The countryside is dotted with churches in disrepair. I’ve seen them. As a District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church, I saw several churches that were abandoned and left to deteriorate. I also visited lots of churches that weren’t kept very well. What brings this to my mind is the fact that we’re dealing with many issues of maintenance that need attention where I serve as pastor. But, I’ve visited others where the building was falling down around the congregation and no one noticed. The congregation is so accustomed to the peeling paint and dirty carpet that they no longer notice it. They haven’t taken the time to fix the faucet in the bathroom, and the Sunday school literature, well it’s only twelve years old, but it’s still useable, so…
We just don’t take care of our buildings the way we should. What’s that got to do with Lent? Shouldn’t we be talking about repentance and prayer and other spiritual disciplines? Yes, we should, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The description of those run-down buildings gives us a good idea of the state of the Temple in Jerusalem when the prophet Joel was young man. Centuries of misuse and disuse had caused Solomon’s once magnificent structure to look more like a building in the slums than in the upscale section of Jerusalem. As Joel grew, there was a turnaround. Later, this dilapidated building was cleaned up and refurbished. After the remodeling, the offerings and sacrifices were restored and Temple life returned to normal. Well, almost.
The prophet Joel wrote the words of his prophecy because there was still a problem. The turnaround in the nation wasn’t complete. Everything looked good on the outside, but there really hadn’t been much of an internal change with these people. God wasn’t looking for an outer change as much as he was looking for an inner one.
It’s the same for us as we seek to observe a holy Lent. God is looking for repentance from us. He doesn’t just want us to say all the right words, and he doesn’t want to simply give us a list of duties to work on, or as we walk this 40 day journey. Outward actions are nice, but if there is no inward change, it’s really all for naught. Jesus says as much in Matthew’s Gospel.
That neglected building, that church that no one is taking much care of, is me. If I take an honest look at my life, here’s what I see? I can’t say there’s been more good than bad. I can’t say that during this past year, I have been more interested in the things of God vs. the things of this world. In just this past week, I can’t honestly say that the Lord has always taken first place in my heart, but he has slipped through the cracks as other priorities crowded him out? Work, spending time with friends, the television and the computer, even simply “me” time have all taken priority. I am good at scheduling things that bring me happiness…and making sure that I keep those appointments.
But, have I been so busy taking care of the other matters of life that I neglected the church inside of me? Is that building strong, well-kept, and beautiful? Or, is there deferred maintenance that needs attending too? Sometimes, we lock the doors of our hearts, and just expect that our faith will remain intact, and so we can take a little vacation from working hard on our Christian lives, and when we come back, everything will be fine. If we don’t keep up the maintenance, the spiritual building will begin to fall down around us–metaphorically speaking…
Lent is a perfect time to begin that deferred maintenance in our heart. Joel’s prophecy has one word that serves as the beginning of the work–“Return!” If we’ve been away from the Lord for a while, or if we haven’t followed him as vigorously as we know we should, God is holding out an invitation to us: “Return! I want you back!”
God tells us how he wants us to return to him. The Lord says, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” In Biblical times, if a person were really upset over something, they would tear their clothes as a sign of sadness. But many people played a little game with God. When they were confronted with their sin by God’s priests and prophets, they would tear their clothes, they would put ashes on their heads. They’d do everything that made them look sad, and then they would go back to those same sins. The problem was they were trying to cure cancer with a band-aid.
The outward signs of Lent—putting ashes on our forehead, confessing our sins, singing sad songs—are all nice things to do, but they mean absolutely nothing if we are playing the crying game with God, telling him how sorry we are, but returning home to the same life we have been leading when Lent is over.
Joel helps us get into the proper mindset when he prophesies, “return to me with all your heart.” Returning is repenting, but repenting is not simply being sorry for what we’ve done. Repenting is turning from what we’ve done. Repentance includes not doing it again, and repentance starts in the heart. Missionary Gypsy Smith shares the story of the time he spent in South Africa. On one occasion, a handsome Dutchman came into his revival service, and God laid His hand on the Dutchman and convicted him of his sin. The next morning he went to the home of another Dutchman and said to the homeowner, “Do you recognize this old watch?”
“Why, yes,” answered the homeowner. “Those are my initials; that is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?”
“I stole it,” was the Dutchman’s reply.
“What made you bring it back now?”
“I was converted last night,” was the answer, “and I have brought it back first thing this morning. If you had been up, I would have brought it last night.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever read through the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, but the first of those theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is a process that is repeated over and over throughout our life.
During Lent, as we stress our desperate need for repentance, there is a silver lining. There is time for us to come back to God. The prophet says “even now,” with our rebellious past, the Lord still wants us. We talk about doing deferred maintenance, having genuine from-the-heart repentance, and God does something awesome when we come to him on his terms. The sinner repents, and the Lord relents.
Here’s Joel 2: 13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” We are hopelessly guilty, and we know it. We look around and see the peeling paint of our hearts. We smell the old, dirty carpet. We see the burned-out light bulbs. It’s all around us. That’s exactly why we need Lent. We come to repent because we know He is a God who relents.
Lent is a journey toward the cross of Jesus. The cross is where we learn how God can afford to relent. Our deferred maintenance begins on Ash Wednesday, but it finds its full restoration at the foot of the cross.
It’s popular thing to give up something for Lent. Considering ourselves to be more spiritual than someone who isn’t giving up something for Lent is not an appropriate start to the journey, nor is supposing that giving up something puts us in better standing with God. The proper way of beginning is to remember that Jesus gave up everything for us, so out of gratitude we give up something we love for him. It’s an offering of sorts. But, avoiding chocolate or not watching our favorite TV show for 40 days isn’t going to make us more spiritual unless we fill the time with the Word of God and prayer.
God doesn’t command that we give up something for Lent, but if we choose to do so, here is a way that will be a spiritual benefit to us—think of something you really enjoy doing: maybe it’s eating a particular food or drinking a certain beverage. Maybe it’s an activity like shopping or exercising. Maybe it’s staring at the television or computer screen for hours on end. If you chose to give something up for Jesus, then be sure to replace it with prayer, and Bible study. Maybe instead of spending 2 hours watching a basketball game, you go into your room, and read through the Bible, slowly digesting every word, considering how God is talking to you, praying that the Lord speaks to you and makes you a better disciple. Joel ends verse 14 with these words, “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully.”
We repent, God relents. And when we go into his Word, God opens his storehouse of spiritual treasures to us and gives us gift after gift. The Lord wants to replace the trivial things in our life with real gifts. Gifts like peace in our hearts that can deal with any problem. Gifts like a greater willingness and ability to serve Jesus in our life.
So, let’s start those maintenance projects. Our lives resemble a building that needs some upkeep, and Lent is the time to get to work. Jesus won the ultimate struggle for us. He has fixed us up, and He is fixing us up to make us a glistening, beautiful building in which we will dwell forever. God has made us into a building like that, and now with the Spirit’s help, strive to keep that building up! Let’s not be satisfied with mere cosmetic improvements, but let us plead with the Lord to use His Word to change our hearts to make us a more repentant, more useful servant in God’s kingdom.
Until next time, keep looking up…