Thursday, February 14, 2013

Explaining Christian Rituals: Lent from a Protestant's Perspective

Lent? What's that?

Growing up, my family never participated in Lent. Why? I can't say I have a good reason, other than, well, what good reason was there for participating in Lent? It was a Catholic tradition, and as Evangelical Protestants, we just had no use for that kind of tradition. We were free in Christ, and that freedom did not need to be supplemented or repeatedly earned by rituals, such as giving up something we enjoy for 40 days. Lent just was not on my family's radar screen at all. 

As I grew older, I became aware of the practice and a little of what it signified. I knew it had something to do with giving things up in order to get closer to God. And, I confess that I did give it a whirl from time to time. However, here is an indicator of how long it has been since I have tried it: the last time I remember giving something up for Lent, it was A.I.M. That's AOL Instant Messenger. Yeah, it has been a long time. 

Growing popularity?

Nowadays, Lent seems to be in fashion among Protestants. My spiritual home base, a large church in the city (of the windy persuasion) is even doing a preaching series on it. Why is this? Why is Lent increasing in popularity with people for whom ancient ritual is typically not a large part of their religious experience? 

A Biblical Clue

I believe the answer can be found in Revelation 18. Let's break down this chapter and see what it has to tell us about God, the world, judgment, and Lent. 

Verses 1-3: Babylon (the world economic system) is fallen. She has spread immorality across the world. 

Verses 4-8: Babylon, that haughty city, will be burned up in a single day.
Verses 9-10: Kings will wail when Babylon is destroyed in a single hour.

Verses 11-13: The market for goods and slaves worldwide dries up.
Verse 14: Luxury, once supplied by Babylon, is gone. 

Verse 15-17a: Merchants mourn for Babylon. 

Verses 17b-18: Sea-faring merchants who grew rich off Babylon wail. 

Verses 19-20: [A transition to heavenly celebration over Babylon's destruction]

Verses 21-24: There will be no more celebrating in Babylon, which had been murdering God's people.
So Babylon is churning out debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft and violence in massive quantities and exporting it all to the rest of the world, who greedily gobbles it up. In case it hasn't sunk in yet, Babylon is going to be destroyed. But where--or what--is Babylon?

In Revelation 17 and 18, "Babylon" represents the global economic and religious system. This system is focused on instant gratification, materialism, and the kind of idolatry that puts possessions and self-promotion above the King of the Universe (viz. God). In our world today, "Babylon" is the financial centers like Tokyo, London, New York, and Chicago. Babylon is also the media capitals like Nashville, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. And Babylon is in our religion when it serves as a tool by which we pursue our "best life now" instead of God's glory. Wherever the glorification of man and material above the pursuit of holiness, Babylon is there. 

Now, let's take a closer look at Verses 4-5.

God calls his people to come out of Babylon. The rationale is two-fold. First, so they will not partake in her sins. Second, so they will not share in her plagues. In other words, the people of God need to stay the people of God and not get sucked into the swirling vortex of temptation, debauchery, and inverted priorities that Babylon produces. God has been keeping track of Babylon's sins and reserving it for judgment. If God's people fail to get out, they might very well get caught up in its destruction as well. 

Here's the main idea: some day, Babylon will be destroyed. At that time everyone will be deprived of its luxuries, indulgences, and debaucheries. For those who enjoyed and profited from these, that day will be one of horror and mourning. God, it seems, is giving his people an early warning, so they can get out early. It is far better to leave Babylon voluntarily, in faith, than to share in her destruction.

The Babylon system is Satanic. It is from the devil, and like the devil it stands opposed to the Lord. It is not as though the products of Babylon are good, and God is trying to deprive his people. On the contrary, Babylon provides only snares and traps and slavery (cf. 18:11-13). God, who loves his world (John 3:16), hates how Babylon ensnares people and drags them down into addiction and depravity. He wants the best for his people. Therefore, in Verses 4-5, the distinguishing mark of God's people is that they leave Babylon. 

Roadmap Out Of Babylon

This is where Lent comes in. Lent is a way of taking a step back from the world. As believers, we do not indiscriminately indulge in all the world's pleasures. 

The 40-day Lenten season is a reminder that we find our ultimate pleasure in the Lord, and we look forward to our everlasting home, where we will dwell with our Father and reign with our Messiah forever.

Lent is not saying that the things we give up for Lent are necessarily bad for us (though they might be). It is saying that we value God more highly than all things--even the good things--in our lives. 

I believe that sentiment is the heart of Lent, and that it must predate the dry ritual it has turned into for so many. 

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to get off the computer. I'm giving up being online after 9:30 for the next 40 days in order to spend more time with my wife and my Lord (it's small, but it's a start). 

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