4 Reasons Why I Don’t Observe LENT  

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I must admit that I did not grow up observing Lent.  I am a non-denominational pastor of a fairly non-traditional church.  So, some people might dismiss me before they read any further because of my background.  But with anything in life, sometimes an outside view is the best one when something on the inside might need to be reconsidered.

According to the Roman Catholic Church, Lent is a 40 day period of preparation for Easter Sunday.  It is a season marked by prayer, fasting, abstinence and giving.  For most people who follow Lent, it begins on Ash Wednesday, which is today.  In theory, the idea of Lent can be a good one.  But here are a few cautions I have observed over the years from my friends who decide to “give up something for Lent.”

Caution #1: Lent can lead us to focus on giving up the wrong things and leads to a false righteousness.   In high school I dated a Catholic girl during the season of Lent.  I remember that she gave up chocolate.  I also remember that she cheated on me with her ex-boyfriend who was away at college during that same season of Lent.  When we started dating, we had made a commitment to remain pure with each other because that was the right thing to do.  The logic behind “give up chocolate” but engage in “sexual immorality” has just never made sense to me.  But sadly, many Christians do something similar to this when they observe the season of Lent.  They give up chocolate, but not sin.

Maybe, instead of giving up chocolate and coffee for Lent, we could give up what the Bible actually tells us to give up: “Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed…rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.  Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:5,8-9).

Caution #2: Lent often involves a fast which is frivolous.  When we give up candy or soda pop or something like that and call it fasting, we need to be careful to not make that which is holy all too common.  I used to teach that fasting was anything that you would give up for a time period to show God that you were serious about acknowledging Him as the leader in your life.  Fasting could be giving up television for a week.  Fasting could be just about anything.  I don’t believe that anyone.  Why?  Because a couple months ago I came across the teachings of someone who was dedicated to fasting.  It changed the way I will think about it until the day I die.  This “spiritual giant” has fasted for years.  He has fasted for a 24 hour period and also for 21 and 40 day periods.  He fasts by withholding from himself food and sometimes water.  This is what he said about fasting: “Biblical Fasting is always connected to food and water.  And there is a reason for that.  We cannot live without food and water.  When we give up one or both of these things for a period of time, we are showing God that we hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

If you want to give up coffee or candy for Lent, go ahead.  Just be careful about calling it fasting.  When your stomach growls because you haven’t eaten for a day, you are reminded that you are to hunger for righteousness.  When you decide to not drink water for a day, you are reminded that the true Living Water is the only One who will quench your thirst.  True fasting involves food and water because the substitutes (coffee, soda) fall short in bringing the human soul to acknowledge the supernatural work of God in your life.  Giving up candy doesn’t cause you to hunger or thirst.  Giving up your favorite television channel doesn’t cause you to hunger or thirst.  An empty stomach and a dry mouth has much greater potential to remind you of your need for the God of the universe.

Caution #3: Lent can wrongly lead people to believe that they can be saved by their works.   Since the beginning of the early church, people have engaged in asceticism in order to find salvation.  Let me give you a few example of asceticism over the centuries.  In the middle ages, monks would…

…mix sand with their bread and then eat it.

…stand for 7 years without ever sitting.

…allow beetles to eat them and do nothing about it.

…only eat uncooked food for 7 years.

…live in a swamp for 6 months.

…refuse to lie down for 40 years to sleep.

…not speak for one full year.

…keep a record of how long they would go without seeing a woman.

…even carry heavy weights everywhere they would go.

All this would be done so that they might become righteous before God.  They believed that by denying themselves of certain things, that would make them more spiritually fit as a Christian.  But when Jesus told us to deny ourselves, He was not referring to standing for 7 years or sitting in swamps.  He was referring to selfishness.  A certain kind of pride often creeps in and we think we are better than others when we do things in the name of denial.  So if you do some things in the name of Christ, don’t tell other people.  If you fast, do it in secret and only tell those who really need to know about it.  Don’t announce to the world what you are giving up for Jesus!  Just do it and let the world know that there is something different about you.

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The picture you are looking at is the 12th century Ladder of Divine Ascent in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt.  This picture shows monks, led by John Climacus, ascending the ladder to Jesus, at the top right.  These monks are climbing on a ladder with 30 steps.  They are to do 30 things in order to find their place with Jesus, to be worthy to get to heaven.  But along the way are demons with arrows that are trying to take them down.  This is asceticism and it has no place in the doctrine of salvation by grace.  The belief that if you work hard enough in certain areas, you will succeed in your entrance to heaven, has sent many well meaning people to hell.  It is not asceticism which saves you.  It is the grace of Jesus Christ.  Lent can sometimes turn into asceticism.

Caution #4: Lent often becomes ritualistic instead of deepening our relationship with God.  Even though I didn’t grow up Catholic, I did grow up with my own set of rituals and traditions that I was taught to follow.  Over the years, I have decided that most of the traditions I was taught were extra-biblical and do not lead me into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.  So, I have decided to stop following those traditions.  It has been an important part in my spiritual journey.

In the local church I lead, I estimate that we have at least 100-150 people who grew up in the Catholic Church but now attend Central Church.  As much as they have appreciated their heritage and the good foundation that the Catholic Church gave them, they almost always share with me a common theme after attending for a while: “For the first time, I realize that my Christian faith is about a relationship with Jesus Christ.”  For too many church-goers, it is all about going through the motions of a mindless ritual, and yet they are just as far from God as before they entered the church building.

Maybe Lent is a spiritually moving event for you.  Maybe you grow in your relationship with Jesus Christ like no other time because you are giving something up for Him.  But maybe it has become a tradition that you do because you were taught it was important for a good Christian to do.  Maybe, just maybe, God’s plan for you is much bigger than 40 days.  Maybe, God wants you to deny yourself 365 days a year and get rid of your sin and instead clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).

In the words of Job, who once had ashes on himself: “I know that my redeemer lives” (Job 19:25).  The season leading up to Easter should be one of complete joy, for we know that our redeemer lives!   We are not in a season of death, for our redeemer lives!  Our redeemer has paid the ultimate sacrifice!  We cannot and should not add to our Savior’s sacrifice.  Our redeemer lives!

5 Reasons Why I Loved the Son of God Movie

Last Saturday, I took my wife to see the Son of God movie.  I had been hearing reports both good and bad about the movie.  Some people were calling it “heroic” while others were calling it “heretical.”  As a pastor leading over one thousand people in our local church, I felt the responsibility to go and see this movie for myself.  I did not want to speak out about the movie without seeing it first.  Also, this last week, I have been overwhelmed by people asking me my take on this movie.  Should they go see it or not?  They have heard about how the producers of the movie (i.e. Roma Downey) are new agers and wonder if they should support the movie because the producers seem off theologically.  Let me just say this about that last stream of logic: “If we avoided watching any media because people who produced the media had different beliefs then us, then we would have to cease watching 99% of media.”  I think it is ironic how people will avoid watching a movie like “Son of God” because the producers are new agers, but those same people will sit at home and watch a show on television that portrays unbiblical values without having a problem with it.  At least be consistent!  I personally believe that God can and does work through flawed people to get his message across.  An example of this is Mel Gibson with the “Passion” movie.

Because there is so much confusion surrounding this movie, I feel like I should let you know some facts about the movie.  These are not opinions, as many of the critics of the movie have displayed in their articles.  I am simply giving you the facts.

Fact #1: Jesus states clearly Who He is several times throughout the movie.  I have heard from several critics that this movie does not portray Jesus as the Son of God, but as some other kind of Jesus that is an imposter of the real one.  But if that is the case, then why did the movie portray Jesus saying these things about himself:

“I am the resurrection” (John 11:25).

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

We are told to test the spirits (1 John 4:1-3).  A false spirit would not portray Jesus as the way to heaven.  A false spirit would try to confuse people about who Jesus is, but in the movie, Jesus clearly states who He is.  I might not agree with every detail about the movie, but when I heard Jesus repeatedly telling the audience who He was, this helped my spirit rest and know that God’s Word is being spread in this movie theater.

Fact #2: The movie simultaneously connected the Jewish Passover in the Temple with Jesus’ death on the cross at Golgotha.  For me, this was my favorite part of the movie.  Whoever wrote this scene had done not just their homework, but their extra credit.  This is an often overlooked part of “Good Friday” for Christians.  We focus on the cross of Jesus, and yet fail to connect how Jesus was fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy that He was the Passover lamb.  The movie brilliantly showed a scene where a priest was holding a lamb in the temple and slit its throat and then at the same time showed Jesus on the cross.  This is God’s story being fulfilled!  The Passover lamb which saved the Hebrews from the angel of death and from Pharaoh came to complete fulfillment almost fifteen hundred years later in the death of Jesus Christ.

Fact #3: Jesus forgives sin while he heals a lame man in the movie.  Another powerful scene occurred when Jesus was teaching and was suddenly interrupted by men who brought their friend to Him who couldn’t walk.  Jesus looked at the man and said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5).  Jesus was confronted about this statement by the religious leaders because only God can forgive sins.  A religious leader even called Jesus a blasphemer in that same scene.  Once again, the movie clearly portrays Jesus as God who has the ability to forgive people from their sins.

Fact #4: The movie accurately displays Jesus’ death and resurrection.  This is the gospel message according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8.  When I watched the movie, I witnessed Jesus suffer by being mocked, flogged, and crucified.  I hated watching this, but I need to be reminded of what Jesus did for me on the cross.  He gave us his life so that I might be able to have eternal life.  As a Christian, we realize that it is not just Jesus’ death that saves us from our sin, it is His resurrection which gives Him the power over sin and death.  The movie beautifully displayed how one moment the apostles were discouraged, not knowing what to do, but then after they see the empty tomb and then the resurrected Jesus, they are ready to die for the new found faith that has now so mightily gripped them to the core of their being.  The movie even stated how all the apostles (except John) died for their faith in Jesus Christ later on as they were spreading the message of the gospel.

Fact #5: The movie makes some assumptions from Scripture that I wouldn’t, and that sharpened me to know what I believe.  This movie was not word for word from any of the gospels.  That was not the intent.  I have the videos from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Matthew.  I can relax when I watch them because it is literally the Bible being read to me as I watch it.  We have to remember that whenever we watch a movie based on past events, there will be some details presented where we are not sure whether we should agree with it or not.

For example, the movie seemed to portray Mary Magdalene as one of the apostles.  She traveled with Jesus and the apostles everywhere in the movie.  Is this biblical?  Yes and no.  No, because she is not an apostle according to the Bible because the Bible only lists twelve men as apostles (and the movie never states that she is either; it at most implies it).  Yes, because it appears that Mary Magdalene and other women traveled with Jesus “helping to support them” (read Luke 8:1-3).  Also, John’s account of the resurrection focuses on Mary Magdalene (John 20:1).  Mary Magdalene had a role in the ministry with Jesus, but was it as significant as the movie suggested?  Probably not, but we have to admit that Scripture makes clear that Mary Magdalene ministered along with the other apostles.  This brings up another point of how all four of our gospels focus on different events from Jesus’ life and different sayings of Jesus and some of the details are different.  The gospels do this because they are trying to reach a different audience.  Some of the audiences are Gentiles while other ones are Jewish.  Some of the audiences believe in many gods while others believe in one.  But the message remains the same!  All four gospels present Jesus as the Son of God who came to save the people of the world from their sins.

I have also heard complaints concerning the scene depicting Jesus and Peter in the boat catching fish.  Jesus tells Peter that they are going to “change the world.”  Some of the critics of the movie don’t like that phrasing.  They say it is not biblical.  At first, I thought it was a weird way to tell Peter that they were going to spread the gospel of the kingdom of God, but after thinking about it, changing the world is exactly what Jesus came to do.  He brought a new covenant to this planet while He was here, and that new covenant would change millions of individual lives.  I should know, because I am one of those people who have been “changed” by the message of Jesus!

So, the big question: “Would I recommend that you go and see this movie?”  The answer is: “Absolutely!”  This would be a great movie to take a friend to who doesn’t know who Jesus Christ is personally.  Take them to this movie and have dinner or coffee with them afterwards.  Start the discussion.  Remember, it could change their world!

Are You Ready?

This week I am starting a three-week sermon series called “The Signs of the End.”  One of the things I am going to emphasize is that the Bible clearly teaches that there will be a time in the future when the world will experience horrific events.  Our hearts were crushed when we witnessed the terrorism at the Boston Marathon and the catastrophic destruction of the Oklahoma tornadoes.  It seems like these events happen on a regular basis in our lives now.  But these events are only a microcosm of what is to come.  In the Bible, the books called Daniel and Revelation depict a period of time called “The Great Tribulation” that lasts for seven years.  Utterly unthinkable things happen during this seven-year period.  We are told in Matthew 24 that God shortened this time to only seven years because if it would go on any longer no one would survive.

The words written about “The Great Tribulation” are to be a warning to us right now.  These prophecies were written to place fear within our hearts so that we turn away from the evil that tries to entangle us and instead turn towards God.  But, I also believe that the Bible will be just as useful to people during this tribulation as it is right now.  People will be able to read the book of Revelation and then go outside and see these events unfold before their very eyes.

During this seven-year tribulation, horrible events will take place.  You will not want to be living on this planet during this time period.  To prove my point, allow me to give you eight of them.

The worst famine ever.  This famine will inflate prices to astronomical levels.  For example, someone would have to work an entire day to afford just a small amount of wheat.  And this amount wouldn’t even be enough to feed your own family.  Therefore, working hard for your food will be futile.

Wars, plagues and wild beasts will kill one-fourth of the world’s population.  In Revelation 6:8, we are told that Death and Hades were given power to kill off a fourth of the world’s population. Today, we have over six billion people on this planet.  For argument’s sake, lets say that one billion Christians are raptured and will not be a part of this tribulation.  That means that in this one event, over one billion people will die.  Millions of people will die because of war.  Millions of people will die from disease.  And millions of people will die by being attacked by lions, and tigers and bears.

One third of the land and water on earth will be destroyed.  Trees and green grass will be burned up from falling hail (that is made up of fire mixed with blood).  A large meteorite will fall into the sea and then a different one will fall into the freshwater lakes and rivers.  This will cause part of the sea to turn into blood and kill off many sea creatures.  One third of the lakes and rivers will be poisoned and many people will die because the water is undrinkable.  Later on in the seven-year period, much of the ocean and freshwater lakes and rivers turn to blood.

Locusts torment the unsaved for five months. The description of scorpion-like locusts sounds like it is from a science fiction movie.  These locusts will be able to sting like scorpions.  The locusts were not allowed to kill anyone, but only torment people for five months.  “And in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them” (Revelation 9:6).

 Two hundred million soldiers kill one-third of the world’s population.  Years ago China claimed to have an army of two hundred million (Time, May 21, 1965, p. 35).  Could this be a reference to China’s role in the end times?  Possibly, but this army could be made up of several different nations, so it might not be one individual nation.  While that is mere speculation, we can estimate that over one and a half billion people will be killed by this army.  The destruction is unthinkable.  The prophetic book of Joel describes the dread that will come over the people as they anticipate the approach of this army.

Boils.  Everyone who will follow the Antichrist will develop loathsome and malignant sores on their body.  During my freshman year of college, I developed a boil under my left armpit.  It was so painful, I couldn’t let any clothing touch it.  It was that painful.  I had to sleep a certain way to make sure the boil didn’t touch anything.  I can’t imagine having my body filled with boils.  The pain will be unbearable.

One hundred pound hail will fall on people.  We have all seen a hail storm at some point in our lives.  But the hail we see is small compared to what is described in Revelation.  We would be amazed if we saw dime sized hail.  But during the seven-year tribulation, hundred pounders will fall from the sky.  Gigantic hail will kill people.  These large ice balls will make homes look like Swiss cheese.

Two hundred miles of blood.  At the end of the seven-year tribulation, Jesus Christ will come down on a white horse and destroy every single evil human on the planet.  The destruction of human life is so great that blood will be seen for almost two hundred miles and will be four to five feet high.  What a horrible end to a tragic seven years.

So what do we do with all this info?  We could ignore it.  Most people do.  Possibly until it is too late.  Or we could allow it to motivate us to change.  If all this stuff is true and will happen someday, you want to avoid it!  But how can you avoid it?  God makes a promise to us that if we are a follower of Jesus Christ, then He will keep us from the hour of trial (the Great Tribulation) that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth (Revelation 3:10).

How do you become a follower of Jesus Christ?  You first have to believe.  You believe in your heart that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  You believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is alive and has the power over sin and death and is able to forgive you of all your sins (past, present, future).  But you can’t just believe in your heart.  You need to confess that Jesus Christ is the leader of your life.  That He is the one who is in control over you.

Are you ready?  Do you believe in Jesus Christ as the forgiver of your sins?  Have you confessed to others that Jesus Christ is your leader?  If you can answer yes to those questions, then God will save you.  He will save you from the coming “Great Tribulation.”  He will save you from eternal damnation in the Lake of Fire.  He will make sure you spend eternity with Him on the New Heaven and the New Earth.  It is your choice.  Are you ready?