Lent: A Prequel

given on Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hallelujah!  The Israelites had waited a very long time for the Messiah so why all the warning from the prophet Isaiah?  For hundreds of years the Israelites followed the Law of Moses.  They were working hard to maintain their faith while living in a complex world of pagans.  Their faith kept them together and strengthened their resolve.  Why in the world did this prophet Isaiah start telling them to straighten up?

The calendar says today is February 21, only 59 days since celebrating Christ’s birth.  We have been singing hallelujahs and praising God for the gift of his son; and now, just these two months later, we are asked to give up hallelujahs.  This just does not make sense.

Let’s back up, then, and try to figure out what all has happened.  Why do we even have Lent when Isaiah and the other prophets said all we needed was a messiah, a new king for the Israelites and he came.  The quick answer is that the Christian calendar we follow is designed to model the birth, the life, and the death of Christ.  In 365 days, we are to review the entire faith history of humankind.  Lent is a time to return to the basics of our faith, repent from our sins, and find renewal in God.

First, let’s go back to the history of Israel.  The people were picked on, made slaves, escaped from captivity, and established their own identify in an unforgiving land of Judah.  This was not an easy life and the challenges around the civilized world were overwhelming for the Israelites.  Still they persisted.  The priests were there to tell them what to do and how to do it.  The Law of Moses, only ten commandments, became buried under layer after layer of rules the priests kept adding.

As the years went past, the Israelites started struggling.  They were prospering business leaders.  Their families were growing.  They became more involved in their communities, and the pressures and influences around them began taking a toll.  The laws became twisted; life collided with challenges such as greed, sex, pride, and more.  The people of Israel lost focus on God and those ten basic commandments.

According to the Life Application Bible’s introduction to Isaiah, the office (as the Israelites called it) of prophet was introduced during the reign of Samuel.  The purpose was to stand along side the priests and speak for God.  The prophets said it like it was—confronting the Israelites with God’s commandments and promises.  Not a very pleasant responsibility if what you have to say is filled with negatives and not hallelujahs.

The scriptural prequel to today’s Lenten season is found in the words of the prophets, especially Isaiah.  Isaiah, the Old Testament book, is the first one of the prophets’ books.  Isaiah, the man, according to the study notes, was considered the greatest prophet.  He is credited with announcing, very clearly, that God was sending the Messiah very soon.  Hallelujah! But he also explained the circumstances of the Messiah’s life and even more, the death:

2-6 The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,

a scrubby plant in a parched field.

There was nothing attractive about him,

nothing to cause us to take a second look.

He was looked down on and passed over,

a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.

One look at him and people turned away.

We looked down on him, thought he was scum.

But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—

our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.

We thought he brought it on himself,

that God was punishing him for his own failures.

But it was our sins that did that to him,

that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!

He took the punishment, and that made us whole.

Through his bruises we get healed.

We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.

We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.

And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,

on him, on him.

Do you feel guilty?  When you hear Isaiah’s prophecy, do you see why the people of Israel did not hear him, did not pay attention, and continued to live sinful lives?  Or, do you feel a sense of expectancy and excitement with these words?  Maybe a few of the Israelites heard these words and agreed with Isaiah.  They knew that the people were being misguided and were losing focus.  They, though, had hope.  The words of the prophet gave them courage to continue on, anticipating the Messiah’s arrival to lead them out of all the mess they were living in:  Hallelujah!

Back to the basic question:  Why do we have Lent?  Lent is a season designed to remind Christians everywhere to stop and reflect on how well they are living their faith.  Lent becomes a very somber time of reflection, therefore no hallelujahs.  The design, whenever it was put together, follows the 40 days Christ went into the wilderness after John the Baptist had baptized him of the water and of the Holy Spirit.

The days in the wilderness were days of preparation.  Here the man, Jesus of Nazareth, began his journey as the Messiah.  He had to learn how to manage the temptations of Satan, how to rely on God totally, and how not to abuse his unique skills to meet his human needs.

For us, we are asked to use the 40 days to reflect on our own Christian lives.  We may not see Satan and know it is he as easily as Jesus did, but during this annual season, we need to stop and consider where Satan is in our own world.  We need to stop and review how we live our faith.  Can others meet us and know that we are Christians?  Or, when others meet us, do we hide our Christian belief and practices?

Isaiah was telling the people in his own community that they needed to fix their lives.  They needed to make sure that they followed the Law of Moses.  They needed to stay in compliance with God’s words:

3-4 “Listen to me, family of Jacob,

everyone that’s left of the family of Israel.

I’ve been carrying you on my back

from the day you were born,

And I’ll keep on carrying you when you’re old.

I’ll be there, bearing you when you’re old and gray.

I’ve done it and will keep on doing it,

carrying you on my back, saving you.

8-11 “Think about this.  Wrap your minds around it.

This is serious business, rebels.  Take it to heart.

Remember your history,

your long and rich history.

I am God, the only God you’ve had or ever will have—

incomparable, irreplaceable—

From the very beginning

telling you what the ending will be,

All along letting you in

on what is going to happen,

Assuring you, ‘I’m in this for the long haul,

I’ll do exactly what I set out to do,’

Calling that eagle, Cyrus, out of the east,

from a far country the man I chose to help me.

I’ve said it, and I’ll most certainly do it.

I’ve planned it, so it’s as good as done.

Isaiah is the prequel to Lent.  The purpose of Lent is to review, reflect, and repent.  During the 40 days, no hallelujahs, but use these days to have a serious, honest talk with God.  Sundays are not included in the 40 days, so each week come back to church and utter a few hallelujahs because God really does love us.  God cared so much that after years and years of disappointment with his people, he sent the very best—his son, Jesus of Nazareth, Christ, the Messiah.  Hallelujah, God loves us and leads us as long as we listen.

Dear Patient Father,

We hear you.  We believe you.  We thank you.  Even when we fail to follow your law, your one commandment to love one another, you patiently wait for us to realize our weaknesses.  Hallelujah!

We ask your forgiveness for our mistakes.  We will use these days of Lent to refocus our lives on you.  We will meet together to strengthen our faith, say our prayers, and worship as a Christian family.  Hallelujah!

When we return to your house, we will learn a little more, we will refresh our spirits, and we will step out the open doors for another week filled with challenges!  We know that you are with us and will show us the way.  Hallelujah!         –Amen

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