Lent: Preparing Our Garden for Growth
Lent is a time to remove obstacles and dedicate ourselves anew to growing in Christ.
From the editor
Despite its rich history in the church, many of us don't observe Lent. Maybe it's time to reconsider. As Skye points out in his sermon, this special 40-day period before Easter is a unique time for us to take inventory of our lives, commune more intimately with God, and clear out those things that may distract us from our commitment to him. It's our prayer that this sermon might inspire you toward taking a special journey of transformation with your congregation—a journey that finds its climax (and turning point) at Easter.
For a lot of people, Lent is a season for making resolutions. They give up chocolate or sweets. They're going to pray more, or actually go to church every Sunday. Beyond that, many of us have little understanding of what Lent is about. I want to help us understand and engage this season more appropriately.
My father has a love of gardening. For him the winter is a miserable time. He grew up in India—a tropical climate and a gardener's paradise—and even though he has spent more of his life in the Midwest than India, he's never really come to terms with Chicago winters.
As a kid I remember waking up each winter morning to find him in the sun room of our house in his bathrobe watering his potted plants—a cup of tea in one hand and his water pot in the other—mournfully looking out at his frozen flowerbeds. He was in that sunroom all winter either cursing the snow or dreaming about the spring.
When the ground finally thawed in the spring, he was giddy. My brother and I were less than thrilled, however, because we knew the spring thaw meant yard work—and a lot of it. Between the frozen winter and the fruitful spring, there were a few weekends of hard work. The dead plants and debris had to be cleared. The soil turned over. The beds fertilized. Everything had to be prepared so the garden my father had been dreaming about all winter from the sunroom could become a reality.
Lent, like the thaw between winter and spring, is a time of preparation. It's a season when we are invited to prepare the soil of our lives for growth.
Although some people no longer acknowledge Lent, it is one of the most ancient Christian practices. The early church observed Lent even before Christmas became a holiday. For those of you unfamiliar with Lent, it is a 40-day period before Easter when we are called to take inventory of our lives, commune more intimately with God, and clear out those things that may distract us from our commitment to him. In a sense, it is a season of preparing for spiritual growth.
To help us better understand what this looks like, we're looking at the story of a man who was not clearing a garden for growth, but clearing a kingdom. Asa was the king of Judah at a time when much of the nation had abandoned God. In 2 Chronicles 15:1–19 we find the story of how Asa and his entire kingdom sought God and made room in their lives for growth.
Seek the Lord.
The story begins with a prophet named Azariah coming to the king with a message. Over and over, Azariah's message in verses 1–7 is the same: seek the Lord. Seek him and you will find him. His message is not a casual recommendation to the king. He is imploring him to do something—to act. Azariah's message is not, "Wander through your life, Asa, and perhaps you will stumble upon God." No, he is challenging Asa to be intentional: seek the Lord.
In the New Testament, people who are followers of Christ, those who seek him, are called disciples. The word disciple has the same root as the word discipline. A discipline is always intentional, never accidental. We don't learn the discipline of algebra by accident. We don't learn the discipline of music or medicine or ice skating without intending to. There must always be intention on our part first.
The same is true for being Jesus' disciple. There must be intention, a decision, a focus of our will to seek Christ. For many of us, especially those of us who have spent many years in the church, we can forget this. We can become passive and lackadaisical about seeking God.
Lent is a time for all of us—those who have known Christ for many years and those who have yet to encounter him—to clarify and reaffirm our intentions. Do we desire to seek God? Will we, with intention, diligence, and discipline, seek him? Or will we just float along, hoping to stumble upon God here and there?
In the winter, while my father watered his plants in the sunroom, he was always thinking about the spring. He was planning his garden in his mind: what new plants he was going to try in the shade under the willow tree, how to get the flowering vine to cover the deck, and what to put in the hanging baskets. His garden was the product of intention. It was no accident that just as one species of perennial was dying the next was about to bloom. He had planned it that way.
In the same way, we do not grow spiritually by accident; we do not stumble upon rich communion with God accidentally. Azariah's message to Asa is a challenge to be intentional. We are to seek with discipline and focus. He calls us to seek the Lord.
There is more. Azariah says, if you seek him, he will be found by you. This is the fascinating part. The language here is interesting. It's better translated this way: if you seek the Lord, he will let you find him. The difference is subtle but important. Azariah is saying that God wants to be found. He wants to be taken hold of. The prophet is telling us we are seeking a God that wants to be found.
My daughter, Zoe, is two-and-a-half and loves to play hide-and-seek. Sometimes she hides, but usually the game involves hiding my cell phone. Unfortunately, she doesn't yet understand the object of the game. She makes me close my eyes—that much she gets—but it's downhill from there. First of all, she always hides my phone in the same place: on the stairs, in plain sight. No matter how many times we play, she always puts my phone on the stairs. When I open my eyes, I know my phone is on the stairs, but I'll pretend like I don't see it. I'll look on the sofa, or under the table. It's my way of trying to teach her what the point of the game really is. What I've ended up teaching Zoe is that her father is a complete idiot. The moment I look somewhere else for the phone she says, "No, Daddy. The phone isn't there. It's on the stairs, silly goose." And then she rolls her big brown eyes at me. There's nothing like having your intelligence insulted by a two-year-old.
I've been trying to show Zoe that the fun of hide-and-seek is the seeking. But for Zoe, no matter what I try, the fun part is always the finding.
God wants us to seek him. But, like Zoe, he understands that the real joy is not in seeking, but in finding. He wants to be found. He has not intended the Christian life to be an impossible hunt for an elusive God that requires enormous faith. Quite the contrary. The Christian life is a simple walk to a welcoming God that requires only childish faith.
The story that best illustrates our God that wills to be found is the parable Jesus tells of the lost son in Luke 15. In the story the son rejects and abandons his father to live selfishly and wildly in a distant country. When he sees how foolish he's been he decides to return home, to seek his father. Expecting his father to be furious with anger, the son is met with a surprise. When the father sees his son at a great distance, he does not wait for him to reach the house. Instead, the father, full of joy that his son has returned, runs out to meet him on the road, embraces him, kisses him, and is overjoyed to have his son home again.
This is the image Jesus presents to us of our heavenly father's love. It is the image of a God who wants to be found, the God James says will draw near to us if we draw near to him. He is the God who stands at the door and knocks and is prepared to come in and eat with anyone who opens the door. We are called to seek the God who wants to be found. This should be our goal during Lent: to intentionally seek the God who is passionately seeking us.
Clearing and building
How do we do that? What exactly does it mean to seek God? In verse 8, after receiving Azakiah's message, we read this:
When Asa heard these words and the prophecy of Azariah son of Oded the prophet, he took courage. He removed the detestable idols from the whole land of Judah and Benjamin and from the towns he had captured in the hills of Ephraim. He repaired the altar of the Lord that was in front of the portico of the Lord's temple.
Asa interpreted the command to seek the Lord in two ways. First, he understood that he had to remove the obstacles that were preventing him from finding the Lord. So Asa eliminated the detestable idols from the land: all of the other gods, shrines, and temples that were competing with God for the people's devotion.
You could say that Asa was cleaning out his kingdom to make space for God. This was his way of preparing the garden, removing the dead plants, the weeds, the debris to make room for new growth. Seeking God means making room in our lives for him—cleaning out the garden, removing the idols and false gods of our kingdom.
In a real sense our lives are like kingdoms. We each have a kingdom, a sphere of authority, a realm that we control as a ruler. The borders of this kingdom vary for each person, but generally we all have dominion over things like our time, our bodies, our relationships, our homes, our money.
Like Asa's kingdom, sometimes our kingdoms need a thorough cleaning. They become infested with detestable things: idols and false gods, things that occupy God's proper place. To seek God means we make space for him—we prepare our lives, our kingdoms, for his presence to dwell with us. Patrick Morley said, "The turning point in our lives is when we stop seeking the gods we want, and start seeking the God who is."
The season of Lent is about walking through the hills and valleys of our kingdom and tearing down the idols we find there. It means acknowledging, through confession, those things in our lives that have taken the place of God and prevent us from finding him. Maybe it's a schedule so full there is no time for prayer. Or a heart preoccupied with material things. Or a self-serving career that has stopped you from serving others. Lent is a time to clean out the debris in our lives to make room for new growth.
Traditionally, people have done this through fasting, by releasing something in their lives that has a hold on them. Sometimes this is a food, or a possession, or an activity. I have friends who are fasting from television during Lent. Not only are they resisting the cultural idol of television, but they are freeing up their time to seek God and connect with others. They are preparing the soil of their lives for growth. Seeking God means clearing out the obstacles in our lives, whatever they may be.
There is a second thing Asa did to seek God. He not only removed the idols in his kingdom, but he also repaired the altar to the Lord in front of the temple. The temple, of course, was where God was worshiped in ancient Israel. It is where the people went to encounter and commune with him. By rebuilding the altar, Asa was putting back in place a significant means of connecting with the Lord.
Seeking God is not just about removing things from our kingdoms; it's also about building things, putting things in place that help connect us with the One we are seeking. There needs to be removing, and there needs to be building. We need to subtract some things so we may add others. We need to clear out the debris, but we also need to plant new seeds. Both are essential for growth.
Vehicles that help us commune with God and experience his presence with us are called spiritual disciplines. They are practices that help us seek God—things like prayer, solitude, meditating on Scripture, fasting, serving others, giving, hospitality, worship. Preparing a garden in the spring involves work—disciplines that prepare the soil to accept the seeds, sun, and rain that eventually generate growth. The same is true for Lent.
I want to draw your attention to a discipline Asa used as he and his kingdom sought God. We see it in verses 9–15: the discipline of assembling. In verse 9 we see that all the people of Judah gathered, and people from other countries joined them, because they heard what Asa was up to. They all gathered in Jerusalem to express their intention to seek the Lord. Why is it important that they gathered together for this? Couldn't they have made a commitment to seek God individually and privately?
Something powerful happens when we gather. We see that we are a part of something beyond ourselves, we are connected to others on this journey of seeking God. We are less likely to give up, less likely to turn around, because others beside us are striving toward the same goal. God has intended us to be in community with others, together seeking him. Rather than simply making private, personal resolutions during Lent, we can gather and resolve to seek God together—and find, through the strength of community, the ability to actually do it.
Let's look more closely at what the people of Judah did at their assembly. First, the people honored the holiness of God. It says they offered sacrifices to him, which was an act of humility and submission. Next, we are told, the people made a commitment, a promise to seek the Lord. As we've already seen, this means removing obstacles and also moving toward God. Then in verse 14, we see that the people made an oath to God, and there was loud acclamation, shouting, and music.
Cycles of seeking
In verse 15, we discover the result of the people's seeking: "All Judah rejoiced about the oath, because they had sworn it wholeheartedly. They sought God eagerly, and he was found by them." Azariah's words were proven true. Asa, and all of Judah, sought the Lord—and he let them find him—and they rejoiced. This is what Lent is all about: it's about finding the Lord once again, and being found by him.
But Asa's diligence in seeking the Lord did not end after assembling with the people. In fact, it appears to have become even more energized. The season served as a springboard for further cleansing of his kingdom. Look at verse 16. After removing the idols and building the altar, after assembling with the people, and after finding God, Asa then deposed his grandmother from her position as queen mother. He came to see that she, too, was an obstacle preventing him and Judah from seeking God. He cut down her Asherah pole (a form of idol worship), and he also continued to rebuild the temple with gold and silver.
Asa's seeking of God by cleansing his kingdom and building altars continued and intensified. He found courage to do things he may have lacked earlier. It seems he found the courage to remove his own grandmother from power, but only after the assembly, after seeking and finding God.
What I want you to see is that seeking God is not a linear pursuit. It is cyclical. Seeking God means removing obstacles, building altars, and finding him, which in turn gives us new courage to remove more obstacles, build new altars, and discover God in an even deeper way. Some have described Christian formation as being like a winding staircase: it repeats its cycle over and over, but with each cycle we experience new heights of God's grace as we rise with each turn.
We need to remember this during Lent. We need to see that the cycle of seeking and finding continues even beyond this 40-day period. It is the ongoing rhythm of the Christian life, and it should be evident in every season.
In the spring we prepare the garden, we clear the debris, we fertilize the soil, we plant the seeds. But there is still work to be done the rest of the year; our effort does not end once summer begins. Weeds still need to be pulled, bushes pruned, fruit gathered. Still, the spring is set aside especially for preparation, and our diligence at that time can determine how the rest of the year will go.
So it is with Lent. This is a season set aside for preparing our souls: clearing debris, planting seeds. Like Asa, if you engage in this time of seeking, it may serve as a springboard for growth well beyond the present time. You may find the courage down the road to tackle obstacles you can't even identify right now. You may discover the joy of building new altars to God you didn't know you were capable of.
Use this season wisely as a time of preparation for growth. Use this season to walk the hills and valleys of your life and identify the obstacles preventing you from seeking God. Put in place good disciplines that will help you connect with God. Use this season of Lent to truly seek the Lord, the one who is longing to be found.
To see an outline of Jethani's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize".
Skye Jethani is the executive editor of Leadership Journal, an ordained pastor, and the author of numerous books. He co-hosts the weekly Phil Vischer Podcast and speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and colleges. He makes his home with his wife and three children in Wheaton, Illinois.