“What is Lent?”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Genesis 2:7-9, 15-17, 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The name “Lent” probably comes from the Old English word “lencten.” It refers to spring when the days lengthen. Early Christians remembered with special devotions the 40 hours our Savior lay in the tomb. The period of commemoration was later lengthened to two weeks called Passiontide. Still later, it was expanded to the 40 non-Sundays before Easter. Sundays were never fast days, but “little Easters,” so the season is actually 46 days long. The 40 days likely correspond to Jesus’ 40 days of fasting recorded in Matthew’s account of His temptation — this Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

It is a season for self-examination, repentance and growth in faith and grace. Something very good can come out of such a time. Taking a hard look at ourselves with the goal of making a change for the better can be very healthy. On the other hand, it can also degenerate into an opportunity to catalog sins and try to offset them by good deeds – a practice fostered by many religions but diametrically opposed to the Christian faith. “Giving up” something for Lent then becomes an opportunity for work- righteous sacrifice instead of genuine fasting.

It is tough to talk about sin without listing sins, but that is one task of the preacher of the Gospel. People are captivated by what we can call “taboo morality.” They love to hear a good dictionary of sins — especially somebody else’s. An old story can be told in dozens of ways. It begins with a preacher talking about sins. When he mentions intemperance the lady in the front row commends his great preaching. When he puts down lust she calls it true teaching. But when he starts in on gossip she responds: “Now he took to meddling.” The story can be retold with the bristly elder in the back being upset by the first topic.

The truth is, any attempt to catalog and denounce certain sins can lead us away from the central teaching of Christianity. Lent often becomes an opportunity to identify and fight certain individual sins — leading people to attempt to give up smoking, abstain from gossip, curb sexual appetite, control a sharp tongue, etc. Such attempts at self improvement may have some merit, but when we see sin and the sinful human condition in the light of some pitiful little infringements against a code of taboos, we trivialize both our sin and God’s grace.

In the Epistle lesson for Sunday, St. Paul reminds us that the human community doesn’t just commit sins, it is contaminated by sin. Paul lists sins in other places, but his lists only show evidence of the sin infecting us all. Every sin on every list carries equal weight — they are all equally reprehensible. Sin is the virus within us, not the warts and fever sores that appear on the surface.

St. Paul contrasts the wages of sin with the gift of God’s righteousness. The old saying is that crime doesn’t pay, even though, in many instances, it seems to be monetarily profitable. Paul says that sin does pay — its wages are death and eternal separation from God and all that is good. The contrast is not a payment, but a free gift from God who loves us more than He loves Himself, Who would, and did, die so that we might live both with Him and like Him forever.

The Scriptures describe the entire world as a world of sin. Evidence of it can be found in any daily newspaper. We are wasting our time whenever we imagine that a ledger of sins can be checked off or balanced by a ledger of good deeds. As any missionary in the tropics knows, you cannot stop malaria by slapping at the mosquitoes!

One of the reasons for differing lists of sins, at least in order, is that we usually lay greater weight on one sin than another. I, for one, find it tempting to list those sins of yours that aggravate me most, and avoid those of my own that afflict me most. Some would start with those they consider the most heinous and dangerous, or perhaps those that have devastated their personal lives. One of the unsettling things about the Biblical lists is that they put some of our favorite attitudes and pastimes — prejudice, hateful thoughts, gossip, avarice and concupiscence — on an equal par with the biggies of murder, robbery and rape.

A real tragedy in picking some sin to avoid during Lent — like cussing, drinking too much or overeating — is that vulgarity, drunkenness and gluttony are not to be avoided for 40 days, they are to be denied forever. What’s even worse, these little pretenses lead us to believe that sinning is something we can choose to do or not do by our own willpower. They ignore or reject the fact that sin is a hostile force, running loose and rampant in the world, over which we have no power whatsoever.

Lent is here to remind us that the Fall of humanity opened a door through which this dreadful power entered and captured us, but the cross of Christ opened another door of grace and forgiveness that has set us free. Billions of people in our world are trapped in the first, but ignorant of the second.

An age-old illustration of sin and grace is available right now to those of us in the Midwest. Many dead leaves still cling tenaciously to the branches of trees, especially oak trees. They will only be discarded when the rising sap surges through those branches to replace the old leaves with new ones. Similarly, dead and sinful instincts of the human soul can only be expelled and overcome when something new, powerful and alive takes over.

No person can deal effectively with his or her own sins. What looks like progress toward that end only becomes an occasion for new sins of pride and self-congratulation. We waste time trying to pick this or that dead leaf from our tree. Only the loving grace of God flowing through our lives can create something new and cause the old to drop away.

An Associated Press release illustrates the problem of pointing out sins. A high school girl was called out of class by the principal. Entering the hall, she noticed two Labrador Retrievers, one black and one golden, and their officer-trainer, all standing “on point” at her locker. Realizing that R. T. and Buddy were drug-sniffing dogs, she was terrified that someone had planted drugs in her locker.

When she opened the door, they discovered the source of the whining, tail-thumping and salivating — a plastic bag full of chocolate chip cookies packed by the girl’s mother. The officer noted that R. T. and Buddy might have missed their breakfast that morning.

Many humans like to go around “sniffing out” the sins of others. From their dictionary of scarlet letters, they select the appropriate one for each transgressor’s forehead. After exposing the sin, they feel justified in having done their duty. Often, the so-called “sin” is nothing more than a chocolate chip cookie and the exposure is more a revelation of their own sinful appetites than that of the accused.

Remember that real temptation is not an enticement to fall but to rise. The tempter did not coax Adam and Eve to become like the devil but like God. No self-respecting devil offers personal or social ruin — that is in the fine print at the bottom. Take something on for Lent instead of giving something up. The most important thing to take on is the Means of Grace. Another choice would be to take a friend to every worship in Lent. In addition to being our mission, that has the hidden benefit of bringing us to the Word and Sacrament. There, and only there, will we find the sap of the Spirit that pushes out the leftovers of sin and death from our lives!

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