Shortly after Jesus was baptized, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days. At the end of this time, he overcame the temptations of the Devil and commenced his three-year public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11). The season of Lent traditionally has been a 40 day penitential season with encouraged fasting in preparation for observing the passion and cross of our Lord Jesus. It occupies the 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, excluding the six Sundays of Divine Service – hence 40 days.

The purpose of the Lenten Season is to provide an opportunity to recall the fundamental reasons why our Lord had to make his journey to Jerusalem and keep his appointed date with the cross. It also highlights why we need to make that journey with him by reflecting on our problem of sin with penitential hearts. To that end, the church calendar provides us with six weeks to prepare for an encounter with the rejected, crucified, dead, and buried Lord Jesus, and to receive everything needed to overcome our problem of sin and receive a restored life with God.

While not discouraging fasting and other traditional acts of devotion, the reformers stressed that the Lenten season was especially to be a time for penitential self-reflection to receive anew the saving gifts of Christ. Moreover, whatever expressions of self-sacrifice or devotion in which one might engage, they taught that none should be understood or encouraged to gain worthiness before God or commendation before others. Indeed, they ascribed such to be false shows of devotion and piety. They were symptomatic of our problem of self-centered sinfulness. Jesus taught the same truth.

On one occasion, Jesus contrasted true godly devotion and spirituality with the standard expressions of piety engaged in by the religious leaders of the day (Matthew 6:16-18). In his examples of personal prayers said publicly, fasting with long faces, and giving publicly to those in need, he was driving home the point that true godly piety, by its very nature, is seldom seen by others and never seen intentionally.

Lent is not intended to have us recognize we need to improve and then resolve to redouble our efforts to take care of the problem.

Kierkegaard expressed this same point in his description of true selfless love of our neighbor. He used the expression: he stands alone - with your help. In true selfless love of neighbor, your hand that supports the one in need is invisible to all except God. Your neighbor just looks completely self-sufficient, standing there before others. You cannot be seen at all. Your presence and your help are neither seen nor suspected by anyone. The same applies to keeping your personal prayers in your closet, fasting with a happy contented face, and giving where your right hand does not know what your left is doing.

The purpose of Lent is for us to view the standards of godliness--what they are and what they are not--to see our problem of sin, and our need of the saving work of our Lord Jesus. Lent is not intended to have us recognize we need to improve and then resolve to redouble our efforts to take care of the problem. Its purpose is in line with the spiritual purpose of the Law, namely, that God drives us to repentance, not reform. Its purpose is that we more deeply understand and appreciate that we need a gracious God and Savior, not one who is simply patient, willing to cut us some slack, and help us get better.

Dead people do not need assistance in order to successfully do; they need life in order to be.

The season of Lent began with the traditional Ash Wednesday reminder that our problem of sin has rendered us spiritually beyond anyone’s help, even God’s help. With the fall of Adam, the wages of sin have been paid out to all of his descendants and left us with an inherited death problem (Romans 5:12). God’s design for the crown of his creation was shattered by the Fall. His curse of the ground has grounded all of us from whence we came – ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Beyond help? Yes! Help always implies the need for additional resources to get the job done. But dead people are out of the running.

Dead people do not need assistance in order to successfully do; they need life in order to be.

We do not need God’s help in order to do what is righteous, we need a Savior in order to be righteous. Ashes and dust do not need the services of spiritual EMTs; we need a Second Adam from whom we regain life itself (Romans 5:17). Jesus is the Second Adam who, having prepared himself, executes the redemption we all need from the curse that holds us in death’s grasp.

In Lent, these are the realities that comprise the path of righteousness that we take to the cross of Christ. As Luther said, the cross is our theology. We journey to it, we die on it, we live in it, and we receive our Savior and righteousness for the sake of it. And so, it is and will be with you during this season of Lent. Continue your journey reminded of your fundamental frailty, the death problem that reduces all of us to ashes. And continue your walk to the cross of Christ along the path of righteousness.

So, gather up your dust...and have a good journey!