The season of Lent is framed by this wonderful passage from the Prophet Joel:
“Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13).
This isn’t just something we sing in the Lenten Liturgy; it’s a call from the Lord to us, a reminder that we have wandered off.
This morning while visiting a church member in the hospital, one of the staff workers approached me to find out if giving-up potato chips is a proper thing during Lent. My response: “What on earth for?” Then she asked, “Are we not supposed to give something up for Lent?” To which I responded, “Well, yes. We are to stop running from God. We are to stop doing things our way. We are to stop taking Him for granted and return to the Lord because He is gracious and merciful.
Here is an example of how we might take God for granted: have we been faithful in worship attendance? Have we wandered off? American Christianity teaches the foolishness that whatever we do doesn’t matter, that Jesus doesn’t care; He understands. But that’s an argument of wanting things our way. A few weeks ago someone told me they had been on vacation after I inquired about their three-week worship absence. I was interested in where they went when I found out that they simply stayed in town. Moreover, they continued to work their job. So it became apparent that their vacation was from worship.
The Holy Spirit boldly declares:
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouragine one another all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
(Hebrews 10:23-25 — NASB).
What is so important about our assembling together (attending worship)? In part, Holy Scripture explicitly tells us that our faith comes from hearing the preached Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Further, in the assembling together we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, a wonderful gift given for the forgiveness of our sins; so He tells us to eat and drink. Additionally, when we became Christians we were clothed with the robe of Christ Jesus’ righteousness. However, because of sin, our robe is soiled during the week and is made clean again in the hearing of the Word and the reception of the Sacrament. Therefore, a Christian should never dream of staying away from the worshiping assembly! “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.”
Our first parents in the Garden of Eden – Adam and Eve – were naked and not ashamed. “Why is this detail important?” When they sinned and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, sin entered into the perfect creation. Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness—they became ashamed—so they sewed together fig leaves to cover their nakedness, their shame, and their sin.
Nakedness and shame are equated with sin in the Hebrew Scriptures. Man tried to hide and cover up his sin with his own garments and his own works, doing what he wants and thinks is right. It didn’t work—it never does. After Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden, the first thing the Lord God did was clothe them with animal skins. Fig leaves were not good enough because they pointed to man’s own efforts to pay the price for his sin. In reality, only God can cover sin, and He chooses to do so with a bloody sacrifice.
“I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation. He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10 – NASB).
Isaiah helps us to understand what God promised is coming: One is coming who will clothe us “with the garments of salvation” and cover us “with the robe of righteousness.” Just like with our first parents, will require a bloody sacrifice—the blood of God’s only-begotten Son. Isaiah also tells us that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (64:6)—like fig leaves over our nakedness, or us doing what we think is right, or intentionally missing worship. They avail us nothing, they cover nothing, and they atone for nothing. When the Prophet Joel tells us to
“Rend your heart and not your garments. Now return to the Lord your God…” Joel 2:13
he tells us that the rending of our garments accomplishes nothing; rather, it is a broken and contrite heart coming before God in repentance that pleases Him.
The reverse of this is seen on the cross at Calvary, and it tells us everything. Christ, the One who bears our sins is stripped of His garment, and in His nakedness, we see our sin. He who knew no sin became sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus is stripped, and His bloody sacrifice washes our sins away. We are clothed in robes of righteousness and covered in His garments of salvation.
So what should we give up for Lent? How about our impulse to put other things ahead of God, counting other things as more important than the hearing of the Word and receiving His gift of forgiveness in the Sacrament.