#LentTogether: A Time to Discern the Seasons

#LentTogether: A Time to Discern the Seasons

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Guest Post by Wanjiru M. Gitau for the #LentTogether Blog Series on Behind the Books

The Scriptures that set pace for me this Lent season are those related to Jesus’ baptism, in all four gospels: Matthew 3, Luke 3, Mark 1, and John 1:19-32. John the Baptist has set camp by the Jordan, a river of historical significance for Jews. From Joshua leading Israel to Canaan, to Elisha receiving Elijah’s mantle, to Naaman’s healing, Jordan is symbolic, and mysteriously infused with supernatural power.

It is here that John has pioneered like an old-time Pentecostal preacher, calling out oppressed and oppressor in the same breath, to a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. He tells it like it is, no holds barred. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Do not say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father.’ God can raise stones to be children for Abraham. You doubt? The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Though he sounds offensive, John the Baptist is so convincing that people come from far and wide to hear him, confess, and seek counsel. Such is his popular power, the local ruler, Herod, will come to fear him.

It is curious then, that he talks of heralding one who is even more powerful. “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals,” he declares. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire; he will gather the wheat into the barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Get ready, people.

This is the best PR for Jesus. All the hype and more. Think about it. When we have visiting evangelists, or renowned public speakers, we plaster streets with posters. We take out ads in media, flood mailboxes with fliers. We create hashtags.

So, it is a big letdown if the said preacher does not live up to the hype.

Jesus does not live up to the hype. Not what people expected anyway. He is booed at his home-square synagogue. He recruits a bunch of men with little in way of a resumé—religious leaders would later despise them as “unschooled men.” They roam the countryside for a good while. With time, it will become apparent that Jesus has power, but he is not using it in the way John expected. At a later point, John, imprisoned by Herod, sends for Jesus: “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” Where is the consuming fire, Jesus?

So much is wrong in Israel at this point. They are colonized and overtaxed. Soldiers commandeer personal effects at will. Their religious leaders have set unrealistic rules. John himself is disappointed—he denounced Herod, Herod imprisoned him, his life is in danger. Could Jesus not help? What is wrong with Jesus? He has all this extraordinary power that he uses to heal people here and there, stop waves, feed a few thousands. But hello, his name was Jesus, “The son of the Highest, the one promised to inherit the throne of David, whose kingdom will never end.” Whether at a personal level (the fate of his cousin John), or at a social missional level (saving Israel), “Jesus” is not living up to his hype. It really doesn’t make sense.

Until you contemplate two windows of time in Jesus’ life: the deep silence of 18 years of his youth, and the forty days he spent in the wilderness after being introduced by John. The gospels give us precious little of those two windows in time.

When I was an undergraduate student in the Christian Union we fasted 40 or 30, or 21, or 7 days, depending on which biblical model we felt led to follow. We were very spiritual, yet it was the kind of praying and fasting that was more like wrenching out of God’s hand the kind of power that John has in mind, to evangelize powerfully. We went to extreme measures of self-denial of food and comforts. Those were the days, and we were champions.

In later years when I worked in Nairobi Chapel and its daughter Mavuno Church, our large congregations routinely fasted 21 days every beginning of the year. As happens in busy churches, staff were often burned out, at the beginning of the year, but it is staff that set the pace for the rest of the church, so we fasted anyway. And truth be told, there is great self-discipline in team fasting.

Young students may work spiritual muscles and pastoral teams must do what teams do. As I have mellowed over the last few years—in spaces like classrooms and libraries not particularly marked by strong group identity, or away from home—the season of fasting, Lent, has taken on a different meaning. I do not have to wrench answers to my needs, or spiritual power out of God’s clenched fists. It is not so much that God is not willing to give, it is that I now recognize that God works in seasons. In different seasons, God uses the disciplines of the spirit, the ministries of the church, the relationships, to work different outcomes.

In recent decades, the church has grown in numbers, and resources. Notwithstanding reported decline in some quarters, there are visibly strong segments of the church (especially the evangelicals), at least numerically. And with that comes increasing expectation, and temptation on its own part, that the church should be replicating the works John had in mind for the Messiah: commandeering public respect, rebuking political bullies, redressing bad economies, calling fire on a sinful world. But is it the season to do that, or is there a different path that can be discerned for this season?

Seasons of life, personal or communal, are discerned in those liminal, hidden spaces, like the inconspicuous Nazareth backwaters out of which Nathanael could not believe anything good could emerge. Like Jesus’ forty days in a lonely wilderness. These were years in spaces of powerlessness, yet of listening long and hard as Jesus went to Jerusalem inconspicuously for the annual worship, reading the scriptures deeply, praying and questioning, observing the powers that be, of divesting his own power. Finally, he concludes that his path must be different. He cannot take on the world on its own terms. He listened deeply, long enough to become aware, to understand. And then he goes to the wilderness for forty days, where he is completely stripped on any comfort and company.

Then once he comes to the scene, Jesus has no need to prove his credentials in the world’s terms. Oh, Jesus does take on the world but in terms he has discerned while living in a very liminal space. It is telling, that when he takes on the world, he takes a downward path, what Eugene Peterson calls a long obedience in the same direction. And that is what has us here today—the Christian movement was not the result of power wrenched by force; it is sustained by long, dark periods of liminality. Perhaps a forty-day Lent. Maybe years. Maybe a lifetime.

About the Author

Wanjiru GitauWanjiru M. Gitau (PhD, Africa International University) is a research fellow at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, pursuing a multi-year global research project commissioned by the John Templeton World Charity Foundation on contemporary religion. She is a Kenyan educated in Nairobi, Edinburgh, and the United States, with extensive global experience, including research projects from Korea to Kentucky. She formerly served on the staffs of Nairobi Chapel and Mavuno Church and she is the author of upcoming book Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered.

Follow her on Twitter: @Wanjiru_M_Gitau.

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A Long Obedience in the Same DirectionAs a society, we are no less obsessed with the immediate than when Eugene Peterson first wrote this Christian classic. Peterson’s time-tested prescription for discipleship remains the same—a long obedience in the same direction. In the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) Peterson finds encouragement for modern pilgrims as we learn to grow in worship, service, joy, work, happiness, humility, community, and blessing.