Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-9
How many of you have given something up for Lent this year? Or perhaps some of you have taken on a new discipline? We’re here on the third Sunday of Lent, near the mid-point of the season, so how’s it going? Or if not this year have you given up something in past years?
Giving up something for Lent has always been part of my family’s tradition leading up to Easter, as it is for many Christians around the world. As a child I remember each member of my family choosing something, usually chips, or chocolate or candy, and promising to give it up for the whole season of Lent. As a child this seemed like a daunting task, how does a kid give up chocolate from 40 whole days? And I also really didn’t understand the reason we gave something up, it was just something we did, it was part of my family’s ritual, part of the fabric of my year, but it didn’t really mean much to me. Over the years it certainly has taken on more meaning for me, as I have come to better understand and engage with my Christian faith, and as I have come to understand Lent better.
The act of giving something up for Lent, finds its roots in the early Church, although it is not clear what the exact practices of Lent were, as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries we have examples of Christians fasting for some period during the Lenten season, Lent served as a 40-day preparation period for Easter. It was only after the Roman Empire’s legalization of Christianity in the year 313 A.D. that Lenten practices became more standardized, with more intense fasting, especially for people preparing for baptism on Easter. The rules of the Lenten fast have evolved over the centuries since then, beginning with a fast from all meat (which might I add, some Christians still observe, the Eastern Orthodox Church as an example) to our more modern tradition of giving up one or two things, habits or activities that we see as a vice, that we see as unhealthy either physically, psychologically or spiritually: whether that be drinking alcohol, eating chocolate or salty treats, giving up smoking or the most modern trend of all, giving up Facebook for Lent. Many Christian leaders will suggest that we should instead of giving things up, take one new spiritual disciplines during the season of Lent, perhaps you can commit to reading saying morning or evening prayer, perhaps you can read scripture more diligently or pray more regularly. While the practices of our Lenten observation may have changed the purpose remains the same: the act of giving something up or of taking on a spiritual discipline serves to reorient our lives, to reorient our understanding of our stories in relation to God’s story, to refocus once more, through the ancient activity of fasting, our lives upon God.
And so in the midst of Lent you might have been a little surprised to hear the words from our passage from the book of the Prophet Isaiah this morning. “Ho everyone who thirsts come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price! Eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food!” If only the Ontario Liberal Party had studied this passage before they prepared their most recent budget, they would have lowered the price of wine rather than raising it! And so right in the middle of our Lenten journey we have this invitation to a full and rich life, to a life of feasting. We are invited to imagine a rich feast with abundant food spread before us, rich food and not the paltry fare of diets or Lenten fasts. Wine and milk were not staple foods in ancient Israel, they would have been foods reserved for feasting and celebration – think of expensive champagne and rich delicacies.
On the surface this all seems at odds with the spirit of the season of Lent. Lent is a penitential season – on Ash Wednesday we as Anglicans were invited in our liturgy to “observe a Holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and by reading and meditating on the Word of God” altogether not a very celebratory or raucous list of activities. I don’t read feasting, or celebration of abundant and rich living in that list.
While it may be difficult to reconcile feasting and fasting together, in God’s story they are intimately tied together. The Story that God invites us into is one of abundant life and richness, it is a Story that is ultimately about God’s abundant mercy, his abundant love and grace showered upon the world in his Son, our saviour Jesus Christ. And yet so often though we can lose our focus, we can lose sight of the joy and abundance that is at the heart of God’s story and come to a place of scarcity, a place of distraction, of fear. This can happen for many reasons and as a church community we can be overwhelmed by the challenges we face, and those challenges are many: declining church membership across the Western World, limited financial resources, a dearth of people to do the work of ministry in the church, changes that shake the foundations of our understanding of church, traumatic events, and the list goes on and on. In the face of these challenges we can begin to operate out of a place of fear, a place of scarcity and not out of hope and trust in a God who is abundantly generous, who offers limitless and radiant joy to all those who find their rest in Him. We begin to “spend our money on that which is not bread and labour for that which does not satisfy” as the prophet Isaiah puts it. The season of Lent offers us the opportunity to refocus, to offer to God in penitence and meditation, in prayer and almsgiving, in self-examination and the reading of Scripture, our fears and anxieties; it offers us the opportunity to lift our concerns, our doubts, our deepest insecurities and finally to lift our worldview shaped by scarcity up to God and leave it in his hands. Lent offers us the opportunity to prepare ourselves as individuals, but more importantly as a church, as the body of Christ, for the feast of Holy Week, for the radiant and raucous celebration of the resurrection at Easter that changes the very fabric of the world.
And so it is no surprise that today in the middle of this Lenten season we hear these words from the prophet Isaiah speaking of the great feast of the Lord, the resplendent table – full of rich and delicious food and drink – that God sets before us, that he sets before all creation. The fasting and reorienting of Lent reminds of us who God is, reminds us that whenever we think God is a God of only just enough, or perhaps even not enough – we are challenged and invited to remember the abundant, limitless grace, love and mercy that God showers upon us in Jesus Christ. In the midst of our disbelief, our doubts, our self-preservation and sinfulness God nonetheless invites us to his Eucharistic feast, he invites us to taste and see that the food is good, that the food is rich and delicious. God invites and challenges us to live out of a place of abundance, to put aside our feelings of scarcity, our feelings of anxiety and to experience the fullness of God’s joy, and out of that joy to share generously of our time, our talent and our financial gifts for the service of others and the heralding of God’s kingdom.
As we continue in this season of Lent, in the midst of challenges and changes, I invite us to remember the abundance of God, I invite us to remember the abundant generosity and self-giving of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I invite us to reorient and refocus ourselves to the limitless joy and grace that we experience at the table of the Lord, that we experience on Easter day. What is holding you back from experiencing the abundance of God in your life and the life of his church here at Grace Church? What is keeping you in a place of scarcity and feelings of ‘just enough’? What is keeping us as community in those wilderness places? Let us offer them to God in prayer today, let us lift them to God to take them, to redeem them and transform them. Let us remember that God is a God of abundance, that he is a God who intends for each us to know his joy coursing through our lives and our life together as the body of Christ at Grace Church.
Today as we meet together in our annual vestry meeting, let us meet out of a place of abundance, let our discussions and visions for the church be shaped not by a place of scarcity and lack, but rather let us dream and look forward to the rich and abundant feast of the Lord, let the abundant love and joy of our God shape our future together. As we live out God’s Story, let us live out of a place of abundance and may we all today, taste and see that the Lord is good. Let us Pray,
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” Amen.
Rev. Graham McCaffrey