Lent is traditionally a time for giving something up, and most of the things people abstain from at this time of year are themselves quite traditional: Alcohol... smoking... chocolate... sweets... even meat... all these have been regarded in some quarters as rather self-indulgent – perhaps even as vices – and when someone is considering what to give up for Lent these are tend to be the first things that come to mind.
But some of the things people give up for Lent are less obvious. There are people who cook normally at home but give up restaurants and takeaways. I know someone who has given up computer games for Lent. I’ve heard of people putting their mobile phones away for 6 weeks, unplugging the TV and the stereo, or disconnecting the internet. I’ve even heard of giving up fashionable clothing for Lent.
These approaches may seem odd to anyone who has grown up with a traditional idea of Lent, and to society at large the idea of abstaining from anything without an ulterior motive is somewhat bizarre. Dieting and quitting tobacco are fashionable enough, of course, but for every voice encouraging self-control we hear a hundred urging us to pamper ourselves, to give in to temptation, to gratify our desires. And in this context, it’s not what we give up Lent that matters, but how we choose it.
Of course, Lent was originally a time for giving up food - hence the point of Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day): to use up yummy, filling foods like flour, eggs and fat, so that they wouldn’t go off over the 6 weeks of Lent and wouldn’t be lying around the home to tempt people. But it is temptation that is the real focus of Lent – and learning to fight that temptation.
And the fact is, we have so many more temptations to deal with than our forebears did. They didn’t have chocolate and sweets and ice cream and banoffee pie and so on to tempt them, as we do every time they turn on the TV or go into the supermarket. They didn’t have TV and recorded music and the internet and computer games to distract them from their walk with God. For them, clothing was about keeping warm rather than making a fashion statement.
So it is right and proper, if we are gong to observe Lent, not to do it by numbers, not to copy others, not to give up things that we feel we ought to give up anyway. Rather, it’s a time to reflect on what it is that really tempts each one of us. I’d like us each to think for a moment: Is there one thing that really does suck you in? Something that whenever you see it, you want it? Something that you think about when it’s not there?..... A type of food or drink? A habit? A pastime? A website? I’m not asking you to admit it to anyone, unless you really feel led to. But, if something did come into your mind when I asked the question a moment ago, and if you are going to give something up for Lent (and it’s not to late to do so) then maybe that is the thing you could consider giving up between now and Easter - and perhaps longer.
And while Lent traditionally focuses on giving things up, it’s not just about giving things up. In fact, I want to suggest that it’s just as much about two other things: taking something on, and receiving something from God.
Firstly, Lent is a time for taking something on. I think it’s remarkable how many people do simply and faithfully give something up at Lent, year after year, without taking on anything new. I mean to say, I am really impressed by their determination. Because giving up without taking on is not unlike handing over your money in a shop and walking away without the goods.
The point of Lent is to transform our approach to the rest of the Christian year, to strengthen us, to empower us, to help us get more out of our fellowship with God and with one another. And the best way to do that is to balance the negative (giving up) with a positive (taking on).
Let me mention just briefly some of the things people often take up at this time of year: A more regular discipline of prayer, either privately or with others... more Bible reading... perhaps a more conscious study, such as a Lent Course... joining a house group... helping out with something in the church or wider community... and above all, Lent is a time for asking asking questions about what we could or should be doing with the rest of our lives... The possibilities are almost unlimited, but they all have three things in common. They all involve a sacrifice of some sort, even if only of our free time. They all enrich our lives. And they all (whether directly or indirectly) benefit other people around us. And this points forward to the final point about Lent that I mentioned in passing earlier.
Lent is a time for receiving something from God. The experience of Christians down the centuries is that doing Lent with a bit of determination reliably turns into a major blessing from God. Some talk about going into the summer with a new sense of cleanness after dealing conclusively with something in their past. Others talk about a new strength to resist temptation. Some talk about a renewed sense of God’s presence in their lives, or a new vision for the future, or a fresh commitment to living life God’s way, or a resilient new sense of joy and peace even in difficult times.
Easter is a time when we reflect on all that God has done for us in Christ. But it is equally about what he can do for us in the future, and what we can do for him. No one can predict how this Eastertide will change you, if at all. But by giving things up and taking things on during the preparatory season of Lent, we offer ourselves to God to be changed and renewed, and line ourselves up to receive a blessing from him that will transform the year ahead and possibly the rest of our lives.