Summary: A sermon for the start of Lent 2021

I think this is the point where I am supposed to talk about Lent being a penitential time, and time for giving things up, but that seems patent nonsense in 2021. In the last eleven months we have given up more than we ever wished for longer than we would have wished. And we have lost some people and some occasions permanently. In a moment of national and community grief it would be crass and churlish to suggest that now is a moment for giving up and for penitence.

As a Nonconformist, Ash Wednesday didn’t feature in my upbringing much – that was something Roman Catholics and Anglicans did. Only really in the last thirty years has it begun to feature at all, and then it hasn’t engaged many of us. Unfortunately for everyone, the present focus of Lent is boiled down to a singular preoccupation, which is reflected in the question on everyone’s lips in the season of Lent: “What are you giving up for Lent?”

At the best if times, and 2021 is far from the best of times, I’ve always felt that boiling down a spiritual season to giving up chocolate or booze is the best example there is of totally missing the point. It doesn’t adequately embrace the nature and meaning of Lent, and as is typical in the highly individualistic culture of 21st century Britain, it shifts the focus of Lent to a “me and God” experience based on what I am doing for God.

What I mean is that we run the risk of engaging with Lent by saying: “I can suffer like Jesus by giving up chocolate or Facebook or coffee so I can be more like Jesus!” No self-deprivation will place us in the same universe with the experience of Jesus, much less in the same room with Jesus. The ultimate irony is that our spiritual ancestors of the Protestant Reformation repudiated the practices of the time precisely because such practices focused on personal self-justification and not on the grace of God. Nothing is supposed to be about us working to ensure our well-being or salvation with God. If you think you need to give up chocolate or Facebook or booze or coffee, by all means give them up, but don’t do it for forty days and then take them up again, thinking it will somehow earn God’s pleasure.

You might, then, be thinking I’m going to urge you to take something up instead. It is often said that taking something up is more positive, and generally a Very Good Thing. On one level it does seem better, but it’s really basically the same as giving something up – if you do well it leads to pride, and if you don’t it leads to guilt, and neither of those is terribly helpful. We cannot earn God’s favour by taking something up. If you want to take up some good thing, by all means do so, but don’t do it just for forty days, and don’t do it just because you think you’ll achieve some brownie points. Furthermore, in 2021 when we have already lost so much, permanently or temporarily, it seems just as much of an insult to your intelligence to suggest taking up some activity for forty days will help.

What, then, are we to make of Lent? As we always do, we go back to the Bible and look for God speaking to us. In today’s reading Jesus makes time to encounter God, to engage with God, and to know that he loved by his heavenly Father. How can we use Lent to encounter God, engage with God, and know that we are loved by God in 2021? This Way! It’s called love yourself through Lent, and it’s a suggestion of different ways to care for yourself each day. ('Love yourself through Lent' poster widely available on the internet).

By Lent 2021 many of us are bruised and fragile, however much we may admit that or not, God does not want us to make that worse, I’m sure that God wants us to rediscover that God is grace and mercy, and God is love, holding us in the palm of his hand. Lent is nothing more, and nothing less.

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