Lent is a time to cure our human problems but we are not the ones who will cure them….

On Ash Wednesday, we read the same scriptures pretty much every year. In a few moments we will read Psalm 51 again. We pretty much know the drill on Ash Wednesday: come to church, get preached at about our sinfulness until we register some level of guilt about it, rub ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves that we were formed from dust and to dust we shall return and then we walk out the doors in silence, some of us continuing to wear the mark and others of us who rub it off.

The invitation to observe a Holy Lent: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word offers a new opportunity for guilt because doing any or all of these things interferes with living our hurried, distracted and busy lives. One way or the other, we walk away and life as usual returns pretty quickly. Yes, we may have thought about giving up something or taking on something during Lent. And we hope beyond hope that whatever we think about “doing during Lent” sticks past Easter because we hope that what we typically think to give up or take on will feed our souls and bodies and minds in a good way.

If we give up chocolate or alcohol or smoking or caffeine or sugar or white flour or whatever, we will likely be, or at the least, feel healthier once we have gotten over the pain of separation and withdrawal from our vice or vices. Maybe it isn’t a physical giving up but rather a taking on for some of us. Maybe we choose a different mindset, changing our thoughts and language to something more positive. Maybe we take on an exercise regimen or go way beyond the call of duty by being nicer to our in-laws……..

We view Lent as a time to solve our human problems in a brief forty days. We tell ourselves, “any one can do that for six and a half weeks”. To optimize Lent we place a better life or better health, with a slathering glimpse of suffering and sacrifice here and there, as a win-win opportunity for us and God. The truth is, God doesn’t take much stock in our paltry offerings of piety and remorse, not because we don’t measure up but because we attempt to remain masters of our own destiny, we just conceal or dress it up in a new and different flavor.

While we travel through these mental gyrations, Jesus desires to create the desire in us to examine our darkness and realize the shining light of his love, reconciliation and redemption. And his love, reconciliation and redemption is intended to pervade every aspect of our lives and more importantly, at all times and in all places, not just some forty days a year.

Unfortunately desire is not something that can be formulated or practiced. We realize desire comes from within when we ponder the depth of our shortcomings and we have to decide to do something more than think about it. This is the desire of the Psalmist when he cries out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Desire is rooted in a sense of helpless desperation, a pleading for something that we cannot remedy ourselves.

Traditionally, Psalm 51 is understood as David’s desperate plea for God’s mercy after his escapade with Bathsheba and the ensuing murder of her husband Uriah. David comes to realize his deep and dark indiscretion. What begins as a human emotion of concealed physical desire becomes transparent and ends in the tragic death of another human being. This is a game changer for David and it is the catalyst for his transformation.

David uses desperate words: “Have mercy on me, blot out my offenses, wash me, cleanse me, purge me, hide your face from my sins” – desperate words and deep desire to be changed, to be redeemed and renewed. David’s title of king is now meaningless; he is no different than any other living soul. David’s spirit is broken; he can no longer live in the mirage of an unaccountable life, his spirit cannot bear it. David’s heart is contrite; he knows whatever burnt offerings or any other act short of total surrender to God’s mercy is fruitless. In this moment, David comprehends that while he should mean nothing in the eyes of God and yet he is the object of God’s mercy and love.

More importantly for us to recognize today is David’s hunger, his words are deeply personal and real; for David, God is no longer “out there”. It is as if God is sitting with David, hand on his shoulder and offering him a tissue for his tears. David leaves little doubt that he understands his place in this intimate relationship as he bears his heart and soul – God is the one who gives forgiveness and hope, David is the one who receives it.

We can intimately meet God as well, when we cast aside our misperceptions about who we are and who God is. This is an inside job, a personal mission of relationship, an opportunity to express our desperate hunger for God’s salvation – one that we know only Jesus can lead us to not just hope, but feel his restoring power. Just as David is restored in his darkest moment, Jesus stands ready for that same moment with us.

Today we meet Jesus on the side of the mountain while he delivers his well-known sermon on the mount. Jesus warns us about the foolishness of practicing our religion outwardly or making funny faces because we are fasting, using big words and bragging about our piety. Implying and putting on the “stage act” of suffering by giving up something in Lent as comparable to the suffering Jesus endured on the cross does not get to the matter at hand.

The matter at hand is to ask where our heart is with Jesus today. As we join Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, are our hearts contrite for participating in Jesus’ pain, suffering and death? Do we comprehend the gift of reconciliation that he offers and that we don’t deserve? Are our hearts joyful and thankful for this tremendous gift? The intention of our modern day Lenten pieties are OK, they give us a glimpse of sacrifice. But if the glimpse does not create a hunger for Jesus or make us aware of Jesus’ hunger for our heart, then life as usual will quickly return, forty days will come and go and things will be the same as before.

So, let’s ask the question: will what we are thinking of giving up or taking on in Lent require self-examination and initiate repentance for us? Because Jesus desires that we go beyond the motions and seek that deep and abiding relationship with him.

Will giving up chocolate or alcohol or smoking or caffeine or sugar or whatever, bring our hearts to hunger for Jesus? If so, then let’s do it. But if not then let’s consider a different Lenten practice. Let’s practice prayer, fasting and meditate on God’s word through the eyes of someone like David. Let’s follow David’s path to reconciliation with God. We do not have to have committed murder to experience God’s reconciliation.

When we walk David’s path and understand David’s participation in the darkest of sins, we experience first hand God’s healing love at work. When we join Jesus on the road to Jerusalem we experience firs hand Jesus healing love at work in us. When we seek to understand the depth of David’s desperation, we come in touch with our own desperate desire for Jesus in our hearts.

I don’t know about you but I so desperately need Jesus’ healing love. I want to feel his firm hand on my shoulder, his other hand offering me a box of tissues as I wail and lament my shortcomings and ask for his mercy. And I am certain that if God restores David, that Jesus can restore me and it is possible for all of us, including you.

Lent is a time to cure our human problems but we are not the ones who will cure them – Jesus heals us and redeems us when we hunger for his love, reveal our hearts to him and receive his abiding mercy as we walk with him to Jerusalem. Discovering and revealing our desperate need for Jesus is truly a win-win opportunity for that eternal gift of a relationship with Jesus. And Life as usual will never be again.

Comments

  1. very well said Reid! Spent Ash Wednesday with my dad and sister at the VA hospital chapel in Indianapolis. The priests message was very similar to yours. He said dark times are upon us and we need to wake up and smell the coffee! I believe lent is also about self discipline. The world seems to be out of control. I hope your Lenten observation lasts a life time. Mine as well. I have a path to follow and for that I am fortunate. Praying for those that don’t. Like my brother. Thank you for sharing. Love Laura.

    • Reid McCormick says:

      Laura, good to hear from you. Hope all is well with you and your boys (men) 🙂 as well as your entire family. God’s blessings to you all! TCGB.

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