Lent strikes many Protestants as the exclusive domain of Roman Catholics, but this season can serve any Christian as a unique time of preparation and repentance as we anticipate the death and resurrection of Jesus. On the Christian calendar, Lent (from Latin, meaning "fortieth") is the 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday and leading up to Easter Sunday. (Sundays aren't counted, but generally set aside as days of renewal and celebration—"mini-Easters" of sorts.) Whatever you might think about popular practices, Kendal Haug and Will Walker argue Lent is "first and foremost about the gospel making its way deeper into our lives."
Compiled by Haug and Walker, Journey to the Cross is a free devotional guide for the season of Lent. Each week focuses on a different theme (e.g., repentance, humility, suffering, lament, sacrifice, death), and each day follows a distinct pattern: Call to Worship, Confession, Contemplation, and Closing Prayer. "Lent is about Jesus," the authors contend, and with each element "our aim is to reflect meaningfully on his journey to the cross, so that we might take up our cross and follow him."
We've excerpted a sample selection (Day 3) below. As Haug and Walker write, "May we mourn the darkness in our hearts and rejoice in the light of God who came into the world to save us!"
Call to Worship
A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." A voice says, "Cry!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa. 40:3-8)
Most merciful God whose Son, Jesus Christ, was tempted in every way, yet was without sin, we confess before you our own sinfulness; we have hungered after that which does not satisfy; we have compromised with evil; we have doubted your power to protect us. Forgive our lack of faith; have mercy on our weakness. Restore in us such trust and love that we may walk in your ways and delight in doing your will. Amen. [The Worship Sourcebook]
At the onset of Jesus' ministry, John announced his coming in fulfillment of Isaiah 40: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." This is the cry of Lent: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make room for him in your thoughts and activities and affections.
An appropriate response to this announcement is to take stock of our lives, to reconsider how we're living in light of God's presence and power made available to us in Jesus. And that's what Lent is for: to reflect on our lives as they are, and as they could be.
Giving up a habit or a food or a pleasure is not distinctly Christian. People give up things all the time in the name of self-help, or worse, vanity and vengeance. The point of Lent is to reorient life God-ward. This reorientation has to do with desert and wilderness.
A "wilderness experience" in our language usually means one has been gone for awhile and now returns with new insight or perspective, "a new lease on life." Whether it's a trip to the third world, or a hike in the mountains, people are stripped of their usual comforts, removed from the safety of familiarity, and forced to see the world from a different vantage point.
Our aim during Lent is something like a wilderness experience. We want to shake up our lives significantly enough that when we reach for our usual comforts and grasp a fistful of air, we're forced to cling to Christ—his body, his blood. We want to see just how upside down our world really is as our "important things" prove to be perishable goods, as the light shines on our "righteousness" and exposes the layers of "self" beneath the surface, and as our "busy" lives are shown to simply lack wisdom.
The desire is a new lease on life, a view into the vast world of God, a deep breath and long look above the tree line of self-absorption. So in Lent we focus on getting away from the life of flesh and into the life of the Spirit, denying our ways and embracing God's.
The point of giving things up isn't to be reminded of how much we miss them, but rather to be awakened to how much we miss God and long for his life-giving Spirit. This means, of course, that Lent isn't only about giving up things. It's also about adding things, God-things.
- Having given up junk food for a healthy diet, what will you do with the energy you gain?
- Having given up reading magazines, what will you read now?
- Having given up Facebook, to whom will you devote meaningful conversation?
- Having given up lunch, how will you rely on God for the strength of "food from heaven"?
- Having given up TV as a default activity, how will you use that time to cultivate quality family time?
- Having given up isolation, how will you immerse yourself in community?
- Having given up shopping, will you see those who need clothing in your city?
- Having sacrificed whatever form of selfishness you indulge, how will you meet the needs of others?
The practice of giving something up for Lent is a way of entering into the wilderness with Jesus. Don't worry about whether your sacrifice is a good one. It's not a contest. Just make your aim to know Christ more fully, and trust him to lead you. Seek to replace that thing with devotion to Christ—his Word and his mission. God may lead you to give up and take up more as you go. That's good. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.
Merciful God, we come to you today realizing we are not how you want us to be. Help us let go of our past, that we may turn toward you and live again the life of faith. Help us call out our fear and hatred, our anger and self-pity. Lift the burden they place on our shoulders. Help us set aside our guilt and enter a season of healing. As we pray and fast today, help us become simple people, that we may see you plainly. Let us draw near to you now. Amen. [The Worship Sourcebook]
Editors' Note: Download the entire Journey to the Cross: Readings and Devotions for Lent. Thanks to Providence Church in Austin, Texas, for providing this free resource.