Forty: A Meditation For Lent

An offering of a homily re-worked, anticipating Ash Wednesday tomorrow, and looking forward to the fullest joy possible at Easter through observation and dedication to the season of Lent.  Also, be sure to check out Justin Ryan Boyer’s instructional and broad offering on Lent.  

The disciples had been through the wringer, and after a three-year ordeal like that, it can be understood why they asked what they did.

“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

It’s not a dumb question; it’s not a bad question.  That question is nothing at all like the other dumb or bad questions they asked while following Jesus, speaking redundancies and sputtering recantations all layered neatly over clear words of truth that the Son of God had just finished saying.

Indeed, this was a very good question.  It spoke of their faith; it spoke of their observation that all that needed to be accomplished was fulfilled. It spoke of their heartfelt knowledge that Jesus was the Messiah. In their minds, it was now time for the Kingdom of God to come.  The wait was over.

Not just their personal waiting.  The waiting that the disciples of Jesus were enduring was a waiting that had been endured by the people of God for thousands of years.  When would they be free?  When would the promises made to Israel come to pass?  They had suffered oppression at the hands of the Egyptians, the Midianites, the Miunites, the Amalekites, the Jebusites, the Edomites, the Hittites, the Amorities, the Philistines, the Baylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans, and through it all, the people of God waited and waited for their deliverance, for their Messiah to be revealed.  Now the disciples knew the wait was over.  The wait of thousands of years and millions of people culminated in the declaration of a Messiah so powerful, he could defeat death and return from the grave.

There was no disputing what was, to the disciples, observable fact.  Jesus spent three years as a nomadic rabbi, moving all over the nation of Israel with His ministry.  His teaching and claims were validated by His miracles, and His way of being took such root with the people, that they were ready to crown Him King of the Jews!  A short week later, the same people were calling for His crucifixion.

At the death of Christ, the wind of expectation left their sails and the cold water of reality hit them in the face.  The grief was overwhelming and their sorrow threatened to blot out even the brightest light from their souls.  Hope was gone.  Jesus was dead.

Then as quickly as He had gone, He was alive!  Risen again, just as He said, and on the flip-side of things, Jesus’ cryptic statements — often spoken in strange groupings of three — didn’t seem so cryptic anymore.    There was no disputing their senses — this wasn’t some hologram — He was real and He was alive.  He invited them to touch His wounds, He ate with them and spoke with them.  They were witnesses in the truest sense of the word – so were five hundred others.

But when He came back from being dead, He wasn’t quite the same.  He came and went a lot.  One minute He’d be there, the next He’d disappear.  Punctuality had never been His strong suit, but presence had, and He was acting strangely.  His disciples kept waiting for a sermon, marching orders, even a strong sentence of some kind.  Instead, He simply told Peter to stop fishing and start shepherding.  The disciples were patient, and they came from a patient people.  They watched and waited, and waited.  They had waited for several millennia, what was forty days more?  The resurrection of Jesus is a powerful thing that you don’t just gloss over, and when someone comes back from the dead, the last thing you demand from them is a timetable. 

But on the day of Jesus’ ascension, it was just too perfect an opportunity.  I mean, it was just them, just like it used to be.  Their small group, minus the betrayer, and Jesus up on a mountain, just like old times.  The question was the blue elephant in the room and someone had to say it.  We don’t know who asked – I like to think it was Peter – but one of them said, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  And remember, it was a good question.

Jesus’ response was simple: “God’s times and dates aren’t your concern.”

This is not a blow-off response.  The timing of God is not the concern of humans.  It is a statement of truth, not rebuke.  We always want to know when God is going to do something.  We think there is power in knowing the future or in understanding the present.  To know the future or understand the present is to remove fear from our hearts.  It speaks of certainty and finality.  To know the future or understand the present means that we can have a bit of power over time, the thing to which we all must submit.

That is the beauty of Lent.  Lent makes you stop and wait.  As a son of God, the bride of Christ, we are together absolutely victorious in Christ, but we still wait for our full release, from “this body of sin” as Paul said.  Lent is a portion of time within time to remember, receive and reflect upon some very basic things:

Time will win.
Time is final.
Time never stops.
Time limits us.
Time does not listen.
Time does not understand.
Time is without hope or compassion.
Time is, and time will always be.

So Jesus speaks to them about another piece of time, a time when He gives them that which is better.  Which is what they thought they had when they received Him back from the grave.  They had waited so long for their Messiah, and now He was again telling them to wait.

One more thing about time though.  God controls time, and God uses time.  God inserts Himself into time and loves His children through it.  That is the beauty of Lent.

Lent is a time for you to stop your own concepts of time and again realize that God speaks through time and moves in it for the good of His purposes and His people.

If on that mountain just before Jesus ascended, the disciples looked backward instead of forward, they might have realized something: it had been forty days.

The number forty is important.  It is impossible to state how crucial forty is to the Jews.  It might be the most important number there is to the people of God.

It rained for forty days and forty nights.
Noah waited forty days to send out the dove.
Isaac waited forty years to marry Rebekah.
Moses spent forty years in the wilderness between fleeing Egypt and returning to Egypt.
The children of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness.
Moses spent forty days on the mountain with God before delivering the Law.
Moses spent forty days on the mountain with God after the people’s idolatry of the golden calf.
Joshua was forty when he went to spy on Canaan.
Joshua and Caleb spied on Canaan for forty days.
Jewish law was no more than forty lashes.
Under Othniel, the Israelites had peace for forty years, then they worshipped idols again.
Under Barak, the Israelites had peace for forty years, then they worshipped idols again.
Under Gideon, the Israelites had peace for forty years, then they worshipped idols again.
For forty days Goliath mocked the God of Israel every morning.
Saul reigned for forty years.
David reigned for forty years.
Solomon reigned for forty years.
Joash reigned for forty years.
Josiah reigned for forty years.
Elijah hid at Mt Horeb for forty days before God spoke to him.
Ezekiel lay on his side for forty days to represent the forty years of Judah’s sin.
Nineveh was given forty days to repent.
Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days.
Forty days passed between Jesus’ resurrection and His ascension.

There is nothing magical about forty, but there is something deeply meaningful and symbolic.  The number forty is a time of probation.  It is not a time of condemnation; it is a time of judgment, chastisement, discipline, and training.  A forty is what father gives to a son to train and discipline him.  When the discipline of forty is received, it always births something new in those who receive it…again, if they receive it.  Forty speaks of waiting and testing, of hope that is present in heartache and expectation.  When a forty is ignored or pushed against, it results in catastrophe and a forsaking of inheritance. 

After His resurrection, Jesus was with His disciples for forty days, giving them many proofs of His resurrection and disciplining His disciples to wait for that which was better.  The disciples received the forty that the Lord planned for them and thus received the Holy Spirit.  Jesus ascended to Heaven after forty days.

To live through a forty that God chooses for your discipline and training requires the spiritual disciplines and blessings of waiting and hoping.  For us 21st century Americans, that is where things become difficult.

We tend to think of waiting as passive, an inactive posture of passing time so that we might have that which we hope for.  Oftentimes waiting is thought of negatively because it is associated with fear.  We fear that which we do not know and who knows what is at the end of waiting?  We may get what we hope for or we may not.  We may become what we wanted or may be told to wait longer.  Fear-based waiting is not the way of waiting for the Old Testament saint.

The people who lived according to the Old Covenant understood an active posture of waiting. When you wait, as a people, for hundreds and thousands of years – lifetime upon lifetime – you learn to adjust the manner in which you wait.   To wait on God is to actively look for and hope for that which God had promised would come to pass.  And He may or may not let you know what it is He is bringing about.  Waiting is not a passing of time.  To pass time is to miss the moment, and to an Old Testament saint, missing the moment could mean missing the Messiah.

The psalmist says,

“My soul is waiting for the Lord.  I rely on God’s Word.  My soul is longing for the Lord more than the guard for dawn.  Let the guard count on the daybreak and Israel on the Lord.  Because with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.”  Psalm 130.5-7

Henri Nouwen, in his essay The Path Of Waiting says:

 “…waiting is active.  Most of us consider waiting as something very passive, a hopeless state determined by events totally out of our hands.  The bus is late?  We cannot do anything about it, so we have to sit there and just wait.  It is not difficult to understand the irritation people feel when somebody says, ‘Just wait.’  Words like that push us into passivity.

But there is none of this passivity in Scripture.  Those who are waiting are waiting very actively.  They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing.  Right here is a secret for us about waiting.  If we wait in the conviction that a seed has been planted and that something has already begun, it changes the way we wait.  Active waiting implies being fully present to the moment with the conviction that something is happening where we are and that we want to be present to it.  A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, believing that this moment is the moment.”

Waiting requires reliance on God.  It requires trust in God’s Word.  To wait in expectation, to truly seize the moment in which we are called to wait, requires deep hope.

That is the beauty of Lent.

The very beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, reminds us that:

Truly, we are feeble.
It is certain that we will die.
From dust we were made
and to dust we shall return.
And truly, the hope of Christ
And His resurrection,
And our resurrection in Him,
Is sure, and we hope in His Word.

And we wait for our resurrection.  And we wait for His return.  With glorious expectation, we wait.

Lent is forty days for a reason.  It is a time not only for self-examination and purification, which are often our perfectly fine motives in observing and engaging Lent, but can also serve as a self-imposed time of probationary hope.

The word biblical word “judge” means to separate.  There is good and there is evil; to judge is to separate those.  Light and dark, truth and untruth, right and wrong, wheat and tares, sheep and goats…a sober separating.

Our lives should constantly contain the prayers of the psalmists,

“The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.”

 “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.”

 “I love your judgments.”

 “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” 

 “Search me and know me, and see if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” 

Lent calls us to a posture of the heart that opens ourselves not just to ourselves, but to our God whose judgments are right, good and true.  We need to be separated.  We need to be seen.  We need to be cleansed.  Lent is that time of deep openness before and with God whereby He separates and judges and cleanses.

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”  — Hebrews 4.12,13

This verse is not a shameful public exposure of our deep selves to the world, with God pointing His finger and declaring to all who would see how dirty, nasty and worthless we are.  This is a loving Father who sees

that His children get dirty
and their hearts become hard
and their minds are deceived
and their spirits receive painful accusation
and their relationships get messy
and their hearts are troubled
and their souls carry pain
and their grief goes without comfort
and their addictions win
and their shame speaks loudly
and their despair is real
and their hope is compromised.

In the midst of these realities, and through the ministry of our loving Father, why would we not call for His Word to cut deep and divide?  What fear can reign in the presence of this gracious, loving Father who exposes us not to shame, but to redeem?  Not publicly, but through the gentle touch of His Holy Spirit?

Yes, Lent is a season of meditation on frailty.  It is a time of judgment and examination, but it is so much more.  Lent is a season of hope, expectation, intimacy and grace.

The times and seasons of God may not be for us to know, but the hope of Christ that is an active waiting on Him, seizing every moment for His glory, is our present inheritance.

And so I call to you, my brothers and sisters: embrace the waiting to which God is calling you.  Embrace the forty that God has chosen for you.  And through your waiting, your walking, your pain, your prosperity – through the whole of your journey — valiantly hope in Christ with great expectation. Because, as the psalmist said, “With the Lord, there is mercy and fullness of redemption.”

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