Monthly Archives: February 2012

Why Baptists Don’t Do Lent

Pieter Bruegel, Detail of The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), oil on wood, 46 in x 65 in, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

There are a lot of things Baptist aren’t supposed to do. Baptists don’t drink, dance, gamble, or chew. Most Baptists don’t do Lent either. Lent is the forty-day period from Ash Wednesday (this year it’s tomorrow, Feb. 22) to Easter Sunday (not counting the Sundays in between). The odd-sounding name comes from the Anglo-Saxon “lencten” meaning “spring.” The Latin name is “Quadragesima,” which means “fortieth.” It’s symbolic of Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2). 

So why don’t most Baptists do Lent? It’s a curious omission for an uptight group like ours that’s obsessed with avoiding sin. Maybe that’s part of the problem we have with Lent. If we set aside a particular period for fasting and self-denial, then it might be admitting that gorging and indulgence is OK the rest of the year.  The programmed austerity of Lent might also give license to the frivolity of the pre-Lenten celebration of Carnival (aka Mardi Gras). Also, Lent is just too Catholic for most Baptists. In 1522, Protestant followers of the Zurich Reformer Ulrich Zwingli famously broke the Lenten fast by eating sausages as a symbol of their freedom in Christ. Lent is not found anywhere in the Bible, and Baptists generally follow the Zwinglian “regulative principle of worship” that says we should practice only what is explicitly commanded in the New Testament. Jesus even said something that seems to go directly against the tradition of Lent. Jesus said, 

Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18)

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday when many Christians receive ashes on their forehead in the form of a cross as a sign of their penance and fasting. It seems to violate what Jesus said in the passage above.

Despite these important objections, there are some good reasons for Baptists to consider adding this somber season to our impoverished church calendar. Neither Christmas nor Easter is found in the Bible, yet these holy days are universally celebrated in Baptist churches. And Lent is even older than Christmas. The first historical mention of Lent was at the Council of Nicea in the year 325. Christmas was first mentioned in 354. It’s strange that many Baptist churches celebrate Advent in preparation for Christmas but have no corresponding preparatory season leading up to Easter.  Maybe it’s time we change that.

For Baptists, Lent is a choice not an obligation. Freedom in Christ means we are free to choose to observe Lent or not. Observing Lent puts us in sync with the broader Christian community. Also, we cannot fully appreciate Jesus’ resurrection without spending time reflecting on his sufferings. We live in a privileged society where hardly anyone suffers for being a Christian. A little self-imposed hardship during Lent builds spiritual character and can deepen our understanding of our faith.

You can read more of my thoughts about Lent here.

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Light Up Jesus

Transfiguration (1516-1520), Raphael, oil on wood, 159 in. x 109 in., Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Perusing online auctions is a guilty pleasure of mine. I’m usually looking at art. Unfortunately most of what I like I can’t afford and what I can afford I don’t like. In this latter category is an unusual item I saw recently. Here’s what the description said, “Light-Up Holographic Jesus Picture.” It was a wood-framed shadow box with a little light bulb that illuminated a 3-D image of Jesus, complete with long flowing hair. I was tempted to bid on it, not for its artistic value, but because it was one of the most over-the-top kitsch religious items I’ve ever seen. It would make a perfect contribution to a white elephant gift exchange. As I was preparing this sermon I kept thinking about that light-up Jesus, because on this Transfiguration Sunday we recall one of the most over-the-top events in Jesus’ earthy ministry—a time when he revealed his glory by lighting up like a light bulb.

It’s easy to forget Jesus was an extraterrestrial. Not like E.T. or Superman. He didn’t arrive from another planet. Jesus entered the world like any other human; he was born naturally (though the Bible says his conception was miraculous, having no man as his father, only God).  He was fully human. So human, in fact, that his disciples had a hard time thinking of him as anything else. He ate, slept, wept, and even bled and died. In Mark 9:2-9, however, the curtain is momentarily pulled back to reveal a glimpse of Jesus in his heavenly glory. I can’t imagine what it was like for the disciples Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, watching as Jesus suddenly morphed  from normal human appearance into an otherworldly being in dazzling white, flanked on either side by Moses and Elijah. (The Greek word Mark uses for “transfigure”  is morphoo (more-FAH-oh), the origin of our English verb “morph,” which means to be transformed.)

Here’s what I think the main point of the story is: Jesus is greater than the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) and they bear witness to him.  One of the things that strikes me most about this passage is its directionality: backward, upward, and downward.  First, the passage looks backward. Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet, represent the Law and the Prophets respectively. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The phrase “the law and the prophets” was a shorthand for the whole of Hebrew scripture existing in Jesus day.  Just as the entire body of Hebrew scripture testifies to the coming Messiah, on the Mount of Transfiguration Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets) appear, bearing witness to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

Not only does the passage look backward, but it also directs our gaze upward. The traditional site of the transfiguration is Mount Tabor, which is a big hill in Galilee, hardly a mountain. It is more likely that the miracle took place on snow-capped Mount Hermon, the highest peak in Israel, which was much closer to Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus and the disciples were six days earlier. The significance is that the mountaintop is closer to heaven and therefore more appropriate for a heavenly vision.  Elijah, one of the Old Testament participants in the story, took his upward journey to heaven in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind as Elisha stood gazing skyward (2 Kings 2:1-14).

The purpose of this mountaintop experience seems to have been to prepare Jesus and his disciples for his coming trial and death. Only Luke gives the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah: Jesus approaching trip to Jerusalem and his “departure”  (Luke 9:30). The word for “departure” is “exodus”—a word pregnant with biblical meaning.  The Heavenly Father’s words—“This is my beloved son”—thundering from a cloud must have confirmed to Jesus that he was on the right path. The disciples too needed confirmation. Upon seeing Jesus in his glory, the disciples were “exceedingly afraid.” Peter didn’t know what to say but babbled anyway—something about building three tabernacles. The divine voice commands him to stop talking and start listening: “This is my beloved son. Hear him!” Like Peter, we spend too much time talking and not enough time listening to Jesus. Later Peter would cite this mountaintop experience as proof for the truth of his message (2 Pet. 1:16-18).

Just as suddenly as the vision on the mountain appeared, it disappeared. (A “vision” is what Jesus called the experience in Matt. 17:9.) So Jesus and the disciples went downward. As they trudged down the mountain, the disciples heads still reeling from what they had seen and heard, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:10). The resurrection would be Jesus’ ultimate transfiguration, but what lay in his immediate path was the downward way of suffering and death.

Jesus repeatedly chose the downward way over the upward way. He came down from heaven to earth, trading his heavenly glory for an earthly life of service and self-sacrifice. “For the son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). After being lifted up on the cross, he went down to the tomb, then down to the depths of hell. Down, down, down—the downward way. Glory comes not by self-promotion but through humility and self-sacrifice. The way up is down. That’s something we should think about as we leave the brightness of Epiphany and move forward into the somber season of Lent.

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A Leper’s Pride

Jesus Healing the Leper (1864) by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze

There was no hiding the man’s condition. One look and you knew he was striken with the dreaded disease. Naaman had leprosy—the AIDS of his day. Leprosy was (and is) a chronic infectious disease that caused unsightly formations on the skin, terrible deformities, and ultimately death. Social stigma compouded the horrible effects of the condition. In ancient Israel,

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev. 13:45-46)

Naaman was not in Israel but Damascus, Syria. In 2 Kings 5:1-14 we read about this victorious general who had almost everything the world values most: power, fame, and fortune. But the one thing he didn’t have was his health. An unnamed Hebrew servant girl informed Naaman’s wife that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure him. Naaman did what most rich people do: he tried to buy a solution to his problem. Only God didn’t want his money; he wanted his obedience. When the Prophet Elisha didn’t do what Naaman expected but told him to bathe in the muddy waters of the Jordan,

Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. (2 Kings 5:11-12)

Naaman’s problem wasn’t skin deep. His heart was infected with something more deadly than leprosy: pride. When Naaman humbled himself and did what the prophet said, he was finally clean. His physical healing came as the result of his humility.

Jesus also healed lepers. On one occassion he said something odd to the man he had just cleansed: “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44). On several other ocassions, Jesus issued such commands of silence. Why?

Perhaps Jesus was trying to avoid being associated with the popular but false notion that the Messiah would be a political deliverer. Or maybe he didn’t want to be treated like rock star, which would hinder his ability to minister effectively. There’s also the possibility that he wanted people to come to faith because of their own experience with God, not relying on the experiences of others. Of course,  Jesus may simply have been modeling the virtue of humility. In that case the lesson is the same as the one Naaman learned: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

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Deliver Us from Evil

Detail of Death and the Miser (c. 1494), Hieronymous Bosch, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

I missed church last Sunday and I’m kind of glad I did. The sermon was about one of the many times Jesus cast out a demon (Mark 1:21-28). I don’t have any personal experience with exorcisms, nor do I want to. It’s one of those things that most of us nowadays see more as fodder for horror films or missionary stories than for any kind of direct, personal application. “What to do if you’re demon possessed” is not a sermon I’ve ever preached or plan to. Still, if we believe in God and angels it’s wishful thinking to suppose that evil beings do not exist.

This past week I’ve been reading a fascinating memoir written in the early twelfth century by a monk  named Guibert of Nogent. Guibert described some hair-raising supernatural events at his abbey and elsewhere, including this one:

I once saw a woman so terribly angry with her little boy that among other slurs she hurled against this innocent child she even cursed the very waters of baptism in which he had been washed. Immediately the Devil took hold of her as she was ranting madly, saying and doing abominable things. She was led to the church and shown to the brothers. When prayers and exorcism had brought her back to her wits, she learned from the suffering she had undergone not to curse the Lord’s sacraments. (A Monk’s Confession, 88)

Most of us have seen people become so enraged that they acted insane, even demon possessed. I don’t know if literal demons cause such behavior, but anger is certainly one of many things we need to exorcise from our lives. Any sinful behavior or addiction that takes possession of us should be cast out. And prayer is still the most effective weapon we have for this kind of spiritual warfare. That doesn’t mean we should avoid professional counseling or medical care for problems like anger or addiction. But it does mean that God is our ultimate source of deliverance, and we can go to him directly for help. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil.”

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