I remember going into one my local schools when I was still in full time ministry to take school assembly in the first week of Lent - and being really quite surprised to discover that none of the children seemed to have given up anything for Lent. They knew something about Lent: that it began on Ash Wednesday, and that people ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to use up the rich food they couldn't eat in Lent. But no-one seemed to have thought about giving things up.
We haven't really done ”giving up things for Lent” this year, said one of the teachers later in the staff room. But when I was the age of those children giving up things for Lent would have been something we at least thought about as children, whether or not our teachers did it as a theme or project.
One year Ann and I were visiting Istanbul during Ramadan, and I have to say we were quite impressed by the way they kept the fast. It reminded us of how Lent used to be kept, but often isn’t really, any more. I do try to keep Lent seriously, but I’m not always all that good at it. This year I’ve decided to use Lent as an opportunity to lose some weight, by giving up some of the things that aren’t good for me and trying to take a bit more exercise.
But I’m aware that that in itself isn’t a Lenten fast. That’s just me on a health kick, or me making an attempt to keep in my present size of trousers. The fact that I’m looking for sponsorship, and that the money I raise will go to charity goes some way towards making it more of a Lenten fast, but it still doesn’t compare with the Lenten fasts of old. For although they involved giving things up, they were chiefly about drawing nearer to God. Fasting in Lent is about developing ourselves as disciples, and clearing out some of the stuff that gets in the way. Jesus in the wilderness was challenging the temptations that would be there throughout his ministry, and tuning his mind to his Father’s voice.
Well, I wish people took Lent more seriously, like we used to. And not just for old time’s sake: when we keep Lent as a fast, we’re consciously imitating the example of our Lord in the wilderness; it’s an opportunity to draw close to him, and like him to make a choice for God over the things of the world.
Don’t we sometimes say, “Well, it's the way of the world,” when we want to justify what we do or what we join in with? As though if everyone’s doing it that makes it all right. Lent is a chance to consciously not do that. We have forty days to put away the things of the world, the things we own or value or desire or are tempted by, that can become petty gods in their own right. Not to just going along with what everyone else does but to choose God’s way instead.
Having said that, I suppose when I was a child fasting in Lent was itself going along with what everyone else was doing. You gave up things for Lent because that’s what everyone did, and it’s what Mum and Dad told me I should do. So in that sense it wasn’t my own personal choice. In Isaiah chapter 58 we read that God doesn’t want us to fast just because we’re supposed to and that’s what the rules say. To fast has to be my own personal decision and desire. It’s not about outward observance, it needs to be a matter of the heart.
So a real fast is a swim against the stream. It’s tough. We fast to control our own desires, and make space to hear what God is saying to us, and so we can say yes to him. That’s what Jesus was doing in the wilderness: taking time aside before he began his ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming the kingdom: time to face up to the temptations that would always be there, time to be sure he could master them right from the start. So he went away from the world to focus his heart and mind on his Father’s will. Indeed, scripture tells us he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and the word in Greek is a strong one, almost “he was thrown into the wilderness”.
So Lent for us too is about following where the Spirit leads us - in giving things up, and also in taking things up; it’s about disciplined spiritual exercise, it’s about facing up to things. And that’s important and necessary for Christians, by no means an optional extra. It’s fundamental to the task in hand, of following Jesus, of speaking, working and witnessing for him. Temptations are always around us; and temptation is an insidious thing, it’s rarely blatant or obvious.
Think about Jesus in the wilderness, you’ll remember the temptations he faced there. He wasn't being tempted to do things that were obviously bad. That’s not how the devil works, not at his most effective anyway. Jesus was tempted to sort out his own comfort first, he was tempted to opt for short term options, to take short cuts, and he was tempted to seek popular acclaim. Were these bad things? Why not feed yourself and other hungry people? Why not dazzle people into faith, why not go for political power? Think of the good you could do. The temptations Jesus faced didn’t look evil; why not choose your own way, work for your own success, do your own thing? But they would have taken him away from the path he had chosen, of doing his Father’s will, in obedience and service.
If sin came clearly labelled as such, it might not be so hard to resist. But sin is often all too plausible. We persuade ourselves that the ends justify the means, or perhaps that a degree of collateral damage is acceptable. It isn’t and it never was. The Bible word for sin, “hamartia” in Greek, is actually about missing the mark. A bit like throwing a dart and missing the number you’re aiming for. Unless every part of what we do is praiseworthy in God’s sight, then sin has crept into our lives somewhere. Two linked phrases in the Lord’s prayer are, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done.” The one requires the other.
A real fast is a fast with no cheating. In my schooldays, we used to walk out to the park surrounding a big country house maybe a couple of miles away from our school. It was an easy enough walk, and there was a lake in the park that was good to swim in. We knew that on the high gates that led up to the house there were notices saying 'Private - No Trespassers.' So we didn’t go that way. Along a lane nearby there was a fence we could climb that didn’t have any signs telling us to keep out. So if we had been challenged (we never were) we could always claim we didn’t know we were trespassing.
But we knew we were, really. When fasting it isn’t enough just to look good. We might impress our friends, but God sees into the heart. Fasting is about getting right with him, being honest with him, and not just looking pious. If it’s not the real thing, it’s not worth doing. My Lent fast this year will I hope save a notch on my belt; but I need also to control the things within me that lead me away from true obedience to God, so along with giving things up I shall be taking things up: I hope to be more prayerful, more aware, maybe take on some new commitment this Lent. I intend to read, to listen, to reflect.
In forty days of testing Jesus overcame the plausible voices that might have tempted him away from his Father’s will. His life expressed to the full his Father’s love, a love he shares with us and offers to the world. A love to motivate our serious keeping of Lent; fasting is our gift of love back to God, our response to the love in which we know we are held.
And all of that begins on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. In the service I’ll be attending I’ll hear the words 'turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ'. And that's it. Not a divine entrance exam - we’re already citizens of heaven, but my small but grateful gift of love, in response to God’s boundless love; in fasting I need to be giving myself, in obedience, in discipleship, and in praise.