Coming from the outside in, Lent was the oddest tradition for us to ponder. It is not a sacrament instituted by Christ and reeks of “just tradition”. Furthermore, it not only has the medieval Roman church baggage, but seems to have picked up the worst of the evangelical Protestantism’s theology as well. That insidious implied, “I’m not saying you have to do it to be saved, buuut if you don’t, as a Christian I’m not sure what to think if you don’t.” It reminds me of our hometown sheriff growing up. When he’d drop a perpetrator off at the jail house, he always un-cuffed them in the parking lot saying, “You can run if you want.”
Worst of all, the explanations given by many pastors and theologians for Lent, attempting to alleviate this opinion of the law, seemed Erasminian—evoking Luther’s brilliant retort, “The gouty foot laughs at your doctoring.”They, like Erasmus, seem to have forgotten that the power of God’s Word lies in what it does to you—Law and Gospel, creating and sustaining faith.
During Lent, you are set up to do something. This is not for any ol’ secular purpose in which half-hearted efforts survive as “good enough”, but for a religious purpose toward God! As such, the conscience cannot help but be intruded upon. Since you have just been handed a religious activity to do—a law—any attempt to minimize or lessen its success or failure is laughable. The Law of God can never be partially achieved and as a Word of God, always does something to you—it kills. Making this kind of religious commitment toward God is infinitely weighty.
What you or I choose as our Lenten exercise: fasting, praying more, reading more scripture or otherwise, is not the problem. You may choose anything or nothing and you will either succeed or fail. If you succeed, then the old Adam is crouching at the door to take this up to Heaven thinking he’s done something to garner God’s favor, adding sin to sin. The Law will brutally cast this down.
More often, however, you will fail and have multiple false starts. Then despair sets in as the Law accuses you of ‘once again failing’. The Law kills religious failure before you even get your boots on in attempt to bring it to God. Thus, the entire 40 day Lenten journey always ends up in brutal failure, hypocrisy, and despair. We either cash out quickly as so many early followers of Jesus did (John 6:67), or we play Peter the Scaramouche bragging with the Lenten sword drawn, “Even if all the others abandon You Lord, I will never leave You” (Matt 26:33-35).
By evoking the Lenten journey as something for us to religiously do toward God, observing Lent becomes a sermon or a preachment to our conscience. In this case that sermon becomes the Law. The Law must attack because nothing outside of Christ can enter Heaven—nothing! The Law of unthwartable necessity will accuse the Lenten practice. The mere evoking of Lent, whether you succeed, fail, participate, or not, brings the Law immediately into the conscience. It reveals the real fallen you and me in our very success, failure, participation, or not. It is like telling someone not to think of the color red—too late. God’s Word always does something to you. That is its authority and power.
The Law must attack because nothing outside of Christ can enter Heaven—nothing!
Here, we begin to see the true value of the Lenten season and practice leading to the Cross of Christ. The 40 day Lenten journey of hypocritical success, failure, participation, or not is quite appropriate. It is very appropriate (as it was during Christ’s actual later days toward the cross) that all sorts of religious ne’er-do-well activity arises so that the Law of God can send our Lenten practices straight to the cross. All manner of religious fire-setting and faux bravado begins to occur—meanwhile, we increasingly grow silent as we watch this unassuming Jewish carpenter walking by, strangely fixing His gaze like flint toward a shameful cross. The Lenten season perfectly parallels the actual events—the Son of God, crucified for our sins.
It is most appropriate that for 40 days the Law slay and annihilate all our religious efforts, successes, failures, indifferences in Lent, as the Son of God walks by toward Golgotha, piquing our curiosity, “What is THAT guy doing?”. During Lent, the Law relentlessly kills and damns all our best efforts so that when we arrive at the foot of Christ’s crucifixion for us, we drop as dead as Lazarus in the tomb. And as the stench of our religious efforts putrefy the air at Calvary, we hear Christ resurrect us, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).”