“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1–16)
What is Lent?
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent.
Lent has been observed for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The counting of the days of Lent is a little convoluted since some churches observed seven weeks of fasting except Saturdays and Sundays because they liked the number 7. Others wanted it to be 40 days because of the significance of that number in the Bible. Moses was on Mouth Sinai fasting for 40 days, Elijah walked for 40 days while fasting, and of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days when being tempted in the desert – and there are more examples.
The Western church has settled on the formula being that Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), changing the date depending on when the Jewish Passover occurs, which is on the first full moon following the Spring equinox, making Lent 46 days long, minus the Sundays, or Lord’s Days, when we celebrate His resurrection rather than His crucifixion, by worshipping rather than fasting, bringing the number of fasting days to 40. Makes perfect sense, right?
The season of Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians avoided certain foods, parties, and celebrations to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus instead. We cut out some of the distracting, pleasurable things from our lives to confess our sins, meditate on the sufferings of Christ, and prepare our hearts by remembering why Jesus had to die on the cross. It’s a time to consider the habits of our life, mortify those sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves and more about Jesus by spending more time, energy and effort on our spiritual lives and relationship with God.
The day before Lent starts is called Shrove Tuesday and it is that day that really emphasizes how far culture has moved away from a Lenten spirit. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “Shrive” meaning to confess sins and receive absolution or forgiveness. It was a day set aside to really clean out our hearts by getting serious with our sin before the season of Lent began. A day to say with David in Psalm 139(:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
But here’s what happened. There were a bunch of foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent – things like meat, fish, fatty foods, eggs, milk, and sweets. Like the Israelites with their simple, bitter foods and unleavened bread, Christians used their diet to show what was going on in their hearts. But because there wasn’t refrigeration back then the foods people gave up would spoil before the 40 days were over. And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk, sweets, and meat? Have a pancake party.
So, Shrove Tuesday turned into Shrovetide, three days set aside to use up these foods. Over time, the day of confession became a time when families would get together and eat up all the foods they couldn’t have during Lent. Shrove Tuesday turned into Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (because it was the day to use up fatty foods). And you likely already know the French name for Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras.
Now, when you think of Mardi Gras, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is confession of sin, repentance, soul-preparation, and spiritual discipline, right? No. Mardi Gras is now an entire season, starting on January 6th, dedicated to parties and parades and often, perversion.
Now, let me pause here for a moment to say that while Christianity is against perversion, we are emphatically not against parties or parades or pancakes – because scripture is not against them. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (3:1,4) My point today, the reason I’m talking about Lent today, is because as a culture, especially our modern, Western culture, we are really, really bad at weeping and mourning part because we spend too much time laughing and dancing.
And in losing our ability to weep, mourn, lament, and fast – but instead keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of entertainment, distraction, and celebration, has caused us to lose a very important part of our spiritual lives and a critical way that we connect to God.
What Happens When We Lose Lent
I know I struggle with this sometimes. I’ll gear myself up for a time of self-discipline – like a change of diet or a spiritual discipline or to focus on something that I know God has been asking me to deal with – and it seems like I’m constantly interrupted by excuses to laugh and dance. The whole culture seems to work against me.
Every month has a holiday, or a birthday, or anniversary, or party of some kind. Every week the stores have a sale on something that I like. I’m surrounded by things that not too long ago were only available on special occasions. I can buy a birthday cake and sweets and balloons and chocolate and oranges every day if I want to. I don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine to come to my door, I can get news and pictures and crossword puzzles all day long. I don’t have to wait for next week to see my favourite TV show, or for a few months to see a movie, Netflix has new ones every day, and I can binge an entire season in one day! There’s always a new, big movie event or concert or game or playoff or another piece of entertainment that everyone says I must see. I walk into a store and there’s limited edition everything there – books, movies, candy, clothes – and two or three special seasons represented – Valentine’s Decorations next to St Patrick ’s Day stuff next to Easter chocolates – each telling me to get it soon, while it’s on sale, before it’s gone. Then I turn on the radio and hear commercials for deals that are all ending soon, so I’d better get it, that I deserve it, that I would be stupid not to jump on. Every YouTube video and picture on Instagram shows me the latest trend I’m missing out on, or something I need to experience, or something I need to take my kids to, or something I need to do with my wife. RightNow media introduces 12 new studies every week and the blogs I follow tell me about 10 new books I want to read.
And it all kind of works on me. My spirit cries out to stop, get away, find silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but I almost feel guilty not participating in all that other stuff. I work for one day and then I feel like I deserve a reward. I eat a vegetable and then feel like I deserve dessert. I worry about missing out. What if someone asks me if I’ve seen something or tried something, or gone somewhere, and I have to say that I haven’t done it? What if it would have been fun and I missed it forever?
I’m constantly tempted to live in a perpetual state of distraction, entertainment, and satisfaction – and yet the Spirit of God, the Lord Jesus, and the scriptures say that the happiness that I am constantly pursuing in those other areas, the blessedness I’m trying to find in them, the joy I want to feel when I indulge, doesn’t come from being distracted, entertained, and trying to feel satisfied with the world, but with pursuing poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, self-denial. Jesus says in His introduction to the Sermon on the Mount that if we want to feel fully human, know real peace, experience real joy, feel the satisfaction of contentedness in the midst of struggles by knowing the presence of God, then the recipe is to remove a lot of that other stuff and seek the beatitudes.
That’s really what Lent is supposed to be about. It’s not a belief that parties and celebrations are bad. It’s saying that sometimes the human soul requires a time of fasting, penitence, regret, mourning, confession, tears, simplicity, solitude, and lament. Not because we want to sit around being bitter, eating ashes, wallowing in guilt and shame, but because we know that the only way to get right with God and others is to admit that we are sinners who need a Saviour, that we are weak and need help, that physical pleasure isn’t enough and that we need spiritual fulfillment, that discipline and self-denial make us into better, more godly people.
In Matthew 11 Jesus says to the crowds,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vs 28-29)
And then in Matthew 16 He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (vs 24)
They seem contradictory, but both are true. Jesus says to put away the priorities of this world and the huge burden it is to try to pull ourselves towards happiness, joy, and contentment by using the things the sinful, distracting, immediate pleasures the world has to offer – but to pick up His way of life, His cross, because we will find that burden easier, lighter, and His path the way to true freedom. Jesus says that the way to gain freedom for our souls is not to avoid guilt, shame, lament, confession, mourning, the cross, but to embrace it, because when we finally do – when we finally turn from worldly pleasures to the kind of life Jesus offers – it is then that we will experience true freedom.
1 Peter 2:11 says that all those pleasures and distractions the world offers are actually like propaganda from the Enemy who uses them to war against our soul. It says,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 gives this warning,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
It’s trying to give us a bigger view, an eternal view, comparing what the world offers with what Jesus offers. The world is full of wonderful things that God has given us for our joy and pleasure, that we can use to enhance our connection to God, but each one, because of this fallen world has the potential to be twisted into a trap for our souls.
- Food is wonderful, gluttony is a prison.
- Sexual pleasure is wonderful, but there’s a lot of ways it can ruin lives.
- Parties and wine and dancing and friends are wonderful, but addiction and alcoholism and hangovers and bad decisions and regrets are not.
- Work, education and study are wonderful, but workaholism, anxiety, arrogance, and elitism can be dangerous results.
- Having money and stuff and comfort is wonderful, but selfishness, controlling others, being in debt, and refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, can be terrible results when sin takes over.
- Video games and hobbies are wonderful, but removing yourself from reality to live in a fantasy world, and ignoring your friends, family, and community is not.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to cut out the distractions, do an inventory of our souls, to invite God to examine us and show us how the world has been fooling us, and to come out the other side cleaner, more holy, more blessed, and more committed to following Jesus no matter where He wants to go because we prefer His way to the world’s.
Lent & The Beatitudes
Look back with me to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus calls his followers “Salt” and “Light”. He says,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about how His people should be different from the world, distinct from the world, special. The illustration of being a lamp is pretty easy to understand but consider the salt.
Just like today, salt was used as a preservative and flavouring for food, something that worked like nothing else. What makes salt special is its saltiness, its difference from the rest of the food. What point is there on sprinkling on something that tastes no different than what you’re already eating? What point is there in rubbing on or mixing in something that has no preserving effect? We wouldn’t use it.
Our calling as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to “permeate society as agents of redemption.” We are to witness the moral decay of the world, the blandness of what it offers, the corruption of its promises, realize it to not only be a trap, but so much worse than what Jesus offers, and remain different, special, unique, salty. We don’t separate ourselves from the world, avoiding it and condemning it from ivory towers and stained glassed cloisters – after all salt doesn’t do anyone any good when it’s left in the shaker – but we work ourselves into the world, in our jobs, our communities, our friendships, our sports teams, etc. and add the flavour of Christ, the light of Jesus to that place. And we only do that by remaining different.
If we act and sound and look like the world, then we are of no use to them or the Kingdom of God. No one will become thirsty for the gospel of Jesus if they never experience our saltiness. No one will ever desire to get out of the darkness unless they see the light within us.
How To Remain Different
So how do we remain different? What distinctiveness should we have? What makes a Christian different from the world? That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. Jesus gives the Beatitudes to show us what salt and light looks like.
Some people think that what sets Christians apart is what we do and don’t do. Christians don’t drink, or smoke, or vape, or party, or watch violent movies, or listen to certain kinds of music, or swear, or make jokes, or do yoga or martial arts. Some Christians even believe that the best way for them to be Christian is to never participate in anything the culture is doing so they never go to movies, listen to secular radio, watch sports, or participate in politics.
But that’s not what Jesus says here at all. In fact, most of these have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do, but instead speak of the attitude of our hearts. What makes us salty in the world is not what we do or don’t do, it’s our character.
Everyone faces death, everyone gets angry, everyone feels sad, everyone gets sick, everyone gets betrayed, everyone feels pride. Lots of people go to parties, drink alcohol, get promoted or fired from their jobs, are blessed with good looks or money or talent, or struggle with handicaps, abuses, and disabilities. The difference isn’t that Christians run to their bubble to avoid anything bad, but instead that they actually face the problem, understand it differently, and have a very different attitude because of their relationship with Jesus.
One book I’ve read lately that has really helped me with this is J. Oswald Sanders’ “Spiritual Maturity”. In his chapter on the Beatitudes, he says,
“It is a common idea that blessedness flows from the possession of wealth, the absence of sorrow, the gratification of appetite, being well spoken of and kindly treated. Christ’s teaching cut right across this popular concept of happiness and indicated that the very experiences we are eager to avoid are the ones conducive to the deepest joy and most to be coveted.”
Why? Because they are the ones that show how Jesus has changed our lives. They are the things that make us saltier, that increase the wattage of the light that shines within us, and shows how different we are from the world.
Consider the first beatitude:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The world says that you will be happy and blessed once you have realized your potential, maximized your strength, have total independence. Jesus says, “No. You will find joy and real prosperity and blessing when you realize that you are a person in need.” When you admit you are weak and bankrupt in your soul, once you realize you are empty is the only time you will allow God to fill you up. It is only once you’ve been broken of your pride, realized your inadequacy for the demands of your life, and come to God with empty hands, that God’s unlimited resources are available to you. Until then, you’re going to be trying to take on the world with your own strength and losing over and over.
Consider the second beatitude:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Mourning is something that our society actively avoids. We idolize and worship youth and vitality while pushing age and sickness and death farther and farther from our collective minds. The Wall-Street Journal recently had an article on “The Free-Form Funeral” where people avoid churches and the topic of death in favour of more celebratory ceremonies. They are doing rock concerts and parties that memorialize life instead of facing the problem and pain of death and loss. Mourning doesn’t feel good, so they opt for a party. Grief is no fun, so it’s avoided.
The problem here is that grief and mourning are dangerous to avoid – in fact, they are impossible to avoid. Eventually, the party will end, the distraction will stop, and these people will still be faced with their loss, but will have no guidance or community to help them through it. They won’t be able to go to anyone with their feelings of loss because it’s socially unacceptable to do so, so they’ll either have to let it eat them alive – or they’ll have to get rid of it using chemicals and distraction.
But mourning and grief are gifts from God that we shouldn’t avoid. It is in those times of sadness that we are finally open to being comforted. When we face the evil of death it forces us to ask big questions, realize how powerless we really are, it forces us to face the temporary nature of this life, and forces us to feel lonesome, regretful, and sad. It is in our mourning that we are invited to ask for help. And it is in our mourning that the gospel message, where Jesus Christ the Son of God conquers sin and death, bringing hope to a lost world, starts to make sense – where the names of God like Comforter, Shepherd, Father and friend, start to really become real.
But none of that can happen if we do not mourn.
And that’s only the first two of the beatitudes. Let me close with this. Let me encourage you to consider embracing the season of Lent by committing to a time of fasting and prayer. Choose something in your life to remove – tv, entertainment, a meal, a certain food, your phone, the internet – and replace the time you would spend on that with a time of prayer and reading the scriptures.
And during that time, let me invite you to meditate on and study the Beatitudes. Many of you have prayed that God would make you salt and light, to be used to affect this world in a positive way, to see your heart and your community changed by the Gospel in deeper ways. This is a good place to start.
 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 102). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.”
 I’m going to use a lot of concepts from his chapter called “Christ’s Ideal of Character”.