Tomorrow (Wednesday) marks the start of Lent, a period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) that ends at Easter. Traditionally it is a time to reflect upon the times when we have not been as loving as we could have been, whether to God or to our neighbour; when we have been selfish, greedy, lustful or disrespectful. This concept of acknowledging this our sin reminds us that we are not by any means acceptable before God, but rather that we are criminals standing condemned. God cannot accept us who have turned away from his will, a will we know well as it is written both on our conscience and in the scriptures.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul explains (Romans 3:10-18):
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes.
So why should we go through such a depressing season, a time when we focus not on the positive but on the negative? What purpose does bringing up so much negative energy serve? Can such a focus on our wretched state and the impending wrath of God actually serve a useful purpose?
It comes down to answering a simple but very central question – “why did Jesus die upon the cross?” The Prophet Isaiah, writing around 700 years before Jesus was born, prophesied (Isaiah 53:4-6):
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
During Lent we remember that it is us – you, and me – who like sheep have all gone astray, turning to our own ways. It is because of this turning away, because of our sin, that Jesus died on the cross, so that through bearing our sin he could bring us to salvation. Those who are able to help themselves need no saviour; those who do not see their own sinful condition need no salvation. There then appears no meaning to the work of Jesus, no reason to trust in him, no value in his death upon the cross, unless we are able to see the reality of our own sin.
LORD, I am not righteous, not even a little.
I do not understand;
I do not seek after God;
I have departed from your commands, and become worse than useless;
I do no good, not even a little.
My words are like the stench of the open grave;
My tounge is accustomed to lying and deciving;
My lips are armed with venom against my neighbour;
My mouth is full of curses and bitter hatred.
I hasten my feet to the shedding of blood;
I leave destruction and misery in my wake;
I know not the way of peace;
Nor does my heart fear my God.
LORD, have mercy on me, a wretched sinner.