The Jesus story is alive. It has a beginning, a middle which we are in right now, and an end somewhere down the line. In my faith tradition, the way we worship, including the texts we read on any given Sunday, follows this story. We use a liturgical calendar that is shaped by the Jesus story rather than the calendar year. This is part of the beauty and blessing that comes from being in a church with roots going back 2,000 years.
Right now, churches that follow the liturgical calendar are in the middle of the season of Lent. Lent is always the forty days before Easter, not counting Sundays. Lent. It is a funny word for us English speakers. Many other languages take their name for this time from their word for “forty.” The French call this season Careme which comes from quarante, their word for forty. The Spanish and Italian languages take the same approach.
But for us English speakers, Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning to “lengthen.” Lent comes at a time when the hours or daytime are “lengthening,” as spring approaches. It is a time when we too can “lengthen” spiritually. During Lent, we make an effort to stretch out and grow in the Spirit.
For nearly 2,000 years now, followers of Jesus have understood the three great days stretching from the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day as the three most significant days in the history of the world. And these days are not to be taken lightly. One needs to prepare for them.
That is what Lent is for. It is a time of preparation – spiritual preparation for the three most important spiritual days since the creation of the world. The event in the Jesus story that launches this season of Lent is the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration. It is an important and dramatic episode. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each write about it in their Gospels.
The Transfiguration has an all-star cast. Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John are all present. It includes dazzling brightness, clouds, shadows, and the startling voice of God. We’re told that Moses and Elijah are conferring with Jesus about what comes next in the story – the journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Peter is so mesmerized by the spectacle that he wants to remain at the summit. He offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
But it is not to be. As wonderful as the mountaintop experience is, Jesus knows they can’t stay there. His story must move on. The trek to Jerusalem and the cross needs to begin. Lent is the season of the church year where we symbolically join Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem. We use it as a time to contemplate the pain, suffering and sacrifice he makes on our behalf.
Almost immediately after Jesus and the Disciples begin the journey, Jesus gets word that King Herod has plans to kill him. Then something remarkable happens. I can’t think of any other time where Jesus speaks the way he speaks when he hears of Herod’s plans. It may be the only time in the Bible where Jesus talks as if he is spoiling for a fight. He sounds like the conquering Messiah so many in the first century were expecting. Responding to the news, Jesus sounds confident and defiant, “Go and tell that fox Herod for me, I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day, I will reach my goal” (Luke 13:32 NIV).
In reality, Jesus is saying, “Look, I have important work to do – a mission to accomplish – and no petty puppet king like Herod is going to keep me from it.” When he makes that powerful allusion to reaching his “goal” on the third day – an obvious reference to his coming resurrection – it inspires confidence, hope and strength in the lives of believers.
I love this determination of Jesus. It shows that he is hell-bent on saving us from ourselves. Jesus is willing to go through crucifixion, hell on earth, and actually descend into hell after his death for our sakes. And he does it all because he loves us and because he is faithful to the divine plan to redeem creation.
You may be familiar with the idea of “giving something up” for Lent. I like this tradition and most years do try to give up some little earthly pleasure as a kind of fast. But the fast is not an end in itself. We’re supposed to use the time we would normally spend enjoying whatever it is we give up to draw closer to God.
I encourage you to observe this tradition of Lent. And use the extra time you now have to pray or read your Bible. You may want to use it to do a little personal devotion every day. On our Mountain of Faith website (mountainoffaith.net) we have a link to D-365. It offers a short devotion each day that is perfect for your Lenten journey to Jerusalem with Jesus. Try it out. Lenten blessings to you!
Rick Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.