Deuteronomy 6.4-9, 16-25, Luke 15:1-10
I am not giving up chocolate for Lent. Good quality chocolate is an essential part of my diet so I shall continue to consume ‘Divine’ chocolate bars. Chocolate, crisps and alcohol, are the favourite choices to give up at Lent, but we need to think beyond these easy choices. Lent represents the period when Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness in what would have been to him unfamiliar and demanding territory. Lent is not about being miserable; it’s not about what we do; but, like Jesus who was challenged in the wilderness, it’s about who we become.
There is of course a sacrificial element and in the Psalm and the other two readings we learn something about the value of what it is we are giving up; and what this means to God. The Psalmist says that the people are going about this entirely the wrong way. They think that they can buy God’s favour by offering the flesh of bulls and the blood of goats, in sacrifice in the Temple. Trouble is, they are not in a good bargaining position because the sheep, cattle, and all that moves already belong to God. God does not need anything that we can give God.
Today we don’t do animal sacrifice as part of our worship, of course, but what we “offer” in worship we can get wrong too. When it is not from the heart it is false worship. When we make promises unthinkingly that deal too lightly God’s majesty and mercy, justice and righteousness, we engage in false worship. Our worship is not a payment to God. It is an opportunity to express our gratitude for all the things that God provides for us. Above all, we want to thank God for God’s love which has been given to us even though we have done nothing to deserve it.
Deuteronomy covers this in more detail. Deuteronomy’s use of the word ‘love’ has nothing to do with emotional love, important though this is. We demonstrate love for God by what we do and by what we do not do. Here love is more about obedience. Israel is to love God, to recognise the loveliness of God. In this way, God becomes the supreme expression of love, motivating, inspiring, and making possible a deeper understanding of the nature of love in our lives. As Jesus was to tell his disciples, it is not a performance of outward duties to be publicly observed and recognised. Quite the reverse. It is a matter of heart searching and looking inward, an attentiveness towards God that ultimately expresses itself as an outflowing of love towards God. This is the true sense of obedience to God.
In the two parables of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is demonstrating the measure of God’s love to us. The two parables share a basic structure. They are both about something that is lost. The owner goes to great lengths to seek out the lost item, be it sheep or coin, and when they are successful, invites friends for a celebration. We might think that’s a bit over the top. Would a shepherd really throw a party over the finding of one lost sheep? If the lost coin so concerns the woman, why should she then splash out on food and drink? But that’s the point. The parables are really about the extravagant joy with which God, present in Christ, welcomes those who have been lost.
Any sacrifice we make in repentance for sin, such as giving up something in Lent, is not about seeking forgiveness, but about saying thank you to the God for God’s mercy. We can never, ever, earn the love of God or our own salvation, nor can we ever achieve our own righteousness. God’s love for us is always a step ahead of our own love. God’s forgiveness is real even before our repentance has taken shape. God’s love is always ahead of us. In my favourite thanksgiving prayer after the Eucharist we say, “…when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home.”
So what do I intend to give up for Lent? Well it’s busyness. Now you may think that this is a bit odd. So let me explain. It’s one thing to be busy doing something that needs to be done. But it is quite another to give just the outer show that you are busy. Worse still is when we create demands for ourselves, our families, our friends or our colleagues that are impossible to achieve without putting their lives out of kilter. In today’s busy world, we have a tendency to rush about so much that we are in danger of experiencing everything, but missing the richness and depth of the present moment. When I posted what I was doing on Facebook, as one does, a friend commented, ‘What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?’
What is sinful about busyness is when it makes you feel self-important; it can also be a sign of laziness because in truth you haven’t put the right effort into decisions about what is important and what is urgent; it’s deceitful when it’s a disguise for not really getting things done; and its addictive and burns you out when taken to extremes and we can become tetchy and rude. That’s the list of seven deadly sins just about covered.
Time is more precious than chocolate. It’s precious because it can’t be stored or managed; we only live once; and it’s a gift from God. So my aim in giving up busyness is to create more space in my life. Space to practise even more of the spiritual discipline that I already accommodate in my day and give thanks to God. Space to get outdoors and explore the wonder of God’s creation. It won’t be a wilderness sized space and may only last a couple of hours, but I shall wait to see where the Spirit leads me, perhaps even transforms me. And of course I hope to find more time to nibble on a bar of chocolate, while I watch and listen.