From Lent to Love

Another Ash Wednesday has come and gone. Here we are in another Lent. So what do we do with Lent 2012? Is this a bigger and better Lent than last year? Is it new and improved? Is this Lent 2.0? (Or, perhaps, 45.0 in my case?)There is a cereal called “Shreddies” that’s been sold in Canada and the U.K. for nearly 70 years. It’s equivalent to our “Shredded Wheat.” Simple, square, wheat biscuits. Beloved and boring. In 2006, an intern who was trying his hand at advertising after an unsuccessful stint on the improv’ circuit, came up with the idea to tilt the square Shreddies on a 45º angle and call it “New Diamond Shreddies.” His work group burst into laughter. They seized the idea, turning it into a full-blown (and award-winning) marketing campaign. The marketing campaign included the usual focus groups and consumer testing. The funny thing is that many of the people who tested “New Diamond Shreddies” remarked on the difference between the old cereal and the new cereal. Evidently when you are expected to find differences in a new and improved product, you find differences that aren’t even there.

The truth is that we don’t need a new and improved Lent. Lent is really a call to foundational truth. Lent reminds us that the wages of sin is death. The wages of our sin is our death. The wages of my sin is my death. That’s not new and improved. It is venerable and classic. Lent is a time to remember — a time to dust off the book of what might have been without Jesus and have a good, long look.

The purpose of this Lenten look is not so we can feel bad again, but so that we can be reminded that we are saved by God’s grace, not by the goodness of the lives we lead.

Most of us live pretty good lives, pretty decent lives. We are generally kind and reasonably generous. We are not given to grudges and revenge. We are not unfaithful to our spouses. We are usually polite and generally honest. In short, we’re pretty good people. And that’s why we especially need Lent.

It can be pretty easy for pretty good people to feel pretty different from people who aren’t so good. That’s why we need Lent.

In the following encounter recorded in Luke 7:36-50 (ESV), Jesus links forgiveness and love:

“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering, said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

You and I are people who have been forgiven much. Lent is for remembering that fact. When Jesus said he didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners, he wasn’t saying that some people don’t need forgiveness. He was telling us that we all need him. He was calling to mind Ecclesiastes 7:20 (ESV): Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

The “New Diamond Shreddies” campaign did, as a matter of fact, result in a significant increase in sales. Not because they were a different product than before, but simply because people took a new look at the old cereal. People were talking about it (in some cases arguing about it). But the silly campaign caused people to look again.

So, maybe (if I can write this without sounding blasphemous or offensive), the “New Diamond Shreddies” campaign represents the best analogy for Lent: Taking another good look at the same thing we always look at, the Gospel — forgiveness of sins and life everlasting through Jesus Christ.

In Lent we remember that we are the sick who need a doctor, the unrighteous who need a Savior. We take time to look in as honest a mirror as the Holy Spirit will grant us to remember that we are part of the “all” who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Of course, sorrow can be part of this process — sorrow over the brokenness we discover not only around ourselves but inside ourselves. But in 2 Corinthians 7:10 (ESV), the Bible tells us that this can be a Godly sorrow: For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret.

The Lenten sorrow is a godly sorrow that leads to repentance, which leads to love. We remember that we are forgiven and are therefore compelled to love. The one who does not love the fellow human who is seen cannot love God who is unseen. (1 John 4:20) The one who is forgiven much loves much. (Luke 7:36-50) This is how all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 3:35) And now abide these three: faith, hope and love — but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

The end result of a good Lent is not sorrow, but love. The outcome of our contemplation of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ is that we are renewed in the profound depth of God’s love for us. That love energizes us to love those around us unilaterally, to seek their good unconditionally, to love others as Christ first loved us and gave himself up for us.

In Lent, we especially remember that the front door of heaven has a sign on it that says, “No Sinners allowed,” and we remember that that means us. But, upon closer inspection, we see that there is a note taped underneath the sign that reads, “Welcome home, my beloved. All is forgiven. Please share the good news. — Love, Jesus.”