Lent: Judgement, Fasting and Repentance
This is an abridged version of Jonathan’s bible study, written for TEAR’s 2016 Lenten series. If you are doing the study with a group, or would like the detailed version, please download the Group Bible Studies available at: fortomorrow.org.au/site/lent-learn Jonathan's bible study is on page 6.
Lent is a season of preparation. It is a season whose themes centre around judgement, fasting and repentance – a season of sackcloth and ashes. Today, these are highly unpopular themes and they are much misunderstood. At the heart of the Lenten journey is the challenge to confront the truth about ourselves and the world that we live in. It is only when we come to terms with the depths of human fallenness and suffering in the world that we can then appreciate the full significance, joy and hope of what is to come on Easter Sunday.
Reflect: We live in a culture that is radically focussed on personal gratification, whether it be food, entertainment, household comfort or career achievement. How do you feel about words such as judgement, fasting and repentance? Do you have positive or negative associations with them? Discuss where your associations with these words come from and whether they form a part of your understanding of faith.
Read: Joel 2:1-17
This text is one of the traditional readings for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and let’s be honest, it is a frightening and intimidating text – “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near – a day of darkness and gloom… Who can endure it?”
The first part of the text (vv.1-11) describes "the day of the Lord" and what is described is a day of judgement. In the prophet’s view, God’s judgement of the condition of humanity is less than happy. In a similar vein, the prophet Amos asked his people, "Why do you ask for the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light" (Amos 5:18).
The Greek word which is translated as "judgement" in our New Testaments is krisis; it is the same word from which we derive our English word "crisis". Judgement is a time of crisis, when things come to a head and a crunch point is reached.
But, as the saying goes, every crisis is a moment of opportunity. Notice that this proclamation of judgement through the prophet Joel is immediately followed by an opportunity to turn around: “'Yet even now', says the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart […] Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.'” (vv.12-13). This is almost always the case throughout the Bible; the purpose of judgement is to jolt us out of our apathy and wake us up to reality. It is only when confronted with reality – as opposed to the illusions we like to construct around ourselves – that we are fully cognisant of our desperate need to turn back to God.
Discuss: In what ways might we be personally implicated in perpetuating global poverty? That is, in what ways do we too come under judgement? What things can we undertake personally and practically that represent a turning back to God, and to God’s way?
Read: Isaiah 58: 1-12
Did you notice that in the Joel reading, the call to turn back to God was accompanied by a call to fasting (vv.12-15)? In Matthew chapter 6 Jesus discusses fasting (vv.16-18) taking for granted that his followers are people who engage in fasting. The question for Jesus is not if you should fast, but how you fast and for what purpose.
In this text from Isaiah, the prophet challenges hollow religious practices that have come to be exercises in public piety and self-righteousness, and he recalls the people to "true fasting", which centres around the practice of justice, mercy and compassion. That is, the purpose of true fasting is the restoring of shalom – everything in right relationship. Fasting is something that is required when things have become out of kilter. Notice that it is only in working for such healing and restoration that we experience healing and restoration (vv.8-12).
Discuss: What about the idea of developing a proactive practice like "Generous Hospitality" during this season, either in addition to fasting or instead of it. Does your group want to take up the challenge of extending "Generous Hospitality" as a practice during Lent? How might you encourage one another in this?
Read: Matt 3:1-12
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness with a prophetic message very similar to Joel’s and Isaiah’s, but it comes with a new note: the kingdom of heaven is near. But before the wonders and mysteries of the kingdom of heaven can be opened up, one thing is required: repentance. We tend to associate repentance with being sorry for things we have done wrong. However, the word (metanoia in Greek) actually means to take on a new mind, or as the Apostle Paul says, to be "transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom 12:2). It is precisely this message that Jesus will take up when he begins his ministry (Matt 4:17). To walk with Jesus requires seeing the world and our own lives from a wholly different perspective – from God’s perspective.
Discuss: It is natural to want to insulate ourselves from the pain of the world, but this is not God’s way. How might we use the Lenten journey to more fully open our hearts and minds, and then our lives, to the human drama we see around us, whether in our immediate worlds or the world brought to us by organisations like TEAR or in the media?
Dr Jonathan Cornford is co-founder of Manna Gum, which seeks to promote a message which is truly good news: for us, for our neighbours and for the world.