This is the First Sunday of Lent—and you might be wondering if you were supposed to give something up before you got here today. Well, I got something in my inbox this week—a link to a free worksheet to help me pick the perfect thing to give up for Lent. This website promised to help me ‘identify what is really holding me back spiritually’ and ‘how to overcome my spiritual obstacles.’ I was curious so I gave them my email to receive my Lent Toolkit which included the following:
- A Spiritual Life Assessment Tool
- A Lenten Sacrifice Sheet
- An Accountability Worksheet
- A Dietary Guidelines Cheat Sheet
- 50 Easy Recipes Perfect for Lent AND
- A Beautiful Scripture Art Print
I never did get the free list that would help me identify the perfect thing for me to give up for Lent, because it was actually $5.99 (a $12 value). Maybe they should give up lying for Lent.
Jimmy Kimmel had a funny bit on Ash Wednesday about what to give up for Lent. On his Lie Witness News segment, they told people Ash Wednesday was the last day of Lent and asked them to share what they had given up for the past 40 days. Of course, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent but, as Jimmy said, “Did that stop people from lying directly to Jesus’ face?” The first guy said he gave up Slushies- “it was very hard. I love them –they’re like an addiction to me. It was really tough.” The second woman shared that, “40 days ago I decided to stop drinking soda. It was hard and you just got to keep pushing through it. And I did. A few times I wanted to crack when I saw other people around me drinking soda, but I figured I’d go healthier and live a better life.” The third person gave up donuts, which she said was, “the hardest thing a human can do.” The newscaster suggested next year she may want to give up lying for Lent.
The practice of ‘giving something up for Lent’ was not in the early church. The word Lent actually means “Spring,” which is not as dismal as you would suspect. According to our Book of Common Prayer on Ash Wednesday, this season of Lent is a time when converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism so the congregation is “put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior.” In the third century, the 1-2 day Pascal fast was lengthened to six days but then eventually overlapped with Christ’s 40 days fasting in the wilderness by the fourth century. So how did this become “giving something up for Lent”?
I think the three people on Jimmy Kimmel are good examples of our real Lenten motivations. When we are trying to be ‘good’ we always have an ulterior motive. They all picked sweet things—slushies, sodas and donuts. If you check Things to Give Up for Lent online, Chocolate is always top of the list. Why do we think we’re giving it up? Because it will be hard. But we will push through and make it, even though people around us are eating sweet things, we make it. In the back of our minds, however, we are hoping to lose a few pounds before Spring Break. It has nothing to do with Jesus. I have found that “giving something up for Lent” just makes me much more self-focused, self-righteous and then more self-pitying when I fail. It becomes all about self, again.
Or maybe you want to start something instead—like being more patient or less angry. Go ahead. Let me know how that is working for you. When we start trying to be more patient, we probably become more self-righteous or annoying at the same time. Less angry? Makes me think of Gayle King’s interview with R. Kelly. He wanted to be interviewed to show how he wasn’t angry about the charges against him. Check it out.
Jimmy Kimmel said about his own Ash Wednesday resolve,” I’m not giving up anything. With the way things are today, I’m just giving up!”
I believe Jimmy is on to something. I know many people are thinking about what to give up for Lent or even what to add to life for Lent or what to decrease or increase in our lives for Lent but the Gospel according to Kimmel is where our scripture lands today. This is the Gospel of Giving Up—not of giving up something for Lent. Giving up on anything that you think makes you a better person or gives you an edge on winning or gives you more points with God. The Holy Spirit is what transforms and changes us, according to the Will of God. We have a generous God who might even eat chocolate during Lent and would not mind if you do, too. If you want to lose a few pounds before Spring Break, then do that. But don’t expect brownie points in heaven or to become more holy or spiritual for doing so. Just do it because it’s good for you and part of living the life God has given you to live. There are enough things in life to suffer with that you don’t need to go looking for them or manufacture suffering.
Both the gospel and our Romans text show us that we have made Lent into another human plan to salvage ourselves from the scrapheap instead of trusting in what Christ has done for us. In today’s gospel, Christ is tempted by Satan in the desert for 40 days. That is the main idea we need to remember—Christ was tempted. We are not Christ and we cannot overcome temptation. Martin Luther was very clear on this point when he wrote in The Freedom of a Christian, “Lent has become mere mockery because our fasting is a perversion and an institution of man. For although Christ did fast for forty days, yet there is no word of his that he requires us to do the same and fast as he did. Indeed, he did many other things, which he wishes us not to do: but whatever he calls us to do or leave undone, we should see to it that we have his Word to support our actions.”
But Luther added that there is “no more terrible disaster” than can afflict men than “the famine of hearing the Word…the soul can do without anything except the Word of God.” This is the subject of our Romans text today. These six little verses describe the basis of our Christian faith. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In the most generous of terms it says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This is the Word. If you are wondering if you have heard the Word, there it is. Jesus is Lord of your life. Keep it simple.
You might be saying to yourself about now, “But I haven’t confessed with my lips and I don’t know if I believe in my heart that Jesus is Lord.” You’re giving up chocolate, alcohol, Twitter, Facebook, swearing and coffee or starting to run, make more crafts or give money to homeless people. You do this because you have a longing to be connected, understood, loved and whole. Confess that. Start with that. Admit you have made those things the Lords of your life and you want and need a real Lord.
Lent is about confession—the exposing of our child-like heart and our deep need to be loved as we are. You may have the thick armor of pride around your child-like heart, but you are still in need of love, no matter what your pride tells you. Confession is when the heart breaks through your pride with a cry for help, a cry for love that is not based on what you do but on what has been done for you.
This is what it means to call on the name of the Lord to be saved. To call out for help and be heard by the God who made you and came to this earth as Jesus Christ to let you know that he has heard you cry. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” You can believe it because everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Even you. Especially you.