive ashes, in the shape of a cross, on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. This reminds us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that we will return to dust, since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Ash Wednesday reminds us that we needed a Savior to take away the penalty for our sins. Lent reminds us to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we wish to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:34).

It is true that Lent can become a meaningless ritual for some people. Many people give up things that are not important to them. They may give up a food that they enjoy but will probably not miss. For example, I like potato chips…when they are around. However, since I do not buy them too often, I might go weeks without eating any. This would not be a real Lenten fast for me. That might not be as silly as giving up something you do not even like, but it still would not be a genuine fast. There should be some significant sacrifice involved.

On the other hand, we must be careful about legalism in this regard. Observing Lent does not save us, nor does it automatically make someone a better Christian. Although Lent can be a powerful way to seek personal revival and renewal in our walk with the Lord, it is by no means the only way. A Christian who goes on a radical fast during Lent, but neglects his relationship with Christ the rest of the year, is not going to achieve spiritual maturity. Lent is a great time to seek a closer relationship with the Lord, but we must continue to seek that relationship after Easter and throughout the year.

The following are a few suggestions for a meaningful Lent:

First, make your Lenten fast meaningful. Give up a food or activity that will be a real sacrifice. I drink a lot of coffee, so on several occasions I gave that up during Lent. A couch potato might give up watching television for 40 days. Perhaps it will become a permanent lifestyle change. That is not the main goal, though. The goal is to give something up so that we can follow Christ more closely. Ideally, the time that would be spent engaging in a favorite activity can be redirected towards prayer, Bible study, worship, or some other way of drawing closer to Christ.

A helpful Scripture verse in this regard is Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (ESV, emphasis added).

Note that this passage calls us to lay aside both weights and sin. These are two different things. Christians should always be ready to lay aside a sin. If it is a sin (disobedience to a clear command of God, especially spelled out in his Word), we should give it up immediately and permanently. That is not a fast; that is repentance. We should not wait until Ash Wednesday and start again after Easter. However, some things might be a weight on our walk with the Lord, even if they are not necessarily sinful. Many people watch too much television. The nature of the programs may not be bad. They may not be watching vulgar or ungodly programming. But, they might be watching too much television. Television might start to take priority over God and family for them. It weighs down their soul and enchains their time. If you have a weight on your relationship with him, maybe Lent would be a good time to see if you can live without that weight, and to find out what your life would be like if you spent that time serving Christ.

If you choose to fast from a particular food, choose something that will be a realistic sacrifice. OK, maybe you know you will fail if you try to give up coffee for Lent. Maybe chocolate or donuts are more realistic goals for you.

If you are healthy enough, maybe you can consider a more strict fast. Perhaps you may decide to abstain from all solid food for a 24-hour period. Or, you can consider giving up eating anything between breakfast and dinner once or twice per week. One option is a “Daniel fast,” named after the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. This fast involves abstaining from all animal products (no meat or dairy) and sweets, and drinking only water.

I would advise against going on a strict 40-day absolute fast without food. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah went on such fasts, but those were unique circumstances. Most of us are not preparing to die for the sins of humanity or begin writing the Bible. Unless you have received a clear word from the Lord that you should go on such a fast, do not do it. Even if you do receive such a word, seek counsel from a mature Christian leader (a pastor, or another mature believer who will have the wisdom to tell you whether or not you are hearing from God) and a health care practitioner.

Lent should not be just a time to give something up. During your fast, find ways to add spiritual disciplines or activities to your life. If you have never set aside a consistent time for daily prayer, Lent is an excellent time to begin. It would also be a good time to join a small-group Bible study.

During the Lenten fast, devote some time to self-examination and reflection. Pray that the Lord would point out to you areas where you need to grow. If he brings a certain sin to the surface (including either a sinful habitual activity, a bad habit, or an attitude that displeases him), bring it before him in repentance and confession. Seek God’s guidance and help to find victory over and deliverance from this problem area.

Whatever you do, remember that Lent is only a small fraction of the year, and it is not the sum total of your spiritual growth. Allow Lent to be a time to develop new, healthier habits and activities which will produce growth in your faith, and continue to put them into practice throughout the year. Let Lent be a time of new beginnings for you.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Scripture Sabbath Challenge—2 Corinthians 3:18

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NASB).

Over the next month and a half, much of my Scripture reading and prayer will address issues of transformation, renewal, and spiritual growth. Lent provides a time for such self-reflection: a time when I can look at my life and see where I fall short in my relationship with Jesus Christ, and renew my commitment to serving Him. I realize that Christians can (and should) do this throughout the year, whenever the Holy Spirit convicts them of that need. Yet, it is encouraging to know that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ regularly join in this journey at this time of year. I am not alone.

The verse above provides encouragement for those who proceed through Lent. Many are tempted to view any time of repentance or self-examination as an opportunity to condemn themselves and think about how evil they are. Many view such personal moral/spiritual inventories as opportunities to beat themselves up. This is wrong.

I am aware that I fall short of the glory of God and continually need His grace and forgiveness (Romans 3:23). However, 2 Corinthians 3:18 offers a new perspective that all of us can bring to Lent, the Word of God, and everything our Lord has given to lead us to spiritual maturity. It reminds us to seek God’s glory glowing more brightly in our lives, not merely a renewed battle against our sins.

When I look in a mirror, what do I see? In most mirrors, I see my own face. When I look in the spiritual mirror (the Bible), I often see my weaknesses and flaws. According to this passage, though, I should see something more. Not only should I see where I fail, but I should also see God’s glory in me: a glory that all of His children share.

Between Ash Wednesday and Easter, millions of Christians will unite in extra prayer, fasting, and self-examination. Let us not spend so much time counting our sins that we miss the greatest blessing of Lent: the realization that the glory of God already resides in us through His Holy Spirit; the fact that we are being transformed from glory to glory. Let us not view Lent as a time to cut down on a few sins or break a few bad habits. Let it be a time when we see more of God’s glory breaking forth in and through us.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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