Lent is a solemn religious observance that begins on Ash Wednesday and covers a period of approximately six weeks or 40 days before Easter Sunday.
In Latin, Lent is referred to by the term Quadragesima, meaning fortieth, referring to the fortieth day before Easter. In English, the word Lent initially meant spring, from the Germanic root for long, because in spring the days visibly lengthen.[i]
The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, and repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial.[ii]
During Lent, our worship assumes a penitential character. The color for the season is purple, a color associated with penitence. By omitting the Hymn of Praise and Alleluia, we distinguish Lent from the rest of the year, and form a powerful contrast with the festive celebration of Jesus' resurrection when our alleluias ring loud and clear.
The Lutheran perspective of “giving up something for Lent” is a matter of Christian freedom. Our church has no law requiring members to “give up something,” since the Scriptures do not require this. If a Christian wants to give something up for Lent as a way of remembering and personalizing the sacrifice Christ made on the cross for our sins, then he is free to do so, as long as he does not judge others who opt not to do this.[iii]
The penitential character of Lent is not its sole purpose. In the ancient Church, the period leading up to Easter was a time of intense preparation for the candidates being baptized at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. This time is appropriate for Baptism because of the relationship between Christ's death and resurrection and our own in the sacrament.[iv] This suggests that Lent serves as a time to meditate on the suffering that Christ endured on our behalf, and an opportunity to reflect our own Baptism and what it means to live as a child of God.[v]
That you may grow as a child of God, I encourage you to read Treasury of Daily Prayer, Pastor Joshua Scheer’s Lutherans for Lent[vi] or a devotional plan from Lutheran Hour Ministries.
We base our 40-day Lenten observance on Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness. In Mark we read, “He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.”[vii] Though Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation is brief, if we interpret it without referring to Matthew or Luke,[viii] we taste Mark’s fuller flavor. We also see that Satan tempted Jesus throughout his life and even onto the cross.
Before his wilderness experience, John baptized Jesus. It may initially appear problematic that Jesus accepted John’s baptism. After all, it called for a change of heart in view of the forgiveness of sins. How could Jesus, who was not a sinner, have accepted such a baptism? I will save the answer for later.
As Jesus emerged from the baptismal waters, the heavens tore open and the Spirit descended on him like a dove.[ix] This is a response to Isaiah’s prayer that God “rend the heavens and come down” to bring his flock up from the sea, put his holy Spirit in the midst of his people and guide them in a new exodus.[x]
At Jesus’ baptism, the rending of the heavens announced the beginning of the end; and as he breathed his last, the Temple’s sanctuary veil, decorated to look like the heavens, tore from top to bottom, symbolizing that in the end-time, the holy of holies and ancient sacrifices would be no more.
The image of the dove, a symbol for Israel, revealed Jesus as the personal embodiment of a new Israel. As the Christ, the Anointed One, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prayer.[xi]
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit that descended on him drove him into the wilderness, where he was tested as Israel was tested in their exodus wilderness. This 40-day test evoked the days and nights Moses spent with God on the mountain as he received the Covenant,[xii] and called to mind Elijah’s 40-day walk to the mountain of God.[xiii]
Jesus’ 40 days represented his entire baptismal life, ending with his passion. Sent into the wilderness by the Spirit to lead people in a new exodus, Satan tested Jesus. Satan, the adversary of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, represented the power of evil. Satan was the obstacle Jesus had to overcome.
The setting for Jesus’ baptismal test was simple. Angels ministered to him while he was among wild beasts, symbolic of the world’s evil forces. The scene evoked numerous Old Testament passages, particularly the story of Daniel in the lion’s den,[xiv] and the primal contest of creation where human beings dominated wild beasts.[xv] Mark also alluded to the Psalms[xvi] and Isaiah 13, where we read, “Desert creatures will lie there, jackals will fill her houses; there the owls will dwell, and there wild goats will leap about. Hyenas will inhabit her strongholds, jackals her luxurious palaces. Her time is at hand, and her days will not be prolonged.”[xvii]
As the one anointed by the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ life was an ongoing conflict with Satan, the spirit of evil. It began in the wilderness, but reappeared throughout the Gospel.
In the Capernaum synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit engaged Jesus in a verbal skirmish.[xviii] Here, Mark showed the battle between the unclean spirit that possessed the man and the Holy Spirit that possessed Jesus. In another case, no one was strong enough to bind the Gerasene man possessed by a demonic spirit until Jesus appeared. And after Peter rebuked Jesus, because he could not imagine a Messiah who would suffer and die, Jesus, in turn rebuked Peter as Satan because he too acted as a stumbling block to the cross.[xix]
The point is that throughout his life, Jesus battled Satan. Satan was and is a strong man.[xx] He effected demon-possession and physical maladies, created disorder in the natural world, and snatched up the Word of God sown on the path.[xxi] He tempted people to abandon God’s will and inspired them to adopt hearts and minds set on human ways. His activity extended to Jesus’ enemies, the Lord’s followers and Jesus himself. Satan tested Jesus in the wilderness, in Gethsemane and on Golgotha.
Satan’s activity was implicit when Jesus asked God to “take this cup from me.”[xxii] And when Jesus exhorted his disciples to imitate him by watching and praying lest they enter into a test, the same language used in the wilderness account, this too confirmed the moment was Satan’s test.[xxiii] Bound and hung on the cross, Jesus’ opponents declared he could not save himself – Satan’s final test to abandon God’s will.
Finally, upon his death, Jesus cried out in a loud voice that recalled the cries of those from whom he cast unclean spirits. As he died, the Holy Spirit that descended from a violently torn heaven and possessed Him at the start of the gospel, left His body as the Temple veil tore. The Spirit’s departure implied that it completed its work. Jesus’ death marked victory, not defeat, in His conflict with Satan.
At that moment, the centurion, upon seeing Jesus breathe his last, confirmed His divinity, just as our Heavenly Father declared Jesus to be his beloved Son. Now, instead of rising from the waters of baptism to declare the nearness of God’s Kingdom, his Resurrection from the tomb declared God’s victorious Kingdom.[xxiv]
How does this relate to us? Lent is an appropriate time to remember our Baptism and its relationship to Christ's death and resurrection.[xxv] It is also a fitting time to meditate on the suffering Christ endured on our behalf and what it means to live as a child of God.[xxvi]
Although Christ broke Satan’s power, God never promised a conflict-free world, but a world in which the risen Christ meets and restores errant followers so that they may imitate him in their struggles against satanic powers, and like him, endure to the end, empowered by the Holy Spirit.[xxvii]
As we leave here, children of God filled with grace, love, mercy and the Holy Spirit, we enter a world of conflict, corruption and evil that both blinds and blind-sides us. Satan’s temptations are open and blatant, as well as secretive and surreptitious.
I may not be tempted to murder, but may be silently complicit over one million children aborted annually. I may not be tempted to break the Sixth Commandment, but may peruse inappropriate material. I may not steal from my neighbor, but may never open a generous hand to feed the poor. I may never swear false testimony in court, but may never speak kindly about others. I may never treat people as God treats me – with kindness, mercy and compassion – but may consider myself a good Christian.
As a good Christian, the commandment most difficult to keep is the First: You shall have no other gods. Of this, Martin Luther wrote plainly.
“Many a one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one. Such a man also has a god, Mammon by name, that is, money and possessions, on which he sets all his heart, and which is also the most common idol on earth. He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. On the other hand, he who has none doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God. For very few are to be found who are of good cheer, and who neither mourn nor complain if they have not Mammon. This care and desire for money sticks and clings to our nature, even to the grave.
So, too, whoever trusts and boasts that he possesses great skill, prudence, power, favor, friendship, and honor has also a god, but not this true and only God. This appears again when you notice how presumptuous, secure, and proud people are because of such possessions, and how despondent when they no longer exist or are withdrawn. Therefore, I repeat that the chief explanation of this point is that to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts.”[xxviii] Unquote.
Each week I confess I am a miserable sinner addicted to my things and ways of doing things. Still, I think highly of my bad ideas and overinflated opinions. I marry my feelings and divorce myself from others’ sensitivities. In short, I need to be saved.
The good news is, Christ saved me. Through no merit of my own, He saved me. He who conquered Satan, sin and death saved me from the tyranny of that trio.
That brings me full-circle to my earlier question. “How could Jesus, who was not a sinner, have accepted such a baptism?”
John’s baptism of Jesus revealed His humanity and His solidarity with and commitment to sinners. What occurred when Jesus emerged from the water revealed His divinity and His solidarity with and commitment to God His Father.[xxix]
If I approach life’s challenges in individualistic terms (me against the world), the baptism of a sinless person is senseless because baptism has no meaning beyond the individual who is baptized. If, however, I view life’s challenges in interpersonal terms (we are all in this together), the baptism of a sinless person makes a lot of sense.[xxx]
Jesus did not have to be a sinner to accept John’s baptism. All he needed was to be in personal solidarity with men and women who are sinners in need of salvation. Jesus’ baptism by John presented him as a person in solidarity with all human beings, and it demonstrated his willingness to bear the weight of our sins on his sinless shoulders.[xxxi]
Friends, as he tempted Jesus, Satan will tempt you until you exhaust your last gasp. You will be tempted to commit heinous sins and victimless crimes. If you rely upon yourself or any power but God to free yourself from his grip, you lose. Satan will bind you. Only Christ can free you … and He has!
Brothers and sisters, you will always have the Holy Spirit to guide you in the wilderness of life just as Jesus did, but as Paul exhorted the freed Christians of Rome, I beg you not to be addicted to yourself and your ways, your ideas and feelings. Forgiven fully by Christ, surrender to the Holy Spirit. Be a slave of the Holy Spirit, an addict of the Third Person of the Trinity and the means of God’s grace.When you are, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.[xxxii] Amen.
[iv] Romans 6:1-11
[v] Frequently Asked Questions, Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod website
[vi] Joshua V. Scheer, Lutherans for Lent. Revised 2012
[vii] Mark 1:13
[viii] Peter Edmonds, The Way Companion to the Sunday Missal. Oxford: Campion Hall (2014), 77.
[ix] Mark 1:10
[x] Isaiah 64:1
[xi] Eugene LaVerdiere, The Beginning of the Gospel: Introducing the Gospel According to Mark, Volume 1. Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press (1999), 34.
[xii] Exodus 34:27-38
[xiii] 1 Kings 19:8
[xiv] Daniel 6:23
[xv] Genesis 1:24-28
[xvi] Psalm 8:6-8
[xvii] Isaiah 13:21-22
[xviii] Elizabeth Shively, “Characterizing the Non-Human: Satan in the Gospel of Mark,” Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark. Edited by Christopher W. Skinner and Matthew Ryan Hauge. London: Bloomsbury (2014), 139ff.
[xix] Shively, 144f
[xx] Mark 3:27
[xxi] Mark 4:1ff
[xxii] Mark 14:36
[xxiii] Shively, 146
[xxiv] Shively, 148
[xxv] Romans 6:1-11
[xxvi] Frequently Asked Questions, LC-MS.
[xxvii] Shively, 151.
[xxix] LaVerdiere, 34
[xxxii] Philippians 4:7