February 2024

Lent: Helpful or Harmful?          

Baptists are cautious about treating special days, seasons, or Christian practices as necessary observances. We want to avoid becoming legalistic or Pharisaical but we also want to avoid saying, “Whatever works for you.”

The debate between Jesus and the Pharisees might be helpful for us.

The Torah says, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20:8) …

The Pharisees worked hard to have the people of their land uphold God’s word so that God would bless Israel. Avoiding all work on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening) was one of the more visible ways people honoured God’s word, as taught by Moses.

Jesus disputed the Pharisees’ interpretation and application of the bible when it came to the Sabbath. We can keep in mind that according to the Gospels and Acts, out of these debates, not a few Pharisees became Jesus’ disciples. For the Pharisees, in the Gospel According to Mark, “no work on the Sabbath” meant not even coming close to anything like work: even picking food to eat as you walked along was “unlawful.” Jesus countered with a story from the bible where King David had violated the law to ensure his soldiers could eat. Jesus concluded that God’s laws were not meant to be a burden, nor chains, but were meant to give life. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” he summarized.

Some have understood Jesus’ words here to dismiss all sorts of religious practices, like keeping a day of rest, fasting, or attending church, as if Jesus had said, “The sabbath doesn’t matter” or even, “Observing the Sabbath is wrong” and by extension, all religious practices are wrong. There is a spirit in our age which says something like, “Traditions interfere with genuine spirituality.” In fact, Jesus’ words imply the opposite.

The Sabbath, Jesus said, was designed for humanity, for our own good. It was meant to help us know and enjoy God and creation. Yes, when we slip into treating the practices that have been handed down to us as ends in themselves, we’ve missed the point badly. However, it is equally misguided to reject all church practices as legalism or dead ritual.

We will soon enter the season of Lent. For nearly 2000 years, the church has passed on the practice of a period of intensified prayer, fasting, serving, giving, and self-examination, all while reading and reflecting on our Lord’s suffering and death. Christians have found these practices draw them closer to Jesus and transform their hearts. But if we just use these practices to judge others, think more highly of ourselves, or to check a box, again, we’ve missed the point badly.

We all need a way of life and that is what other Christians have handed down to us, not legalism and empty ritual, but practices meant for humankind. May the approaching Lenten renew your prayers and service.
May it renew your confidence that you are walking with Jesus.

With love, Pastor Joel 


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