Lent: Ash Wednesday sermon by Revd Jan Brookshaw

As some of you know, a group of us go to one of the pubs in Easton each Friday evening.   When we are at the Chestnut Horse the land lady, Karen, has almost poured my gin and tonic before I have got to the bar.   She will be in for a shock next time I go there because it will be only tonic or another soft drink. My liver gets its annual rest as we start Lent.

No doubt each of you have your own way of observing Lent.   It is a practice that stretches right back to the very early church.   In the 1st century new converts to the Christian faith were only admitted to the church through baptism on Easter Day. In the weeks leading up to Easter day, anyone hoping to be baptised would undergo a substantial period of intensive preparation.   Fairly soon the church realised that it would benefit all Christians to undertake an intensive period of preparation for Holy Week and Easter Day.   I am not sure when, but still in the early church it was decided to parallel that period Jesus spent in the wilderness as our time for this preparation.

The name used in most countries for this period of preparation is equivalent to the English word forty which is the number of days of Lent.   If you count up it is actually 46 days until Easter.   The 6 Sundays do not count at they are mini Easter days when we do not fast which brings it back to forty.   Quite why we call this period Lent rather than forty, which in Old English meant spring, is something else I do not know – sorry.

The thing most people know about in Lent is giving something up – like my alcohol. However, as with so many of our customs, our Lenten observances are more than simply giving something up and come straight from our Jewish roots as we heard in our gospel reading. For Jews and for us the three core observances are giving, praying and fasting.

Only the last, fasting really relates to giving something up which is often all we do in Lent. Today our fast normally involves just giving up an item which we normally enjoy.   It might be drink, chocolates or something similar.   A couple of years ago a parishioner who loved reading fiction gave that up for Lent.   Her Lent observance also included taking something up as well which we are encouraged to do as well.   Instead of reading fiction she spent the equivalent amount of time reading various faith based books. Of course what we give up might not be of a physical nature.   Hopefully when you arrived, you were given a copy of “A Special Lenten Fast”.   It is encouraging us to give up all those things that make us unhappy inside and often damage relationships with God and with others.   I am sure that not all of them apply to you but maybe one or more of them do. The one I have found most helpful personally is “give up judging others, discover Jesus within them”.   Please do take the list home and display it somewhere where you can see it easily such as the fridge door. Although we are not supposed to fast on Sundays because they are mini Easters I would suggest that you don’t slip back into your old ways on Sundays.

There are two more Lenten observances that the gospel tells us to observe – giving and praying. I am sure that we all give to charity already, be that the Itchen Valley parish and/or other charities.   What we asked to do in Lent is to suffer a bit more discomfort in our wallets by giving a bit more. The other way we can to others is through our time.   I know that for many of you that would be very difficult as we all have such busy lives already. However it might be possible to give up doing something we enjoy to make time in some form of service instead.

Finally there is prayer. Again this is over and above the amount of prayer you already do.   Actually I should have covered prayer first, because it is only through prayer, both public and private, that we build our relationship with God.   It is only thanks to that relationship that we even want to observe Lent much less have the strength so to do.   However much extra time you decide to give to prayer, do make it a special time with God rather than when you are also doing something else like walking or gardening.  I know those are times when we can feel close to God but inevitably we are distracted by the other things we are doing even if it is simply to remember to put one foot in front of another.

Praying, giving, fasting – our three Lenten observances as taught to us by Jesus.   However in our gospel we also learned that Jesus wants us to do them all in secret. Why does he do that?   Well it is about our motives for observing Lent.   In Jesus’ time there were a lot of apparently religious people who made sure that everyone else knew just how pious they were by drawing attention to themselves. To say the least there motives were mixed.   The outer appearance was good but the inner person was not.

It reminds of a disastrous fast food chicken I had in the 1970s.   It looked all golden and delicious until I cut into it and several maggots were wriggling in the middle. The outside appearance was good but the inner was rotten.   What Jesus is teaching us here is that we should only have one motive for observing Lent and that is to love and please God.   Our outward appearance has to match our inner reality.

I guess that is why Paul was certainly not doing all his work for Christ in secret.   We heard in our first reading his list of all the things he has suffered in the course of his ministry. Whatever else we might think about Paul, one thing is for certain, his inner motives were totally pure seeking only to love and please God. Paul finds it easy to talk about his faith but is it easy for us to let others know that we are observing Lent and so proclaim ourselves as Christians?   It probably is when we are talking to fellow church members and family but many of us find it hard to talk about our faith to our wider circle of acquaintances and colleagues.   Maybe Lent can be a time when it is easier to let others know that we are Christians.   I know it is much easier for me given my ordained role but it probably has a far greater impact when you tell people you are a Christian – after all you are a person just like them – I am as well actually but sometimes others don’t see that.

So far we have learned from our gospel teaching to observe Lent through praying, giving and fasting for the sole purpose of loving and please God.   However there is one more thing in this passage and that is jour reward for doing this.   Jesus tells us that if we do these things to gain the approval of other people then that approval will be our reward.   If however we observe Lent because we love God and want to please God then we will have our reward in heaven.   That does not mean that we have to wait until we have got through the pearly gates. In 1st century Jewish thought heaven was not our life after our deaths but our relationship with God in this life. By observing Lent simply because we love of God then we will experience a deep joy and a deep satisfaction far greater than any other as we draw closer to God.   So pray, give and fast with your focus on God and I am sure you have a truly meaningful and fulfilling Lent.

A special Lenten Fast

Give up harsh words: Give up stress:
use generous ones. take up prayer.
Give up unhappiness: Give up judging others:
take up gratitude. discover Jesus within them.
Give up anger: Give up sorrow and bitterness:
take up gentleness and patience. fill your heart with joy.
Give up pessimism: Give up selfishness:
take up hope and optimism. take up compassion for others.
Give up worrying: Give up being unforgiving:
take up trust in God. learn reconciliation.
Give up complaining: Give up words:
value what you have. be still, be silent, listen to others
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