Lent: A Ritual or Preparation?

adminAll Sermons, Knowing Jesus Better, Relationship with God

We are part of an evangelical congregation and hence many of us do not observe the Lenten season as done in the mainline churches. But many of you who have grown up , or are used to the ways of the mainline churches will certainly remember the Lenten season. Those of us who know about it know that it is supposed to help Christians prepare for the Easter. Early Christians believed that a festival like Easter needed special preparation and hence this practice of fasting was implemented. The number of days of fasting was then recommended as 40 days, to match with Jesus’ days in the wilderness.

As announced, today is Neville’s birthday, and tomorrow is Leslie’s Birthday. So we were thinking about skipping the customary celebrations we generally have for Birthdays, because it is Lenten season and we are all supposed to fast. Good idea? I can see that some of you are saying, not at all. I have a question for you, is it OK to feast during the Lenten season?

Here is where a bit of history comes to our rescue. Those who count well, know that Ash Wednesday to Easter is not 40 days, but actually 46 days. Why 46 and not 40? This was done to ensure that people did not fast on Sundays, because it was considered inappropriate to fast on resurrection day. Hence Sundays are exempted from the fasting requirement even during Lenten. Wow!! What a relief isn’t it? Even if you are not a modern Christian, even if you believe in traditions and rituals of the mainline church, we are still supposed to rejoice and feast during Sundays. There goes our hopes to escape the customary celebrations. All this to say that we will have the Birthday celebrations after the service and hence please do stay back, without feeling the least bit guilty.

So let us look at why the practice of fasting during Lenten? What was the purpose behind it? Like many other Christian holy days and holidays, the practices have undergone several changes, but the purpose always remained the same. Self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter. Are they still relevant today, even when we do not agree with the ritual of mandated fasting or giving up on things?

Self examination is not an alien aspect for Christians. It asked of us in many bible verses. The most common among them are

(Ps 139:23-24 NKJV), 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.

And one verse that we read very often, at least once in a month during the communion Sunday

But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (1 Cor 11:28 NKJV)

The word examine appears in the New testament alone almost 38 times. So we know the importance of the same, but what does it mean? Let us look at this from Paul’s point of view this morning.

Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you are disqualified.  (2 Cor 13:5 NKJV)

This verse in itself a great command a great admonition. Those of us who have studied these verses before, know the context in which they were written. The Corinthians were demanding proof that Christ was speaking through the apostles. The admonition of Paul comes in this context. Let us put it in the context of the church today.

We all enjoy a great sermon isn’t it? And when the sermons are not too good, when they don’t engage us, when they don’t edify us, when we consider them boring, we would want to consider changing the church isn’t it? How many conversations take place after the church about “ Hey, what did you think about today’s sermon? Was it good was it meaningful? Do you think the preacher prepared for it well etc?”. But let us take a good sermon for example. How many times have we listened to a great sermon and thought, oh.. that is a great point and it applies so well to John, or Nidheesh, or to George. I hope he or she is listening to the point. How many times are we tempted to say to a brother or a sister ”I thought of you when I was listening to the sermon today.”

Marriage counsellors agree that  the most common reason for failure in the reconciliation process happens because each of the parties believe that it is the other person who needs to change. They genuinely believe that whatever the counsellor is speaking about is true of the “other person”. This is true of most of us. We live in a world where we look at the faults of others and refrain from examining ourselves. That was the situation in Jesus’ time. And that is why Jesus had to tell “3 And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? 4  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? 5  Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. 6  (Matt 7:3-6 NKJV) And that is why Paul says to the Corinthians. Examine yourselves. Some things don’t change, do they?

The second aspect of Pauls’ admonition is the purpose of that self-examination. Examine yourselves as to whether you are in faith. The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon gives a beautiful illustration of what Paul means by this. Permit me to quote him. ‘There is the ark; and a number of men around it. “Ah!” says one, I believe that ark will swim.” “Oh!” says another, “I believe that ark is made of gopher-wood, and is strong from stem to stern; I am quite sure that ark will float, come what may; I am a firm believer in that ark.” Ay, but when the rain descended, and the flood came, it was not believing the ark as a matter of fact—it was being in the ark that saved men, and only those that were in it escaped in that dread day of deluge.”  You get the message isn’t it? There is a difference in having “faith in something” and “being in the faith”. We might be believing that the Easter story is true, we might believe that the Gospel can save lost people, but are we “in it”? Are we in Christ? Do we abide in His unconditional love? Or are we satisfied with admiring Christianity from outside? You might have heard the joke about “outstanding Christians” isn’t it? Are we part of the “outstanding” Christian community or are we in it? Being “in Christ means shedding our defective worldly identity that we are borne with and accepting the new identity in Christ? Have we denied ourselves and have we let Christ dwell in us? Or are we holding on to our own possessions, our own positions, our own ideas to save ourselves and the world? Have we repented our sins, and have surrendered our lives to Christ?

Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you are disqualified.  (2 Cor 13:5 NKJV)

The third part of Paul’s admonition in this verse if “Test Yourselves” . Actually the original KJV version (and also the American Standard Version ASV)  uses the phrase “Prove yourselves” . I like that version. Prove yourselves to be yourselves to be in faith. Paul is asking the Corinthians to not stop at self examination, but to prove ourselves. This proof is required both in our private life as well as public life. How are we proving ourselves to be a Christian in our private life? Are we spending time in solitude, in prayer, in understanding and applying scripture? How is our integrity? And how about in public? I am not speaking about public display of our “spirituality”? I am not speaking about saying Halleluiah and Praise the Lord in public. Those are not necessarily the public proof of our faith. Public proof of our faith should be seen by others in our behaviour in public. How many of us can confidently say that we exhibit the fruits of the spirit? But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23 NKJV)

And finally Paul comes to the impact of such a self-examination , repentance, and proof. He asks . Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you are disqualified. That is the ultimate isn’t it? What does Christ in you mean to us? It means believing in Christ, it means loving Christ, it means communing with Christ and offering ourselves as the temple and palace where Christ can dwell.

Immaterial of whether you believe in the rituals of the Mainline churches or not, we are in the Lenten period, we will soon get into the passion week celebrations, we will celebrate Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter. We have already celebrated Christmas. But what we need to remember is that the Christ of the manger, or the Christ on the cross or the Resurrected Christ of the Easter cannot save us, unless we accept him personally and give Him a place in our heart.  It is a personal relationship that each one has to have with the risen saviour. It cannot be done by proxy. It is our personal decision to invite Christ into our hearts.

So, the question that we need ask this morning is, how are we preparing to meet the resurrected Lord of Easter? The traditions of the early church of Self-examination, repentance, demonstration provide an answer for us. And if any of us are still not convinced about the saving power of Jesus’s shed blood on the cross, this is the right time. Invite Him into our hearts, because He himself says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.  (Rev 3:20 NKJV)

Shall we spend a minute in self-examination and recommit ourselves to be “in faith” and invite Jesus Christ into our hearts?

Let us pray.

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