In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is proper to Lent as a season in the Church Year? It seems like every year there are people on social media telling others what they should do and not do for Lent. Non-Lutheran Protestants have arguments about whether it’s appropriate even to celebrate Lent at all, because the Lord’s Day is the only important day. So they generally do not observe the Church Year at all, except for maybe Christmas and Easter. Others argue that Lent is just left-over Roman Catholicism and would ditch it for that reason. As with every other thing that humans do, there’s a mixture of human tradition and differing degrees of importance that people attach to various observances.
It’s a good time for us to be reminded that human traditions are not bad in themselves. We all have human traditions. Every church has human traditions. The question is whether those human traditions help to point us to Jesus and His Word, or whether they detract from what Jesus tells us. Though new is generally bad when it comes to the Church, the age of a tradition doesn’t always help us. There are traditions that go back hundreds of years that actually—now, at least—work against the Gospel.
Lent is an old tradition. A time of repentant preparation for celebrating the resurrection of Jesus goes back to at least the second century. And by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, there was common observance of 40 days of fasting prior to Easter. But it seems that Lent as a season (the word actually means just “spring”) grew out of the Friday fast in preparation for the weekly celebration of the resurrection on Sunday. When Christians started setting a period of repentance prior to Easter, the number of days varied, the amount of fasting varied, even the date of Easter changed. So while Christians in the West, including Rome, the Anglican Church, and the Lutheran Church, now observe Lent for 40 days, Christians know that the traditions of Lent must, above everything else, point us to Jesus, crucified and resurrected for us. Where they do that, the traditions should be retained. Where they do not, the traditions ought to be discarded.
Where do we turn for the purpose of our observance of Lent? Well, like we did during Advent, we’re going to look at the Proper Preface for Lent in order to think about what is proper to Lent, what Lent should do and what it is for. The Proper Preface for Lent, which we hear in the Divine Service, says this: “It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who overcame the assaults of the devil and gave His life as a ransom for many that with cleansed hearts we might be prepared joyfully to celebrate the paschal feast in sincerity and truth.” We’ll talk about those different phrases in the weeks to come, but we should keep in mind throughout the whole season the main point: that we would be prepared joyfully to celebrate the paschal feast—that is, our Lord’s Passover from death to life for us—in sincerity and truth, and not in pretense or falsehood.
We are prepared first by considering how Jesus overcame the assaults of the devil. As we heard this past Sunday, Jesus is the obedient Son, receiving everything from His Father and trusting Him completely. He is tempted in every way as we are, but without sin, because He is faithful to God up to His death, when the temptation ceases. The devil assaults Him with the temptation to be the kind of son that Adam, Israel, and we are: the kind who listens to any and all voices other than our creator. We trust in other things and other people and in our own power and experience, which is idolatry.
But Jesus will worship and serve God only. He is Lord over creation, but He is the Lord who takes on the limits of creation, in flesh and blood, hunger, temptation, betrayal, suffering, and death. He is the God through whom all things were made, but He assumes a created body. He overcomes the assaults of the devil by taking all of the blows—the devil’s best shot—and dying. But the God who is life itself cannot stay dead, so He breaks the power of death and hell by rising from their grip and now He lives forever.
All of this He does for us, and that’s what we hear in the Revelation to St. John. At first, it doesn’t seem like it. It seems like the Son of the Woman is born, escapes the dragon’s mouth in Bethlehem, in Egypt, in the wilderness, on the cross, and is taken to heaven. He is safe, but what about the other children of the Israel from whom He was born? The dragon was “furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 12:17).
This is where we find ourselves: in the wilderness, besieged by the dragon, suffering his assaults in our lives, in our families, in our church, in the world. In Luke 8, Jesus says that the devil comes to take away the Word from our ears, so that he can prevent us from believing the Word and being saved (8:12). He wants to tear away the children from their mother, the Church, because this is the only way he can devour us: by tearing us from the promises of our baptism, from the Word and Supper by which we are fed and nourished during our time in the wilderness (Revelation 12:14).
So has Jesus, the Son, left us alone to fight the dragon? Not at all. His ascension to the Father is precisely so that He can fight for His brothers and sisters as the exalted, resurrected Son of God and Son of Mary. His ascension means that He exercises the divine power of God for His people, wherever they are. “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the by the Word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:10-11). Those in heaven rejoice, because the devil is thrown down. The blood of the Lamb and the Word made flesh to whom they bear witness has overcome the assaults of the devil, the accuser of the brothers. But woe to those on earth, it says. The devil has come down in great wrath, because he knows his time is short. He knows that the time is short before his final and permanent destruction comes (20:10).
But that means that the time we have to endure under his assaults is also short. The word suffer does not only mean pain. It also means to patiently allow something to happen, in the sense of the King James’ “suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not” (Luke 18:16). So it is that we must suffer the assaults of the devil for now. They will not cease until we see our Lord, who has overcome His assaults once, and for all. But we do not suffer those assaults in resignation or defeat.
When the devil throws our sins back in our face, accusing us of our guilt before God, we suffer that assault by taking refuge in the Son, who has taken away our guilt before God. When the devil tries to get us, for whatever reason and in whatever way, not to hear the Word of God or not to eat and drink the life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus, we suffer that assault by receiving exactly those gifts, which will be our life and strength. When the devil tries to deceive us with false teaching, we suffer that assault by hearing and believing the true Doctrine of Christ. When the devil asks us whether God really said that death is death, we suffer that assault by hearing only Christ, who is Life itself. When the devil tries to tear us from one another by introducing division by lovelessness or heresy, we suffer that assault by learning again how to love and learning again the truth against heresy.
This is not the time to rest in either comfort or despair. The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8; see Revelation 12:16). But our Lord, the Lamb, was devoured by the lion, and He broke the lion’s jaws. Death may swallow us, but the dead in Christ will rise. And then the saying will have its fulfillment: death is devoured in victory. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, who overcame the assaults of the devil! He has prepared us, not just to celebrate our paschal feast at the end of Lent, but to celebrate that feast forever in the everlasting victory of the resurrection that He has given us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/12/19