SERMON: Traditions (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
1. The World’s Traditions
In our society we have many traditions—some good, others not so good. And some you would wonder why they were started in the first place.
There are traditions like throwing confetti at a wedding. (A practice frowned upon by many churches today—after all, who’s going to clean up the mess?). But a practice which dates back to a time where grain or rice were thrown, in some sort of superstitious hope that the fertility of the seeds would, somehow, magically be transferred to the couple on whom they fell.
Then there’s shaking hands, a common enough practice today. But it originated in the times when people had to move about well-armed for their own protection. In those days, meeting a stranger was grounds for immediate suspicion. And only once it was certain there was no possibility of attack from the person that you met, then, and only then would weapons be put down and open palms shown to each other to show a lack of hostility. As a consequence, the shaking of hands was conducted to make sure of that lack of hostility, and to prevent the other person from grabbing their sword.
Traditions—the things we do today, the things we often take for granted—often have a story to tell. And their origins invariably have a completely different meaning from what is understood in there practice today. And just as that is true of the world as a whole, so is it, sometimes, true of the church as well.
2. The Church’s Traditions
And a good example of that is Lent. Because while for many people it’s a time when things just go merrily along as usual, for many—who have some kind of Christian background—it’s a time to give up things. And that has been a tradition around for a long time.
Indeed, some give up chocolate, or any number of other things. And some even, in churches, give up flowers. And that has become part of the tradition of Lent. But you know none of these things can be traced back to the origins of Lent. Because, helpful though some of these practices may be to some, Lent—the original purpose of Lent—meant much, much more.
Now the word Lent means ‘Spring’. (And that makes some kind of sense if you’re living in the northern hemisphere.) And these days, it’s a period of six weeks, or more correctly, it is a period of forty days preceding Easter. And I say ‘these days’ because it hasn’t always been six weeks.
Indeed, when Lent first began, the separate celebrations of Good Friday and Easter didn’t exist. Instead, there was a festival called the Christian Passover, and it was held on the Saturday and Sunday, commemorating the joint celebration of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
By the late second century, however, an extra day was added—the Friday—as a day of fasting. Which by the early third century was increased to two days. And by the middle of the third century was extended to six days—and became what we now know as ‘Holy Week’. In other words, by the mid third century, Lent was simply the one week prior to Easter, and was a time of deep spiritual discipline for all members of the church, in preparation for Easter.
Come the mid fourth century, however, Lent was extended another five weeks, to its current six-week period—or forty days—but for a distinct reason. And the reason was that it was considered important for all candidates for baptism to go through a period of training. Easter day was the day in which baptisms usually took place. And as a consequence, a six-week Lent provided an opportunity for candidates to show that they were committed to the faith.
For the first five weeks of Lent, therefore, those preparing for baptism went through a period of continual fasting and training (suspended only for Saturdays and Sundays). And then, when Holy Week arrived, they joined in with all the normal celebrations with the rest of the congregation, prior to being baptised on Easter Day.
And the period of forty days? Why was it chosen? It was because it symbolised: The forty days Moses spent on Mt Sinai waiting to receive God’s revelation. It symbolised the forty years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness. It symbolised the forty days Elijah spent fasting on his journey to Mt Horeb. And most importantly, it symbolised the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil.
And why were those seeking baptism required to submit to the forty days of preparation in this manner? To ensure that only those who were truly sincere in their Christian faith were received into the church.
Now, that is the origin, and the original meaning of Lent. It was not about giving things up, but it was about providing a five-week period in which candidates for baptism could show that they were genuine. And it was about providing a week—holy week—in which the whole church could prepare themselves for Easter.
However—lest those of us who have been baptised are too comfortable about the reason for Lent—it was also expected that those who had already been baptised would approach the whole period each year in the same way that he or she had done when they were preparing for baptism themselves. However, I must say, that was the theory, not the practice. Because in practice, probably only the candidates and the more devout members of the church went through the spiritual discipline required for such a lengthy period.
C. THE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES
Now, of course in a sense, with Lent, that’s history. Like the background to confetti and shaking hands, the original purpose has not been translated into the way we do things today.
Having said that, however, those who were candidates for baptism, were required to follow four basic spiritual disciplines. And whether we follow them in Lent or at other times, they are ones we would do well not to ignore.
And I’d like to briefly go through all four.
And the first discipline is obvious . . . and that is fasting—going without food and drink for a period of time. But not just as a means of identifying with the hungry of the world—like in the forty-hour famine—but as a means to become closer to God.
Now in the Bible, the topic of fasting is raised a number of times. In the Old Testament it was expected that God’s people would fast at least five times a year—at special annual events. It was a means by which believers could humble themselves before God. It was also a means of securing the guidance and help of God. However, it was also used as an expression of grief, and an act of penitence, showing sorrow, for misdeeds done. And in the New Testament, fasting was a practice that the Pharisees followed rigidly—twice a week, every Monday and Thursday.
Furthermore, Jesus is recorded as fasting in the wilderness. And Jesus is also recorded as assuming that his hearers would fast, but that it was inappropriate behaviour for his disciples to fast while he was with them. As a consequence, after Jesus’s death, the church leaders re-adopted the practice of fasting—as a means of self-discipline and for seeking guidance, particularly in regard to the choosing of missionaries, and elders.
Fasting, then, is a very important discipline for us to consider.
2. Study of the Scriptures
The second discipline is study—reading and studying the scriptures being very important in the life of any believer.
Now in the New Testament, even the Pharisees took seriously the importance of study. And they were able to follow the teaching of Jesus, even if they deliberately disagreed with his teaching.
Jesus himself knew the scriptures intimately, and was able to quote freely from the Old Testament. And the Apostles? Well, Paul was so strong about the need to read and learn from scripture—and in an age where literacy rates would not have been high—that he exhorted Timothy to devote himself to reading the scriptures, preaching, and teaching in public (1 Tim 4:13). And that was backed up, by telling Timothy in a second letter, that all scripture was God-breathed and was useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
It’s by way of some sort of an irony then, that when Paul went to Berea, with Silas, to teach them all they knew about Jesus, that the Bereans checked everything that Paul said with what was written in their bibles. A very healthy habit to get into.
The third discipline is that of prayer—the highest activity of which the human spirit is capable—which may also be thought of as communion with God.
It includes all the attitudes of the human spirit in its approach to God. And includes adoration, confession, praise, and supplication.
Now I’m led to understand that in the Old Testament alone there are about eighty-five original prayers. There are also about sixty whole Psalms and fourteen parts of Psalms that can be considered prayers too. So obviously as far as the Bible is concerned, prayer is a very important part of a believer’s life. And, as a consequence, we shouldn’t be surprised by the amount of teaching that Jesus did on this very subject.
Jesus taught to his disciples to pray about pressing needs (Luke 11:5-8). And he gave the example of a man who received a sudden visitor, and had to knock on his friend’s door, at midnight, for the loan of some bread.
Jesus taught about prayer, in terms of the generosity of God (Matthew 7:7). And in the well-known saying, he said to ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.
Jesus taught of the need to be persistent in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). And he gave the example of the widow who sought justice, and would not give up calling on the judge until justice was done.
And Jesus taught about the need for humility and penitence in prayer (Luke 18:10-14). As in the example of the tax collector and the Pharisee, where the Pharisee stood up and told God what a good man he was. And in contrast the tax collector—who admitted his failings—considered himself totally unworthy.
Jesus’s practice regarding prayer, was that he prayed in secret, and on a regular basis. He prayed at times of spiritual conflict, and he even prayed on the cross.
In his prayers he offered thanksgiving, sought guidance, interceded on behalf of others, and generally communed with the Father. All the things that he encouraged his disciples, and us to do.
And the fourth discipline is that of humility.
Now this virtue springs from the fact that humility is found as part of God’s character. Because in one sense, God is represented as being incomparably high and great. But in another sense, he is notes as humbling himself to take note and to become involved in what we are doing. Indeed, even Jesus, we’re told by the Apostle Paul, humbled himself and became obedient to death, by dying on the cross” (Philippians 2:8b).
Humility is therefore in God’s nature. It’s part of who God is. And as a consequence, it is a trait that is expected of his followers too.
In the Old Testament, humility was a quality to be praised. So for example, when Moses was charged of being arrogant, God came to his rescue, and said that Moses was more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3).
Daniel was given the job of pronouncing God’s judgement to Belshazaar because he was filled with arrogance and pride, rather than having humbled himself before God (Daniel 5:22).
And in the New Testament, even Paul, facing a less than humble church at Galatia, Exhorted the people to clothe themselves, not with false humility, but with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Galatians 3:12b).
Four disciplines then, which were features of the spiritual disciplines required of all those seeking baptism in the early church. It’s what people did. It was the whole purpose of Lent. And yet despite the changing tradition of Lent, they are still disciplines that are relevant for us today.
As you can imagine, then, the original Lent, in all its glory—with the forty days prior to the celebration of Easter—must have been an exciting time in the life of the church.
But contrary to common practice, it wasn’t a time to give up things. It was a time to exercise these four spiritual disciplines—which although not restricted to the Lenten period were intended to bring the people to new heights of devotion.
So whilst it is true, that the purposes of things do change their meaning over time—and throwing confetti and shaking hands are just two examples of that—in regard to Lent, while it may no longer be the used as an intense period leading up to baptism, the spiritual disciplines of fasting, study, prayer, and humility are things that should never be lost.
The teaching and examples of Jesus and the early church, show us, today, the importance of maintaining each of those disciplines. And they are disciplines we should take seriously as individuals—and as a church—in our walks with God.
Posted: 20th May 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis