It is the time in the annual church calendar called Lent. As we entered the time of Lent a couple years ago, we heard a message entitled “Come.” The theme of the message was a challenge to the congregation to prepare. The message was delivered by the worship leader, who said that the congregation could expect intentional pre-service time for meditation in the coming weeks. We could expect quiet music, music videos, etc. for five minutes before each service to help us to prepare for worship. I said a quiet “amen,” but the message of Lent is far more than five minutes to unclutter minds before a worship service.
I was reflecting on preparation as we awaited the worship service this past Sunday morning. We sat down at 9:50. The pews were about 5% occupied. At 9:55 the worship team began to sing a song of preparation. The pews were about 10% filled. As the 10 a.m. worship time arrived, the pews were almost filled.
When I was a child growing up in western Michigan, we had just one church in the center of our little village. About 30 homes lined the streets, with our church in the center. About 80 percent of the residents attended the church and most shared a common heritage. At 9 a.m. the church bell tolled. Many of the members were already arriving for worship, but those who were not knew that the bell meant that it was time to come. Arriving less than 15 minutes before the start of the 9:30 a.m. service was frowned upon. Everyone sat in complete silence during those minutes leading up to the service. It was preparation time. The community understood, and there was something good about that.
Looking back, however, and reflecting on the Sunday morning message, the biblical idea of preparation is so much more than 5 or 30 pre-service minutes on a Sunday morning. Brief times of preparation can become a meaningless ritual. So can 40 days of Lent.
40 is a significant biblical number. It is the numeric symbol for preparation. God sent Moses to the desert for 40 years in preparation for leading Israel out of Egypt. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness as a consequence for disobedience and to reteach them obedience. Jesus spent 40 days in the Judean wilderness after his baptism and before the start of his ministry.
Preparation for followers of Jesus is so much more than five quiet minutes before a worship service with a softly played hymn calming the soul. To reduce preparation to only five minutes and to suggest that the point of preparation is only a one-hour Sunday morning service misses the biblical point. It too quickly leads us to a pluralism that suggests that we can live life as we choose for six days and clean our spiritual selves up on Sunday morning.
The message of 40 is so much more. The message of 40 is that there is nothing quick and easy about obedience to God and discipleship. There was nothing easy for Moses during his 40 years tending a flock in the desert. There was nothing easy about 40 years of learning obedience in the stark, blazing hot wilderness. Certainly there was nothing easy for Jesus as he faced temptation during his 40 days of preparation.
The message of 40 for us is that believers cannot face a life of obedience and discipleship without committed preparation. If we reduce preparation to a spot of ash on foreheads or five minutes of quiet reflection before Sunday worship, we have missed the point of 40.
What exactly should believers remember during the 40 days of Lent? There is no single answer or formula. But consider these things. The purpose of 40 is preparation: preparation for a life of obedience as we live out the call to be disciples of Jesus.
What were disciples of Jesus called to do? First, disciples are challenged to know the Text. Be in the Word! Secondly, when disciples are confronted with choices, they choose to live obediently. Thirdly, Jesus set the example for us, and we can accept his call to be like our rabbi. And finally, the next generation will not know unless disciples are committed to making disciples.
Those of us in Christian schools, who hold to a reformed biblical worldview, say a loud “amen” to the rabbis who said, “all of life is worship!” Our worship is evident in the way we live and work. Our worship is expressed in our relationships with God and our neighbor. Our worship is demonstrated in service to the Lord of lords. We are refreshed in weekly services to go out to worship through living for Jesus.
Life cannot be reduced to 40 days of Lent where we gorge ourselves during a pre-lenten Mardi Gras in order to give up worldly desires for a few days. Without life-changing preparation in Egypt, the Israelites turned away from obedience just a few weeks later in the harsh desert. For the next 40 years they were taught that there is nothing temporary about accepting the call to obedience. When Lent is little more than an annual ritual where the cycle of living for ourselves for 325 days is followed by 40 days of preparation and remembering, then we become caught in a perpetual Groundhog Day movie.
If those who are called to lead truly believe that all of life is worship, then the 40 days of Lent is much more than an annual ritual. It is a reminder of a lifetime commitment. 40 is not perpetual preparation. 40 challenges us to be faithful to our calling every day. 40 is a lesson for those who are entrusted to our care that obedience and discipleship are lifetime commitments. Are you called to lead? Then practice, teach, and live the full meaning of 40. Be a 40 leader.
Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services
(This devotional is an adaptation of a devotional written and posted on this blog in 2013.)