Sunday 17th March

Series: Re-Imagine. Lent and Easter 2019

Bible Reading: Luke 9:18-27

Preacher: Rev Phil Swain


In our bible reading for today, Jesus gave the challenge, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”

I was saying in the breakfast coffee and chat yesterday morning that when it comes to the Gospel of Luke, some biblical commentators want to suggest that the Easter Narrative doesn’t actually start with Palm Sunday but with this chapter.  It is at the end of Luke Chapter 9 when Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and resolutely begins the journey to the cross.   And so, the second half of Luke has an Easter flavour to it… such as ““Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”

10 days ago was the beginning of Lent.  We didn’t really get to talk about it last Sunday because of our anniversary service, but I would like to reflect on this idea of Lent today.  Lent is a season in the Christian calendar (40 days + 6 Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  Christians across the centuries have used Lent as a preparation for Easter by undertaking a number of traditional spiritual practices.

If you look up Wikipedia on tradition spiritual practices during Lent you get this paragraph:

There are traditionally forty days in Lent which are marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigour during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbour).

Is that our Lent experience?  Penance? Fasting? Are these practices still relevant??  And for those who do them, have these become meaningless rituals?  I remember one time having this conversation with someone outside the church who said – “We don’t eat meat during Lent … but we are not sure why and it doesn’t mean anything to us, but that’s what we do.” 

In Amos chapter 5 – God has a go at people who are doing rituals for ritual sake, and instead asks for justice to flow like a river.  I found it really interesting that the quote from Wikipedia linked traditional spiritual practices to “justice” … that somehow by doing these practices we find ourselves being made right with God, right within ourselves and right with those around us.

So today I want us together to have a look at some of these traditional Lenten practices and see what is behind them.  We will be looking at heaps of bible references and quotes to find what is in these practices that help us to spiritually grow. 

Then we will have a ponder of how we can take the heart of these spiritual practices and maybe adapt them so that they fit into the crazy, busy lifestyle that we live today. We don’t have to become a monk … but I think we need to embrace the heart of these practices…

So are you up for this?

As you came in, we had an early election of which of the 6 spiritual practices you wanted me to look at today.  (Don’t worry, I will put my sermon for all 6 up on the website so you can read them all) … but for now, the results are in.

Penance / Confession

“The confession of evil worship is the first beginning of good works”  St Augustine of Hippo

We live in a time where there is a push to affirm people, to encourage people, to tell kids that they are awesome and can do anything.  The whole concept of asking someone to think about their short-comings, their sins … it is not something that is in favour.  Yet – it is central to our Christian belief and a core biblical practice.

John 1:9.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

We encourage personal confession – whether it is our own personal prayer time or sometimes at the beginning of worship or before communion we will have a time of private confession.

However, the traditional Lent practice of Penance is more than just a private confession of sins between you and God.  It is consists of a confession of sin to another person with the intention of amendment, followed by the granting of forgiveness.

If you are thinking that this sounds a bit like the Catholic practice of “Confession” – then yes … it is.  Let me be clear, as 1 Timothy 2:5 tells us … we can go directly to God for confession and forgiveness – however, as James 5:16 tells us, there is something powerful and healing in being about to talk to another person about our shortcomings.

[1 Tim 2:5 – For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.

James 5:16 – Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective]

Richard Forster writes in his book “Communal Confession is a difficult Discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners.  We feel that everyone else is so advanced in their holiness that we are isolated and along in our sin.  Therefore we hide ourselves from one another and live in veiled lives of hypocrisy.”

There is something very freeing when we acknowledge our shortcomings and realise that we are not the only one struggling in our faith journeys.  And there is something powerful in hearing someone saying, “Your sins are forgiven”.  (John 20:23)

There is an ancient practice called ‘An examination of conscience’.  This is where you sit with a spiritual mentor or friend and they step you through a process of examining your spiritual life and action.  Doug Steel describes it like this –“it is a time when the soul comes under the gaze of God and where in His silent and love Presence, this soul is pierced to the quick and becomes conscious of the things that must be forgiven and put right before it can continue to love One whose care has been so constant”.  

If you are brave, I am more than happy to sit down with you and led you through an examination of conscience which may lead to a time of penance and confession.

Mediation / Solitude & Silence

Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself – Mother Theresa

Scripture is full of examples of people taking time out to be still, be silent, to mediate.

  • Gen 24:63 – Isaac went out to the field one evening to meditate
  • Ps 63:6 – I lie awake thinking of you [God], meditating on you through the night
  • Matt 14:13 – When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place

Sometimes mediation or solitude get a bad rap because of its association with Eastern or New Age religions.  Eastern mediation stresses the need for “detachment” from the world or even yourself.  Christian mediation goes beyond detachment and encourages an “attachment” to Jesus.

Christian Mediation, very simply, is finding the space and time to hear God’s voice and obey his word.  It is the process of opening ourselves to hear God speaking, teaching, encouraging and guiding us.

In one article I read it said that people today have a tendency to have someone else talk to God for them.  They are content to receive the message second-hand.  So they read books, listen to blogs, go to conferences so find out what God has spoken to other people … without ever considering stopping and letting God speak to them.    Fair comment???

God wants a personal relationship with us.  God wants to walk and talk with us just like he did with Adam and Eve.  Mediation is not about crossing your legs and Ummming … it is about creating space for God to speak to you.  Meditation and solitude is a way of fostering this two way dialogue with God. 

There are lots of Practical elements of mediation that I can talk through with people who are interested … things like Time? Place? Posture? Format?  One of the things that is helpful in this process is “being still” – or the practice of silence and solitude.  For those of you like me who think that silence and solitude is an impossible task which would just drive you crazy … I found this great quote:

“Solitude is more than a posture or place … it is a state of mind and heart.   Solitude is an inner attentiveness.”

Solitude and silence is not about being physically quiet and still (although that helps) … it is about quieting your heart and mind so that you can listen.  Maybe we should call the practice inner Solitude and inner silence.

Ecclesiastes 5:2 – Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

So … how do we in a world that is so loud, and busy and constant … how do we find time to stop, be still, listen, and have a conversation with Jesus.  How do we do that?

Study/Scripture/Spiritual Guidance

[Rom 12:2 – Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Phil 4:8 – Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.]

The Bible encourages us to not only focus on things which strengthens our relationship with Jesus but also to renew our minds and have godly thinking.  We do this through the spiritual practices of Study & Spiritual Guidance.

Richard Foster has this interesting quote in his book.  “Study is a specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction.”

I like it.  He is saying that we can actually shape the way we think and act though planning what we read, what we learn, what we reflect on.  Study is more than just learning, it is transforming us.

Foster goes on to give us 4 helpful hints about study.  He says that we should have:

  • Repetition – many sources, many times
  • Concentration – close off distractions and focus on the topic
  • Comprehension – do we understand what we are studying
  • Reflection – what is it significance

A traditional spiritual practice during Lent is to visit your spiritual director.  Do you know what a spiritual director is?

A spiritual director simply leads people to the Real Director … Jesus.  Often it is someone who has advanced a little further on the faith journey or as one book I read suggested … gone a little deeper into the spiritual depths.  They become someone who can act as an advisor, an encourager and someone to hold you accountable on your spiritual journey.  They could advise on what areas you should be focusing your mind and study.

I wonder in this time of Lent if many of us might find a session with a spiritual director useful?  Once again, if you are brave – Jan or I or others here can play that role for you if you want.


“Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it”  John Wesley

Of all the Spiritual practices, fasting is one of the most controversial and talked about practices.  So much so, people either, as John Wesley puts it, fast to the extreme or disregard it completely.

The Bible is full of refers to fasting.  Actually the list of bible people who fasted reads like a who’s who… Moses, King David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Paul and Jesus – just to name a few.  Many Christians throughout the centuries have fasted and fasting is a principle in nearly every other world religion.

So what is fasting?  How do we understand it?

Well fasting is not a diet to lose weight or hunger strike to make a political statement … Fasting is abstaining from food for a spiritual purpose.  In the Bible, the normal means of fasting is abstaining from all food but not from water.  In some case there are examples of a partial fast such as Daniel (Dan 10:3) who fasted from delicacies, meat and wine; and a few rare cases a total fast where you neither eat nor drink (Esther 4:16).  In nearly all Biblical cases fasting is a private matter between you and God (as explained in our bible reading from Matthew) but in the Jewish tradition there is one public fast on the day of atonement (Lev 23:27) where everyone fasted together.    

By the time of Jesus there was a practice of regular fasting – where people would fast two days a week – Luke 18:12 – (Wednesday and Friday if you are interested).  Sounds a lot like the 5/2 diet???

There has been an ongoing debate over the centuries of whether fasting is a Commandment from Jesus.  In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus twice says, “When you fast…”  Jesus does not say “If you fast” but “when” – sort of implying that this is a normal things for people to do.  Yet in the same way he doesn’t say “you must fast”. 

But at the same time Jesus in Matt 9:15 says that his followers do not need to fast while he is around … and if we believe that Jesus is always with us (Matt 29:20) then fasting is irrelevant.

Can you see why there has been an ongoing debate???

Whether Jesus commands us to do it or not, it is clear that the Bible says that there is something spiritually helpful about fasting.  Jesus in our reading questioned the motives of the Pharisees when it came to fasting.  So what it the biblical purpose of a fast?

At the heart of the practice of fasting is a centring on God.  Luke 2:37 tells us that when the prophetess Anna when fasted it was done together with worship and prayer.  In Acts 13:2 God spoke to the apostles in a time of worship and fasting.

On the flip side, God got frustrated to the people of Zechariah’s day.  Listen to his words from Zech 7:5, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months throughout these seventy years, were you really fasting for me? Was it for me?”

If our fasting does not help us to focus on God, then it has failed.  There are many benefits of fasting … physical benefits (such as the cleansing of toxins), spiritual benefits such as guidance and insights … but these are secondary to our focus on God in prayer and worship.

So are you interested in how a traditional fast works in practice?  Is it helpful?

A traditional fast is for a day or sometimes up to 3 days, where a person refrains from food.  People often just drink water or sometimes fruit juice during a fast.  Outwardly you continue to perform the regular duties of your day (as our bible reading encouraged us to do) but inwardly we focus our hearts and minds on God.  People would use the time normally taken for preparation and eating to have some time with God in worship and prayer.

Lent is a traditional time for people to fast.  The one that you would be familiar with is the traditional fast from meat on Friday’s during Lent or every day during Lent.  The Catholic church says that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are fast days in which you should contemplate the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. 

There has been a trend in more recent times to do exactly what we have been trying to do in these two sermons – to look at the heart of fasting and explore how we can make it useful in a 21st Century mad-paced society.  In doing so, people use Lent as a time to fast from chocolate, coffee, media, people etc and instead focus their hearts and minds on God.


Simplicity is Freedom, Duplicity is Bondage – Richard Foster

The giving up of things during Lent is more than fasting – it is taking on the traditional spiritual practice of simplicity.  We give things up during Lent – not only because it is a form of fasting – but it is an uncluttering of ourselves so that we have more room for God, more room for spiritual things.

Ecclesiastes 7:29 tell us, “God made us plain and simple, but we have made ourselves very complicated.” (GNT).  How true is that!  Sometimes it is good to simplify – with the goal of making more room for God.

I don’t have time to go through the breadth of Biblical verses that encourages us to live simply … from the OT view that the earth and everything is Gods and we simply are gifted to use it … through to Jesus’ parables on money and possessions … through to the Early Church’s practice of sharing to help all.

In Philippians 4:12, he wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”   

Do you know what the secret was?  Jesus explains in Matt 6:25-33.  Jesus says that we get so worried about so many things … but what we should focus on is seeking first the kingdom of God and being right with God.  All the rest is secondary.

The secret to simplicity is being so content with our relationship with Jesus that we don’t need other stuff.

Almsgiving and Service

The traditional Lenten practice of fasting and simplicity is this idea of “giving up” something to make room for God.  That created space can be filled with prayer and worship and other spiritual practices that deepen our relationship with Jesus … but it can also be linked to the practices of almsgiving and service. 

If you give up something for Lent, then the money that you would have spent on that – you can give to a worthy cause.  Or the time you save by not doing something during Lent you can invest in service to others.

This is the concept behind Lent Event … it is picking up on the traditional spiritual practice of fasting, simplicity, almsgiving and service.

In a sense – Jesus modelled this in the Easter story.  He showed us what it means to be a servant to others by washing the disciples’ feet and ultimately we are the recipients of Jesus giving up his life on the cross.  Giving and Service.

Wrap up

Ok – take a breath.  I have just very quickly covered a few of these spiritual discipline which traditionally people have put extra effort into during Lent.  But as I said at the beginning … one of the hard parts about Spiritual practices is not getting people to agree that they are useful … but working out how we can fit them into our crazy lives … how can we take the essence which have made these practices so helpful over the centuries and shape them so that they work for us today.

I have given you this handout that has a few questions on it to help you ponder what these spiritual practices mean for you.  Maybe, you can take some time this week to sit with this handout and maybe find one or two things that you would like to try this Lent.

The Wikipedia quote at the beginning implied that Lent was a time when Christians take on with renewed passion some of these spiritual practices so that they can be made right with God, right within themselves and right with each other.

I wise person one said to me … Lent is not something that the church can do for you, Lent is something that you need to do yourself.

It is my prayer that you might take up some of these spiritual practices this Lent – adapt them if needed – and as you do you may experience the blessings that come with a deeper relationship with Jesus.  Amen