Phototropism: An Apt Analogy for the Spiritual Journey
Have you heard of phototropism? It is a survival mechanism in which a plant grows toward the greatest source of light in an effort to jump-start the process of photosynthesis. Picture the Leaning Tower of Pisa, only it’s a plant! It is an elongation of the plant’s cells towards its source of energy. This reach for the sun is initiated by auxin, a phytohormone (plant hormone) that regulates growth. This internal orientation towards the light makes it possible for a plant to thrive even in adverse conditions.
Exposure to Jesus
Our measure of spiritual growth is entirely dependent upon our exposure to Jesus. Just as a plant needs the sun to initiate the process of photosynthesis for its survival and growth, we need Jesus to jump-start our renewal and restoration.
Growth Dependent Upon Position
Nothing green grows in a cave because of lack of sunlight and nothing of spiritual significance can be birthed within us without the illumination of God’s Son. Therefore, the measure of our spiritual growth during Lent or any other time of the year is dependent upon position. Are we positioned to take in the presence of Jesus or not?
In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal in his section on “Morality and Doctrine,” says “…there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings… but these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself.”
Lent represents a time when we can take inventory of our search for “true happiness,” moving away from a troglodyte existence that has left us spiritually blind and wanting and moving towards the light that will renew our growth.
With that said, Lent can leave us worn and weary. Like a failed New Year’s resolution, we often make feeble efforts to fast during this season of repentance and fail miserably. Why? Because our focus in Lent becomes a material sacrifice we were never intended to make. What God desires is a different kind of sacrifice, the sacrifice of a “broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17).
It is simply “enough” to lean towards the light in this season of Lent, to orient ourselves towards Jesus, to position ourselves so that we can soak up his presence and take in his spiritual nourishment.
Rethinking Spiritual Growth
Contemporary missional theology addresses the misconception that many of us have regarding spiritual growth in its discussion of the bounded-set versus the centered-set.
Bounded-set theology and ecclesiology assign a place to those who have “successfully” arrived within Jesus’ inner circle in contrast to those who are still on the outside looking in. The encircled chosen few are perceived as thriving in the presence of Jesus because they’ve said the right prayers and exercised the correct “genuflect” gymnastics. The orbitless “outsiders” are in the cold and voidless space of a life without Jesus.
Centered-set theology and ecclesiology, on the other hand, places a premium on positional presence in relation to Jesus. There is no inner and outer circle, just a direction towards. We are either moving towards Jesus or away from Jesus.
Such a corrective is helpful for our spiritual renewal in that it frees us from assigning a value to spiritual growth akin to gaining membership into a club and puts it solely in terms of relational presence with Jesus. This allows us in seasons like Lent to sit at his feet and listen rather than check off a list of “dos” and “don’ts” that we believe will achieve for us some modicum of spiritual success.
Stories of Light Seekers
During Lent, the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A has provided us with stories of individuals who have done just that. They have leaned towards the light, made their way to Jesus, soaked up his presence, and discovered life.
Like us, they are flawed individuals, skeptics like Nicodemus (John 3:1-17), outsiders, like the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-42), physically broken, like the blind man (John 9:1-41), or lost in the darkness and gloom of death itself, like Lazarus (John 11:1-45). This set of four individuals leaning in towards the light are surrounded by two stories of Jesus’ own full presence in the light of God the Father found in the stories of his temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) and his Passion (Matthew 26:14-27:66).
A Word of Encouragement
May you and your community be encouraged to simply allow “leaning towards Jesus and soaking up his presence” to be “enough” during this season and take encouragement from this set of unlikely characters who positioned themselves to grow towards the light.
Excursus: Ash Wednesday :
The Beginning of the Season of Lent
The Meaning of Ashes
Ashes represent many things. The heaped up ashes in a hearth may indicate the benefit of warmth on a cold winter’s night. The charred remains of a personal property and its smoky ash from human or natural causes, indicates something entirely different. The product of a crematorium represents something jarringly dissimilar from the contents of a burn barrel or a campfire.
The Product of Destruction
Despite the positive and negative differences in the resulting ash, one thing is constant, ash is the product of burning and henceforth the destruction of something that once existed in a different form.
From a metaphorical lens, ash represents loss. This is why the biblical portrayal of grief is attended by sackcloth and ashes, a dramatic representation of mourning for the person or thing of which one is deprived.
A Wednesday to Recognize Moral and Mortal Loss
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent. It is a day in which we recognize both the ticking clock of our mortal existence and the loss of an intimacy with God due to the sin that separates us, a loss that has plagued humanity since it was expelled from the Garden for its rebellion.
A Wrong and Right View of Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent
The Season of Lent is not a time to bathe ourselves in soot and wallow in our grief. It is a time of turning away from that which separates us from the God of creation. During this season in which we prepare ourselves to receive God’s ultimate gift of life through Christ, the ashes that should accompany us are those produced by the burning of the sins that beset us through repentance and renewal. These are the ashes of a broken and contrite heart which lead us to the One who “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap,” (1 Samuel 2:8).
We trust that this Ash Wednesday Lectionary Guide will encourage you as you encourage your people while you both collectively enter this Lenten Season.
The Method of this Lenten Series
The Lenten series we have provided follows the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A. It is meant to be a reflective guide for you in your preaching preparation for Lent. The series provides you with the collection of lectionary texts for each Sunday of Lent, and highlights a central text for preaching. We provide a set of lenses for looking at each highlighted text that focuses on the AIM of the text. AIM stands for Ancient context, the text through the lens of Jesus (Ἰησοῦς), and our Modern application.
We think that understanding the Ancient or original context of the passage is necessary to inform and guide our interpretation of its theme. We also believe along with the Reformers that the interpretation of the Ancient context of the Hebrew scripture for the church necessarily flows through its Lord, Jesus Christ. Furthermore, we affirm that the role of the preacher’s AIM is to bring the congregation from the Ancient through Christ and to the Modern context, making the message real in our hearts and lives. In addition, we will resource you with themes and ideas for preaching for each highlighted text, including referenced illustrations, and quotes from The Pastor’s Workshop library.
- Exegesis of Text Through AIM Methodology
- Key Quote
- Key Illustration (and comment)
- More Illustration and Quote Themes
- Liturgical Elements
- February 22: Ash Wednesday: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
- February 26: First Sunday in Lent: Matthew 4:1-11
- March 5: Second Sunday in Lent: John 3:1-17
- March 12: Third Sunday in Lent: John 4:5-42
- March 19: Fourth Sunday in Lent: John 9:1-41
- March 26: Fifth Sunday in Lent:John 11:1-45
- April 2: Sixth Sunday in Lent, Liturgy of the Passion: Matthew 26:14-27:66
- April 6: Maundy Thursday: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
- April 7: Good Friday, John 18:1-19:42