I plan to offer a Lenten reflection each week up to Easter. It is my hope that they may be useful for others that journey with Jesus on the pilgrimage of life. I also hope that they may be of some use to those that are called to preach the gospel stories to their communities of faith. I thank the community of Canadian Baptist Ministries for giving me the opportunity to speak each Tuesday to our community of service and witness.
Welcome to Lent in 2017. Lent is a period of 40 days leading up to Easter. The beginning point is Ash Wednesday – 1 March 2017. Lent ends on Holy Saturday when Jesus lies in the tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem. If you count the days you will arrive at 46. However, Sundays are traditionally not included in Lent. The number 40 corresponds with the time Jesus spent in the wilderness before he entered Galilee with the proclamation that God was coming to establish his reign.
Lent has often been characterized as a time of deprivation and sacrifice. In places like Brazil, Bolivia, and in New Orleans along with a number of other cultural locations, the week before Lent is carnival, a time of excessive celebration. Carnival is a kind of preparation for more modest living during Lent. I think these popular interpretations of Lent miss the mark. Lent is not about giving up chocolate, your favorite TV show, red wine, or cigars. It is about walking with Jesus through the gospels and allowing his teaching and example to enter deeply into our lives. Lent is a good time to allow God’s Spirit to talk to us about making some adjustments in the direction of our lives. It is also a time in which the Spirit may lead us to think about lightening the load that we may be carrying. Each of us can be like the tourist that goes on a trip with too much luggage. We can be guilty of trying to move forward in life with too many burdens and things that could be left aside to make the journey easier and more meaningful.
Toward the end of the second century, a number of men and women moved into desert areas to form monastic communities. Each person reached a person decision to leave more established life. The communities they formed were to be places of simplicity, prayer, and hospitality to strangers. I want to quote from the second volume of the book Celtic Daily Prayer. The desert mothers “… attempted to live faithful lives, as simply and as gently as possible. Reputation, celebrity, approval, wealth – all of these are of no importance in the desert. What matters most is to live a life marked by kindness and mercy, hospitality and respect.”
We live complicated lives. We are not located in a monastic community in a desert area. But during Lent, we long for times in which we can capture some of that simplicity and sincerity that existed with some individuals in former times and places.
Our Gospel passage is about repentance and fruitful living. The image of bearing fruit is used to signify living in such a way that our lives count for something meaningful in the kingdom of God. It means more than just getting by day to day, week to week, and month to month. The image conveys something of what we might want our eulogies to say after our death. What values did we live by? What did we contribute to the common good? How did we help those on the margins – the ones Jesus called the least of these my sisters and my brothers? Repentance can mean the dramatic point at which we change the direction of our lives. But it can also refer to the periodic adjustments that we need to make in order to live more fruitfully and productively.
As we read the passage, we recall that tragedy is part of life. There are no guarantees that our lives will be immune from from unforeseen circumstances, threatening diseases, and even violence. People come to Jesus telling him of an atrocity committed by Roman soldiers in the temple in Jerusalem. Galileans were stereotyped as rebellious and dangerous. A group of Galileans were attacked by an operation of Roman soldiers in the temple. Their blood was mixed with the sacrifices that they sought to offer to God. People are looking for answers. We feel more comfortable when there is an explanation that makes others responsible for their fate, their destiny. Jesus asks a question: Do you think they were morally worse than other Galileans? No. There are no easy answers for suffering and violence. But unless you change direction, unless you repent, you will perish.
Then he draws attention to the collapse of the tower of Siloam in Jerusalem. 18 people who started a normal day died suddenly. Were they being punished because they were more guilty than others in Jerusalem? No. It does not work that way. But unless you change direction, unless you repent, you will all perish.
These words remind us that life is a serious. The directions we chose have eternal consequences. Jesus goes on to tell a parable. A man has a fig tree growing among the grape vines in his vineyard. It has been three years. There has never been a single fig. And so he talks to his horticulturalist. Let’s cut it down. It’s just taking up space. The man responds. Boss. I think we could leave it for one more year. During that time I will give it special attention. I will care for the soil around it. I will make sure it has nutrients from fertilizer. I hope that next year it will bear fruit. If does not, then I will remove it. I will cut it down.
Where are you when you listen to the words of Jesus? How is God’s Spirit whispering in your heart? You have the capacity to place yourself in the quiet of the wilderness for a few minutes today so that God can meet with you without the distractions of work pressures, home duties, financial stresses, and anxieties for loved ones. Perhaps God is talking to you about the burdens you carry and the way you spend your days.
Some of us are consumeed by anxiety. Remember Psalm 56. The Hebrew poet writes about God counting the number of times you turn anxiously in your bed at night. He takes your tears and stores them in a bottle. God is for you. And in Lent he talks to you about the meaning of your life. Is there a big change in direction that you need to make? Is there something you have been pondering for an extended time? Are there some adjustments in direction that are important for you to live productively, joyfully, and fruitfully?
The late Jaime Goytia once told me about a recent trip he made from Cochabamba to Sucre during a national airlines strike. He traveled overnight by bus on Saturday arriving early Sunday morning. He preached in a church and returned on an overnight bus on Sunday night. I asked him if he was crazy. Jaime said: What do you do with an 80 year old man who never learned to say “no.” Some of us need to learn to say no in order to reduce the dust of activity that swirls around us so that we can see clearly. Others of us need to learn to say “yes” to new paths, new commitments that the Spirit is beckoning us to take. We will probably need to take some burdens out of the backpack in order have the agility to walk these paths with the Lord.
Question: Personal Reflection
- Breathe slowly. Be comfortable. Describe to yourself how the Spirit is moving in your heart today?
- What changes or adjustments in direction would help you to make lent 2017 meaningful? What part of the load in your backpack can be left behind?
- Will you commit yourself to read a gospel passage each day of Lent?