In 2nd Peter chapter 3 we read: But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. The verb translated as “forbearing” is μακροθυμέω – which one can say denotes God taking the long view toward us: μακρός + θυμός. God is literally take a long time, a very long time, to show his intense desire for us – or his anger – giving us plenty of time to repent and return to him. The father in the parable of the prodigal son waited many years for his son to return, and the picture we get from the parable is the father going every day out to the road and looking in the distance for hours on end every day, longing for his son to return. “Forbearing” is not a word commonly used today in the English language, but it is closer to the original meaning of μακροθυμέω than the more usual “patient”.
Tonight after sunset we enter the season of Lent – 40 days to teach us repentance. Most of us think that 40 days is simply too long a chunk of the year, especially if we choose to fast or deprive ourselves of some other pleasures. Too long for our short perspective. But a short time compared to how long the father waited for the son; and a very short time compared to how long God is showing forbearance, μακροθυμία, toward us.
This period we call Lent is called Τεσσαρακοστή, or just Σαρακοστή, in Greek – simply the 40 days. The word ‘Lent’ in the English language comes from Old English lencten “springtime, spring,” from West Germanic *langitinaz “long-days,” or “lengthening of the day”. In the various Germanic languages it relates to spring. Only in the English language did it also take the church meaning that it has today. But note the Germanic langitinaz “long-days,” or “lengthening of the day”. It reminds me of a French word, lent – which means slow. Lentement means take it slowly. I don’t think there’s any connection between the French word lent and the English Lent. Lengthening of day, taking things slowly? Good thoughts to connect with Lent, whether you take it in the church sense or not. Take things slowly, lengthen your time frame – like God does in order to bring us to repentance. Perhaps that’s one thing Lent can be for you this year – a time to slow down, to take time off from your social media and your constant looking at your phone. Most smartphones these days have apps that monitor your usage and tell you how you’re doing from day to day and week to week. On my iPhone it’s called Screen Time. For example, it tells me that this week my screen time was up 19% from last week – not a number I’m proud of – with Wednesday being especially bad. Why not use your technology to tell you when you’re using your technology too much? Take it slow this Lent, lentement. A good spiritual start.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings. Elijah is on the run from the evil king Ahab and his even more evil queen, Jezebel. In the previous chapter, Elijah had his big showdown on Mount Carmel with the 450 prophets of Baal. He challenged them to a contest to see whether their god, Baal, is stronger than the God of Israel. Of course Elijah won – or, rather, God won over Baal. I won’t tell you what happened after the contest, it’s too graphic. But let’s just say Elijah was not compassionate to the 450 prophets of Baal. Well, Ahab and Jezebel were not happy. They were the kind of people who think all gods are alike, and why shouldn’t Baal be worshipped right alongside the God of Israel? Of course Ahab and Jezebel were evil for many other reasons, but for now it’s the showdown on Mount Carmel that got Elijah in trouble.
So Elijah flees into the desert and falls asleep exhausted. An angel of the Lord wakes him and tells him to eat. Elijah looks and sees some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and fell asleep again. The angel comes a second time, gives him more food and drink and tells him to keep moving. Forty days and forty nights Elijah traveled and came to Mount Horeb, the mountains where Moses received the Law from God. Most people believe that Horeb and Sinai were the same mountain. So Elijah went to the mountain most associated with God. And he traveled 40 days and nights to get there. There’s a Lenten number for you, 40 days!
Remarkable things happened on Mount Horeb. There God had appeared to Moses but allowed Moses only to experience the back parts of God’s glory. Something equally remarkable happened with Elijah. And by the way, if you’ve ever wondered why Moses and Elijah are the two men who appeared with Jesus at the Transfiguration, you now have it. Both Moses and Elijah were only treated to a partial view of God’s glory on Mount Horeb. Here on the mount of transfiguration they witnessed the divine glory shining forth from Jesus, the incarnate Word. The Word that spoke to Moses and Elijah on Horeb, now speaks in the flesh and the full glory of God shines through him and radiates Moses and Elijah.
But what exactly happened to Elijah on Mount Horeb? Hidden in a cave, Elijah wait. There is a strong wind, but God is not in the storm. An earthquake occurs, but God is not there. And fire, but God is not in the fire either. And after the fire, a still small voice, like the “sound of a gentle breeze”. Elijah understands that God is in that still small voice, not in the wind, earthquake or fire. Even though the contest on Mount Carmel ended in violence, God was now showing Elijah, that God does not come in power and violence and in spectacular events, such as fire, storm or earthquake.
Like Elijah, we also are on a 40-day journey, hopefully away from too much noise, opening our hearts and minds to recognise the often hidden signs of God’s presence in our lives and in the world. Some days, his presence can be discovered in a kind of breath of silence. We can make Lent our teacher, so we can learn to pay attention and hear this breath, this still small voice. So, slow down, seek some quiet, give your technology a break. Pray more – not with words, but by opening hearts and minds to better listening for the still small voice. And fast, to the best of your ability. Even if you fast only one day a week, make it a good fast. Give your body a break so your body and learn to listen together with your spirit. God speaks. Do we listen? That’s the question Lent poses to us.
(I preached this to my congregation on Sunday, March 1st.)