“Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
“When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
“And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
On long road trips, there are a number of ways to pass the time. Many of the most common and most frequent involve the license plates of other cars. Sometimes the game will involve forming words from the letters that appear on the plates in front of you, usually having to provide your own vowels (this is good practice for studying Hebrew or Arabic, by the way). And other games are usually some variation on crossing off as many states’ license plates off a list as you can.
Now, in doing that, you see a lot of interesting mottos on those plates, everything from Idaho’s “Famous Potatoes” to New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die”. George Carlin used to say that reality lay somewhere in between those two mottos, and was probably closer to “Famous Potatoes”.
But it is interesting to see what words are found on license plates, to see how each state represents itself to the rest of the country. With “Constitution State,” Connecticut reminds you that it was their delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Roger Sherman, who proposed the compromise that created the bicameral legislature. With “The First State,” Delaware reminds us that it was the first state to ratify the Constitution that Connecticut helped to establish. Hawaii tells us that they’re the “Aloha State” but doesn’t tell us whether that’s “aloha” as in “hello” or “goodbye.” Louisiana is a “Sportsman’s Paradise” and Maine is “Vacationland”. New York is the “Empire State” while West Virginia reminds us that it is “Wild, Wonderful”. The words that are chosen by each state say a lot about what each state finds important to celebrate about itself.
In the series Game of Thrones that we are looking at throughout Lent, a similar phenomenon takes place. Each great house in that fantasy world has a sigil—a representative symbol, usually an animal of some kind—and “words,” that is, a motto that is meant to sum up the character of that great house.
House Targaryen, has a three-headed dragon with the words “Fire and Blood.” House Baratheon uses a stag with the words, “Ours is the Fury.” The Greyjoys have a kraken with the words “We Do Not Sow” (more about them later). The Lannisters have a golden lion alongside the words “Hear Me Roar!” The Tullys: a leaping trout with “Family, Duty, Honor.” All the great houses of this epic have words that are meant to evoke power, strength, or even to elicit fear. The words of the great houses are meant to represent to the rest of the houses and how each seeks to be known to the wider world. Each house presents itself this way. Except one.
One house—House Stark—has a grey direwolf as a sigil and the words: “Winter is coming.” Nothing about the strength and power of their house. Nothing threatening others or words design to intimidate. Simply: “Winter is coming.”
Now, that fact may seem self-evident and not worthy of being the words of a great house, but in the reality that the author George R.R. Martin has created, the summers last for years and the winters may as well. When the story begins we are in a “long summer” that has gone on for nine years, but all that is about to change, for winter is coming.
The words of the Starks, then, are not about self-aggrandizement, they are not about intimidation, they are not about seeking advantage: they are about preparation and mindfulness. They are about a preparedness for winter even in the midst of summer. And there is something to be said for that.
It strikes me that this is an appropriate lesson for us here at the beginning of Lent. Lent is often seen as a time of denial and fasting, people will routinely give things up for Lent or perhaps take on some additional discipline. But first and foremost, it is a season of preparation.
The manner of that preparation is through the three traditional Lenten disciplines of charity, prayer, and fasting. Through charity, we take care of others in need, through prayer, we take care of our spiritual well-being, and through fasting, we remind ourselves of our own dependence on God’s provision. All those sound like nice things to do, but how do they prepare us for anything?
I suppose it’s good to be reminded of what we are preparing for.
Lent is a preparatory season for Easter; it makes sense to imagine that we are preparing for Easter. And we are—but not the Easter we think. That is, we are not preparing for Easter Sunday 2014, for that date a mere 46 days from now but for the reality Easter represents.
Jesus’ resurrection was not just some parlor trick, not simply a demonstration of Jesus’ power. It is a vindication of a hope. It is the vindication of an ancient hope for life rather than death, justice rather than injustice, freedom rather than oppression, peace rather than brokenness. Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. In Jesus’ resurrection we see the beginnings of the Kingdom taking place. We see it not as an isolated event, but as a foretaste, the first-fruits, of all the redemption that is to come. Easter is not about the events of that day in ancient Palestine two millennia ago, but about that reality here in part and that will one day be here in its fullness. That’s what we’re preparing for. And the preparation is not simply through acts of piety, but in the way we engage in those acts.
Jesus tells us to give charity to others not so that we may be praised by others. This is a reminder that charity is not about our tax breaks or the acclaim we receive from others who admire our compassion, but is about providing material need for those in need. It is about the self-sacrificial love of neighbor that is at the heart of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus tells us to pray not where others can see us, but to pray privately, away from eyes admiring our piety. Prayer is neither about getting what we want nor about being publically faithful. Prayer is about coming into communion with God. The greatest benefit of prayer is to the person making the prayer, simply by virtue of praying. When praying this way, we enter into a kind of mindfulness, a kind of spiritual preparation for being in communion with God. Just as we will all one day be in full communion with God in the Kingdom.
Jesus tells us not to fast in such a way that people will be impressed by our pious sacrifice. He reminds us not to scrunch up our faces and act all miserable, but to wash our faces and put oil in our hair. (I’ll update that example to ‘take a shower and use shampoo’). The fast that Jesus would have us partake in is the fast of truly coming to understand our dependence on God for our material provision. To come to dispel the myth that we are somehow self-made when so much that we have is through the grace of God. In short, fasting is an exercise in humility; to do so in a public way so that people can remark on how humble you are entirely misses the point.
So, here we are: charged with spiritual disciplines that are not about self-aggrandizement, not about intimidation of others, not about seeking advantage; but about humility, communion with God, and love of neighbor. They are about preparing ourselves for the reality to come.
The Starks of Game of Thrones may be rejecting the ego-centric, self-promotion of their rivals in order to better prepare for the coming of winter, but we do so in order to better prepare for the coming of spring. For the coming of new life out of lifelessness. For the coming of hope out of despair. For the coming of justice out of injustice. For the coming of peace out of brokenness.
And so we gather this night to rededicate ourselves to that preparation through these disciplines. Brace yourselves: Easter is coming.