Lent — Week 1

Monday, March 11

Read: Isaiah 58:1-3a

Consider: One of the most common practices associated with Lent is fasting. Many ways of approaching a Lenten fast have evolved over the centuries. Some people abstain from food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. There is also a tradition of fasting from meat during Lent. Some people give up other specific foods—usually pleasant or favorite foods—for the entire season (except on Sundays). And some choose to “fast” from things other than food or drink. (For example, one popular fast that has developed in recent years is abstaining from social media during Lent.)

Of course, the issue is not how we fast. The focus should be on why we do it.

Isaiah pointed out that the nation of Israel was faithful in fasting, but they got it all wrong.

“‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’” (58:3)

It’s clear from these words that they had an agenda for their fasting. They were using this form of worship to get God to do something for them. When he didn’t deliver like they thought he should, they said, “What’s the use? Why did we even bother?”

Our prayers, our fasting and our self-denial are not tools to coerce or bribe God. God knows what we need, and he loves us, so there’s no point in bartering and bargaining with the Father. Also, Lent is not a self-improvement regimen to help us feel better about ourselves. It’s not a time to give up sweets so we can drop a few pounds.

We engage in prayer to partner with God. We raise our awareness of his presence because he loves us, and we love him. We crave a deeper relationship with him—not a relationship that is an “add-on” to our lives, but a relationship upon which our entire existence is built.

And when we give something up for Lent, we’re teaching ourselves to let go. We’re putting the other gods that vie for our attention in their place. We’re recovering our perspective and realizing that there is only one God who supplies our needs.

So, what we do to humble ourselves before God is not based on what we want God to do. Our humility is a result of our gratitude for what he has already done.

Pray: Take time today to thank God for what he did. God came to us, became one of us, and gave himself completely to us through death and resurrection. Then ask God to increase your desire for intimacy with him. He told us that the hungry would be fed. Pray that your hunger for him deepens during this important time of the year.


Tuesday, March 12

Read: Isaiah 58:3-5

Consider: People often ask why the Old Testament is so different from the New Testament. Sometimes it appears as though God has two different personalities—one we see in the laws and rituals of Israel and one we see in the life of Jesus Christ. Let’s be honest. We’ve all struggled at this point. Every one of us who have been exposed to the Bible long enough to read various portions, have questioned the continuity between the two covenants.

We don’t have space here to address the most common question, that of violence in the Old Testament and non-violence in the new covenant. But let’s look at another common misunderstanding. Many people see the faith of Israel as simply a religion of laws, rituals, sacrifices, fasts and rules. In other words, it seems like it is based on what a person does and not on who a person is.

But when we read the prophets, we discover something much deeper. We see that God used external practices to teach them about the work that God wanted to do on the inside—in individuals, in the nation and in the world. He used the outside to re-align the inside.

In today’s reading we hear Isaiah taking the nation to task because their religious practices were not aligning with their lives. He pointed out that they exploited their workers, quarreled and engaged in violence. As they lived in this manner, they had the audacity to fast before the Lord and complained because he wasn’t blessing them enough.

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (58:5)

While Lent is a designated time, it is so much more. While we take forty days to center in on our spiritual journeys, we don’t do it for only a season. Lent helps us to recalibrate for the rest of the year. It is not “only a day” to honor God. It is a season designed to help us experience increased intimacy with him, so that we hunger for that relationship every day of our lives.

Pray: “Lord, I pray that these days will help me to learn and re-learn truth and insight for this journey. Help me also to un-learn—to discard those things that I won’t need or that will sabotage my walk with you. My prayer is that new holy habits emerge—whether in prayer, simplicity or awareness. I don’t want to designate my spirituality to a corner of my life. I want to grow ever closer to you.”


Wednesday, March 13

Read: Isaiah 58:6-12

Consider: Through the prophet Isaiah, God told the nation of Israel that they had missed the whole point. They had fasted and worshipped in order to receive something from God (58:1-3a). They had separated worship from life—practicing their religion in one way and conducting their affairs apart from those values (58:3b-5). After challenging them, he described, in beautiful language, his intention for worship and life.

We may not be the hypocrites described by Isaiah. We’re not violent, conniving, greedy people who are trying to steal from the poor. But Isaiah 58 is still a very important chapter for us. It helps us see that our worship is not simply designed to impact our personal relationships with God. Our worship must empower us to be Christ to our world. Our worship and our activism are inseparable. In describing the fast, God called us to…

“…loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free…to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood…do away with the yoke of oppression …spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed…” (58:6-7, 9-10)

People often make a false differentiation between personal spiritual practices and acts of mercy and grace. We dare not make that distinction because it tempts us to choose one over the other. It tempts us to believe that one part of the gospel is enough. At the very least, it tempts us to emphasize one and de-emphasize the other.

But according to God, personal spirituality and serving the vulnerable are one and the same — “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen?” (58:6).
  We know that none of us can do this alone. God called the nation of Israel to the task. In the same manner, today he calls the church. We are the hands of Christ. But to be his hands, we must join ours. The work for peace and justice is ours together. Together we are called to intimacy with God and the work of Christ on earth.

Pray: “Lord, be close to me and be close to your church. As I pray for my journey during this Lenten season, I pray for the journeys of my sisters and brothers. May our individual lives be a communal life of worship and servanthood. Empower us to be the face of Christ to our world.”


Thursday, March 14

Read: Isaiah 58:6-11

Consider: We’ve spent a good part of this first full week of Lent in Isaiah 58—Isaiah’s description of the “fast” that honors God. There’s one more thing we need to see before we leave this great chapter.

While we pour ourselves out for others, something wonderful happens to us.

“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here am I’…the Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs…and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (58:8-11)

This promise is consistently found in the New Testament as well. Jesus described it as losing your life, only to find it again. Being poured out—emptied—and then being filled with Christ. Dying—what Paul called crucifying the “old self” (Romans 6:6)—and then being raised to a new life.

That is why Lent is so powerful. It helps us to humble ourselves. Through real and symbolic acts, we teach ourselves what can die and what must die so that we can truly live. And in this time of reflection, recalibration and repentance, we can’t help but see the resurrection that Jesus has already brought to us.

Pray: “Lord, I’m always tempted to clutch on to my possessions, my time, my opinions—my life. But you taught us to lay our lives down, just as you did. And in so doing, we discover how to live. I want to learn this way of life as I journey with you through Lent and beyond. Thank you for your love and your patience.”


Friday, March 15

Read: Luke 4:14-19

Consider: What would be “good news” to a poor person?

When I was a youth pastor, I challenged our church in northern Indiana to make a large donation of clothing to an inner-city ministry in Chicago. The response was amazing. I found myself sorting through a massive amount of used clothing. Most of it was very good stuff that was thoughtfully given. But as I worked through the stacks, I noticed that some people had simply used this project as an opportunity to clean out their closets. I kept running into old neckties. Neckties? Really? We were trying to clothe people who were sleeping on heating grates in the winter. Neckties? Is that what the homeless population of Chicago needed?

What was it that Jesus meant when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (4:18)? What would it mean for us to be good news to the poor?

As Jesus taught, he seemed to flow seamlessly between various meanings of poverty. Sometimes he spoke about material poverty. His teaching—really the whole Bible—is very clear about our responsibility to those without resources. There is no ambiguity there.

Other times Jesus spoke about spiritual, emotional and relational poverty — “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Most of the time, Jesus touched people who were poor in every area of their lives. Today, you and I interact with people who experience material poverty. And we continually interact with those who are poor and vulnerable in so many other ways. Some poverty is visible. Some is hidden from us. How are we good news to those who are poor?

We begin by recognizing our own poverty—whatever form that may take. We are not saviors who bring all the answers to the world’s problems. We are one with those who hurt. So, whether we’re volunteering at a food pantry, contributing money for orphans overseas, helping a child learn how to read, embracing someone who just lost a loved one or holding a hand at the side of a hospital bed, we begin by sharing their space. And we do that by seeing our own poverty and our profound need for help, mercy and grace.

That’s what Jesus did — “for your sake he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Pray: “Lord, my culture tells me not to embrace poverty. It tells me that I should be ashamed to be poor. And yet, you became poor for me. You entered this one who is poor in spirit. Help me to love like you love. In my poverty, help me to see people not as objects of pity, but as my sisters and brothers who are with me on the journey.”


Saturday, March 16

Read: John 8:31-36

Consider: Yesterday we considered the fact that Jesus used the word “poor” to refer to various conditions in which we find ourselves. The same is true when it comes to the concept of freedom. It’s a broad term because there are so many ways in which we can be enslaved. Poverty, the threat of violence, addiction, a dysfunctional relationship, racism, the lack of opportunity, and so many other forms of oppression and bondage can put us in seemingly hopeless situations. On any given day, a huge portion of the world’s population find themselves yearning for freedom. And perhaps the most pervasive bondage of all is fear. Oppression brings with it the frightening unknowns of the future.

Jesus proclaimed a new kingdom. This “kingdom of heaven” would not be based on the old, tired values of the empires of this world. Jesus described his mission—the work of this kingdom—by reading from the Book of Isaiah…

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…” (Luke 4:18 quoting Isaiah 61:1-2)

The proclamation and reality of “freedom for the prisoners” is central to the new kingdom. After all, that great axiom that we often quote — “the truth will set you free” — came from the lips of Jesus (John 8:32).

This liberating truth is not some abstract idea, though it is often presented in that way. Jesus explained this freedom by speaking about the forgiveness of sins. Though there are many types of bondage, sin is at the root. Sometimes it is the sin within us, sometimes it’s the sin in those who oppress others, and often it is the sinful systems of our world—what the scripture calls “rulers…powers…world forces of this darkness” (Ephesians 6:12).

Lent is a time to remember the liberating work of Christ. It begins in us. We are humbled by the forgiveness of our sins. We are challenged to take the joy of liberation with us into the world where we can be agents of grace and reconciliation. Our confidence is not in our ability to diagnose and fix the problems of our world. Our confidence lies in the knowledge that Christ is the liberator and we are his hands. For…

“…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36).

Pray: “Lord, you are ‘the way and the truth and the life’(John 14:6). Your way, your truth and your life set us free. Show me how I can be a messenger of freedom. Lead me to someone who feels imprisoned in hopelessness or fear. Empower me to be your face, your hands and your voice. Through my words or my actions, bring life and freedom to your world today.”