Crash Course in Lent

Today we’re taking a break from our discussion of King David, because today we’re going to talk about the part of the church calendar that just started: Lent. Today we’re going to talk about what is Lent? What exactly do Christians do during Lent and how can you guys as youth celebrate Lent or not.

This is going to be a basic crash course in Lent. We will study all of this in far more detail when we study Jesus next year. But for now at a high level let’s talk about Lent.

At it’s most basic level Lent is very similar to Advent, in that Advent is how we count down to Christmas and Lent is how we countdown to Easter. However, other than they are both countdowns the two events are quite different. Advent is full of hopeful looking forward. Lent tends to be a little more serious.

As we studied at Christmas, the word “Advent” comes from Latin and basically means waiting for an arrival. So what does Lent mean?

Well it certainly doesn’t mean the same thing as dryer lint. In fact church lint is spelled differently, it’s L-E-N-T. Turns out lent is a shortened form of an Old English word, “Lencten” which means “springtime” or “spring.” Turns out there is also some connection to some old German words and Middle Dutch that are similar that also seem to refer to spring and the lengthening of days during spring. So Lent means Spring, which is also when Easter takes place. But it sure doesn’t make Lent seem like a special word, if it just means springtime.

Generally Lent takes place in very early spring, starting in February and ending in March or April. So you can imagine that early Christians were talking about springtime and this church event was always taking place in springtime so the two words over time just slowly became synonymous.

So why does the start of Lent and the date of Easter change every year? Does anyone know?

Well the date of Easter is dependent on the date of Passover. And Passover’s date is dictated by the Jewish calendar. In America and in a lot of world we used what is called “the Gregorian calendar.” That’s the calendar we use for every year that has the months we know, has leap ear, and all of that kind of stuff. But Judaism has its own calendar, the Hebrew calendar. Your average Jewish person is going to use the Gregorian calendar for their regular lives—work and school—but the Hebrew calendar dictates when the major Jewish holidays will be, including Passover.

Because the Hebrew calendar and Gregorian calendar don’t line up exactly, the date of Passover shifts within the Gregorian calendar.

But Christians didn’t like to be dependent on Jewish people for the date of Easter. They didn’t like to have to wait for Rabbi’s to declare when Easter is. So Christians dictated their own way of calculating when Easter should be. It’s all very complicated, and difficult to follow. It has to do with the first full moon after the equinox. If you’re really interested in it, you can google it and figure out all about calendars.

Generally, Easter is going to be the Sunday after Passover. At least that’s the generally accepted date for Western churches—like ours. “Orthodox” Churches, which is a different denomination of Christianity, have their own system for calculating when Easter is. Which makes everything more complicated because now there are two dates out there floating around for Easter.

Who’s right? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what date we celebrate Easter. The point of Easter is to commemorate Jesus’s resurrection. And whatever day you do that on, what matters is remembering and commemorating that, not that we have the date perfectly right.

Okay so Lent means spring literally but that doesn’t tell us what it means in a church sense.

Lent is the lead-up to Easter. You’ll hear people talk about the “forty days” of Lent. 40 is a Biblically important number. During the story of Noah’s ark, the flood lasted forty days and night. The Israelites wandered in the desert for the forty years. The prophet Elijah walks for 40 days and 40 nights. The number 40 was chosen for Lent because of Jesus. Please get your Bibles and open to Matthew 4:1-11.

While you guys flip there, some context. This takes place right before Jesus starts his ministry. So for most of his life, Jesus lived like just a normal dude, a carpenter’s son in Galilee. But eventually Jesus needed to start his ministry—that is start preaching and reaching out to people and telling them who he was. To prepare for this, Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast. Now someone please read Matthew 4:1-2.

4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished

Jesus goes into the desert and he fasts for forty days and forty nights. Then at the end of that time, he is tempted by the devil. And we’ll study that story in more detail when we eventually study Jesus. But for now, the important part for Lent, is that in order to prepare for his ministry, in order to prepare for starting everything, Jesus felt the need to go into the desert and fast.

What is fasting? Fasting is basically giving up food for a while and replacing it with prepare. It’s a pretty common practice in the Old Testament for leaders or people to fast as part of holiday or before making big decision. Sometimes fasting is just not eating food during daylight hours, but then you can eat at night. And sometimes fasting means not eating at all. The idea is that you would replace all that time you would normally spend eating with prayer, and focusing on God.

So Jesus prepared for his ministry for forty days and nights, forty days of fasting. And that’s kind of the basic idea of Lent, fasting like Jesus for forty days. Except the generally accepted practice of Lent doesn’t involve fasting from food. Forty days is a long time, and I don’t think any churches expect people to not eat during that time. Instead the general practice has become that people would abstain or fast from one particular food type or other thing.

[Direction to leader: Give example of a time when you gave up something for Lent] For me, in the past I’ve given up soft drinks, particularly Coke, for Lent. I love Coca Cola and soft drinks. And then every time I craved a soft drink during Lent, it would make me think “Oh I’m not supposed to be drinking this because of Lent.” And then it would make me think about God and Jesus and Easter. In the middle of my work day, when normally I’d be drinking a Coke, I was instead thinking about God.

And that’s the purpose of this. That’s the purpose of giving something up. It helps you focus on God.

We’re supposed to spend our time during Lent reflecting on God, and reflecting on the sacrifice of Black Friday and the joy of Easter.

Let's brainstorm some things we can give up for Lent. Realistic things. You can’t give up things you have to do: like school or sleep or homework. But we can give up our excesses and use that time to focus on God and the amazing gift he has given us in Jesus Christ.

[Brainstorm on the board some idea!]

So Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, which in our case was this past Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday people come to church and reflect on repentance and forgiveness. Often ashes are placed on people’s forehead in the shape of the cross. Why ashes? Why do we do this?

Someone please read Genesis 2:7. This is from the story of the creation, and how God created Adam.

7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,[a] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Okay can someone now read Genesis 3:19?

By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

This verse comes from the story of Adam and Eve. It’s after Adam and Eve take the apple and during the part where God is telling them what their punishment will be. So in the first verse, it says that God made man from dust. That he shaped the dust and breathed life into it. Here in this punishment section, God reminds Adam he is made of dust, and that in the end “to dust you shall return.” Basically, that he will die, that because of sin, all men will die and return to dust.

Ash Wednesday is to remind us of that.

This is a really somber and dark thought. Ash Wednesday is basically this reminder of “hey you’re going to die.” It was funny because this year Ash Wednesday was Valentine’s Day, and one of my pastor friends said, that when people have to asked for his Valentine’s Day plans he would say, “I have to work and remind everyone of their inevitable deaths.”

So where Christmas Advent is all hope coming out of the darkness, Lent instead starts with this dark reminder that “hey you’re going to die someday.”

Why so somber? Well Lent is about repentance and fasting and preparation for the coming of Jesus’s death and resurrection. It’s natural that when thinking about how Jesus died for us, we would think about our own deaths.

So Ash Wednesday kicks Lent off and then it goes on for presumably forty days, right?

Weirdly no. We say the forty days of Lent, but that forty days only counts non-Sundays. So Sundays don’t count, meaning Lent is actually 46 days. And the next big day of Lent is Palm Sunday, which is the sixth Sunday of Lent.

Palm Sunday is all about Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus comes to Jerusalem for Passover, the week before his death, and this is at the very end of his ministry so everyone knows who is he and Jesus is just this superstar. Everyone wants to see him and touch him and be near him. Though they don’t necessarily understand who he is. They’ve just heard about the amazing things he’s done, the miracles.  Someone read Luke 19:36-40.

36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,

“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

When we talk about Palm Sunday in church it’s usually from two perspectives. First off they focus on that Jesus is worthy of praise and deserved the praise that people were giving him when he came to that city. Frankly that’s how Jesus should have been greated every time he entered the city. And when some people in the crowd told Jesus that he shouldn’t let people praise him so, he told them if they were silent the very rocks on the earth would cry out praises. Because Jesus is God and all of creation calls out to God’s greatness.

However, the second thing pastors often focus on during Palm Sunday is that these people who are praising Jesus? These people who are crying out his goodness and that he is king, they are the very same people who betray him little more than a week later.

People are fickle, meaning their loyalties change quickly and easily, especially when someone doesn’t meet the expectation they thought. These people who were praising Jesus? They were expecting him to come in and overthrow the status quo, to make a new Jerusalem now, where Rome no longer controlled them. But that’s not why Jesus was there. And when Jesus failed to meet their expectation, they turned on him. And they called for his death.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of what people call “Holy Week.” This is the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.

The Thursday of Holy Week is called “Maundy Thursday” which sounds kind of like “Monday Thursday.” But it’s Maunday. Maunday Thursday commemorates the Last Supper. Someone read Luke 22:7-16.

7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus[a] sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.” 9 They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?” 10 “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” 13 So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15 He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it[b] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

The reason why Jesus comes to Jerusalem and has his triumphal entry in the first place is so that he can celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. This was really common that Jewish people would come to Jerusalem and celebrate Passover there. So Jesus has his disciples go find a room for them there to celebrate in. They find a room upstairs, this is often translated as “the Upper Room.” When people at this church call the room where the high schoolers have Sunday School “the Upper Room” that’s a pun on this room where Jesus shared a last Passover with his disciples.

Every Gospel—Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell this story. A story of Jesus sharing one last meal with his closest friend and giving them a commandment that we still commemorate as Communion. But Maundy Thursday is not all about intimate dinner with friends. That very night after the dinner, Jesus is betrayed and arrested.

The next day of Holy Week is Good Friday. Now I always thought it was weird as a kid that we called it Good Friday because Good Friday is the day we remember Jesus’ death on the cross. What’s good about Jesus’s death? So I actually googled this, and I think this goes back to very old English uses of the word “good.” In oldish English, “Good” can just mean “a day or season observed as holy by the church.” So it’s not that Good Friday is a particularly happy day, it’s that this is a very holy day.

Jesus death is a very somber thing, but it is a critical aspect of our faith.

Can someone read Matthew 27:45-51?

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land[a] until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”[b50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.[c51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.

Jesus dies and at the very moment he dies, the veil in the temple is torn. We’ve talked about this before, but in the Temple—the place that was basically considered God’s home on earth—only certain people were allowed to go to certain places. Most Jewish people could enter the courtyard, but only priests could go inside and only the highest of priests could enter the holy of holies—the place where they said the spirit of God dwelled. In Old Testament times, that’s where the Ark of the Covenant would have been, but by Jesus’s time the ark is already missing.

This veil that splits, is the veil between the holy of holies and the rest of the temple, and this represents that with Jesus’s death, there is no barrier anymore. It’s not only the holy of holies where God dwells. He dwells everywhere. And we can all have access to him.

So yes Jesus’s death is sad and tragic—he didn’t deserve to die—but for us there is freedom. Because for Jesus death is not the end. And that’s why we have Easter Sunday. Because Easter Sunday is the next Sunday after Good Friday, and that’s the Sunday where we celebrate Jesus being raised from the dead.

Now when I was your age, I used to get really confused because everyone would say Jesus was dead for three days. And I would be like “well Good Friday is Friday and Easter is only two days later. How is that three days?” So we’ve talked about this a little before, but the Roman calendar didn’t work like ours. When we count how many days there are until something we don’t count the day we’re on. So if you’re doing something on Wednesday, you would say it’s only three days away, because today is Sunday and you would count Monday, Tuesday ,Wednesday—that’s three days. But in Roman times, you would count the day you were on. So that would be Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, four days.

So when the Bible says Jesus was dead for three days, they’re counting Friday. So it’s Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Three Roman days between Good Friday and Easter. But then it’s Easter Sunday. And I’m sure you guys already know what that’s all about.

Easter is the day we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.

Can someone read Matthew 28:1-8.

28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he[a] lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead,[b] and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

In this time period, after someone died, they would treat the body with oils. We don’t do that now because we have embalming techniques they didn’t know about—ways to preserve the body. Normally women would apply these spices and oils to the body right after death. But in Jesus’ case they couldn’t do that because Jesus died right before the Sabbath—the day Jewish people aren’t supposed to work. They barely had time to take the body away and put it in a tomb. Because the Sabbath starts on sundown of Friday. Sunday morning would be the first time they would be able to actually apply the oil and spices to Jesus’s body.

So early Sunday morning, these women go to the tomb. And instead of finding a body that’s already started to decay and smell bad, they find an angel who tells them that Jesus isn’t there that he has been raised from the dead and that they need to go tell everyone.

We talked about this a few weeks ago, but it’s actually amazing that God chose to reveal Jesus’s resurrection to women first. Women were not considered believable witnesses back in the day, they were not trusted. And in fact, as soon as they women go and tell the disciples, they don’t believe them, and the men go to check out the situation for themselves. They basically think the women are hysterical and making things up.

But God revealed Jesus’s resurrection to these women first, and made them the first ones to share the good news.

And this is the good news. Jesus’s resurrection is literally the linchpin of all of Christianity.

Someone read 1 Corinthians 15:14.

14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.

The book of Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul and here Paul says in no uncertain terms, “if Christ has not been raised from the death, then our faith is in vain.” What does that mean? When someone says something is “in vain.” In vain means “without success or result.” Basically, what Paul is saying here is that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead—if that’s not true—then Christianity is not true.

All of our belief and our faith hinges on this very fact, that Jesus was raised from the dead. Not by any person, but by himself—by God—because he is God.

Christmas is a great and fun holiday where we talk about hope and light in the darkness, but Easter—Easter is why Christianity exists. It’s what our faith is about. And that’s why Lent and Easter are so important. Jesus was raised from the dead for us, to bring us salvation.

Someone please read Galatians 2:19-20.

19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,[a] who loved me and gave himself for me.

This is another book of the Bible written by the apostle Paul. And here Paul is talking about how it is through Jesus’s death and resurrection that we have hope, that we have faith, that we have life.

This is what Easter is about. Celebrating our new lives in Christ, about how God loved us so much that he sent his Son to save us. And that’s why we spend so long preparing for Easter, for putting ourselves in the right mindset.

That said, there is no Biblical mandate to fast for Lent. There is no mandate that says you must do this. I don’t fast from something every year. But doing it is a great tool for us to put our hearts and minds in the right frame so we can appreciate what God has done for us.