Welcome back to our series on the daily prayers & readings appointed for Lent. I didn’t post a prayer of the day for yesterday, and that’s for a good reason — the Sundays in Lent are technically not part of Lent. The 40 days of Lent are counted excluding the Sundays. (Hence the nomenclature “Sundays in Lent.”) It sounds more confusing than it is.
That being said, here’s today’s prayer of the day:
Convert us, O God our Savior: and that this Lenten fast may profit us, instruct our minds with its heavenly discipline; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost: ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Right away we notice the very short opening to this prayer. It cuts straight to the meat of the petition. It’s very brief, which is by no means bad in a prayer. The opening petition reminds us that repentence is a continual turning to God in sorrow over sin and a continual seeking of His face for mercy and forgiveness — we are sure to find Him forgiving and welcoming when we do. The second half of the prayer reminds us of the true purpose of Lent: not to fast outwardly (or outwardly only), but ultimately to abstain from sinful desires which war against your soul, as St. Peter says. Johann Gerhardt, in a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, has a wonderfully concise explanation of the different kinds of fasting and their aims and benefits. I couldn’t summarize it better than he does, so I’ll let you read him instead:
Christ wanted to teach true fasting with His example: It does not consist of a person refraining from certain foods at certain times and regarding that as being meritorious and as a satisfaction for sin. Instead, the following is a true, God-pleasing fast, namely, “The primary, great universal fast,” as Augustine calls it, is a person abstains from the lusts of the flesh which strive against the soul, 1 Pet. 2:11, where a person then does not fulfill the lusts of the flesh, Gal. 5:16. Also, all members can fast in this manner if they do not give in to the servitude of impurity, but instead to the weapons of righteousness, Rom. 6:13, 19.
Following this there is a daily fast: moderation. With it is observed an appropriate restraint in eating and drinking in order that one becomes adept at praying, skillful at his calling, and in the exercise of godliness. Also, this is of such a vital, essential necessity that Christ speaks with words worthy of reflection and contemplation: However, you be on guard so that your hearts do not become burdened with gobbling food and boozing, lest this final day comes upon you like an ensnaring trap, Luke 21:34-35. If it were not of the utmost importance, Christ never would have used such stern words.
Finally, there is a mourning and prayer fast, especially for when a person amidst general or specific misfortunes – or also when confronted with imminent common need – initiates a fast so that he may all the more be humbly devoted to prayer in acknowledgment of his sin. So also it was a fine practice with the ancient fathers that prior to the high Festivals and prior to the observance of the most worthy Lord’s Supper they would abstain from food and drink on the day before, or only ate one meal. They did this in order to become all the more adroit at prayer, at repenting and pondering the divine Word. Yet, here one dare never prescribe any specific, general rule, nor designate any specific times. Each person has to examine himself and thereby see to it that he also attend to the body so that he does not become lascivious, cf. Rom. 13 and 14.
I wish I could teach that clearly & concisely. I’ve always admired the old Lutheran teachers for their crystalline clarity in presenting doctrine and answering opponents. Something to shoot for….
The epistle reading for today is Ezekiel 34:11-16. I preached on this in End Time this year, and it’s a beautiful and bracing part of Scripture. Most people don’t know how thoroughly the picture of shepherd and sheep permeates the Scriptures. This is another example. Here the Lord promises — more nearly, swears — to seek out and gather His scattered sheep, to guide and protect them, to care for them and provide for them forever. It’s beautiful. Here this reading reminds us that we are scattered because all we like sheep have gone astray, as Isaiah. We scatter ourselves from the Lord through our self-willed hearts, grieving Him and leading Him to call us back through His Word. Yet we are His sheep; we belong to Him, and nothing can change that.
The Gospel for today comes from Matthew 25:31-46. This is a familiar reading from the end of the church year, the Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year to be exact, and it’s re-run here in Lent (so to speak.) Nothing wrong with that — some readings are better suited to the church’s purposes of devotion and catechesis than others. Sometimes readings are re-used, especially if your part of the Body of Christ has the custom of commemorating those who have gone before in the faith. Then the readings for the various categories of people — saints, martyrs, apostles, etc. — repeat quite frequently, if none are customarily appointed for those days.
This Gospel from Matthew is extremely interesting when juxtaposed with Ezekiel 34. For Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year, Matt 25 is paired with Daniel 7, his vision of the Son of Man, and II Peter 3:3-14, St. Peter’s meditation on the coming of the Day of the Lord and its practical consequences for Christians. The readings that are heard together in church often reinforce one another or reveal different aspects of divine doctrine, as when a diamond turned to the light sparkles now this way, now that.
Here in Lent, Matt 25 reminds us that we are the sheep of the Good Shepherd, who is going up to Jerusalem to lay down His life for us, that no one might be able to snatch us out of His hand. It’s not common to hear mention or emphasis on Judgment Day in Lent, at least not in our circles; but there’s nothing wrong with it here, and actually it’s bracing. It reminds us that the fullness of doctrine comes from the entire Scriptures, and it shows up in the entire teaching of the church year. I know I’d never considered the relationship between this Gospel and the Last Day, as seen through Lenten “lenses of repentence”, if you will, but I’ll keep it in the back of my mind from now on. It’s fascinating. The flesh can be quick to spot monotony (especially in modern-day America.) Too much of one thing can be wearying, even if it’s something as wholesome and beneficial to the soul as our Lord’s passion.
Matthew 25 reminds us where God’s sheep are being gathered to, as for instance Ez 34 talks about; we’re being gathered to the great final reckoning before God’s throne on the Last Day. In Christ the Good Shepherd we have nothing to fear. That’s why we repent now and grieve for our sin now, while there’s yet time.
This Gospel also shows us what the sheep are doing before they’re gathered: they’re busy doing good works as their Lord commands them — and many times they don’t even remember it! Jesus will commend their good deeds done out of faith in Him, and they won’t even know when or where or for whom they happened. This is by God’s design, that the fruit His children bear is seen only to Him many times, and yet He knows it all. Lent is a time for serious exercise of your faith — not only in mourning your own sin, but also in doing good to others. Witness the ancient custom of almsgiving (=giving $$ to help poor people) during Lent. Those kinds of things exercise your faith, too.
The flip side of the good deeds Christ mentions is not doing them — neglecting them, living selfishly. This is cause to repent and change our ways, while we still have time. Some people never do. They go on living selfishly, and then they find out at the end what they should have done. They lived with no faith and consequently they have no fruits of faith. We know this will not be our fate, if we pay heed to Jesus’ words now. “Today is the day of salvation” — today is the day to be busy for God, in whatever walk of life He’s placed you.