[Hezekiah] removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.).
2 Kings 18:4
A few days ago my wife and daughters were talking about Lent. I must have made a face or rolled my eyes because some time later my oldest daughter cornered me and asked, “Okay, tell me (in sixty seconds or less) what problem you have with Lent?”
Silly girl, as if I could limit myself to sixty seconds on any theological topic!
I told her that I have two issues with the observance of Lent. The first is that it’s not Biblical – at least in the sense that there’s no indication from the Bible that the earliest Christian fellowships observed it. The second is that the practices of prayer, fasting, and voluntary self-denial should be regular and normal practices for followers of Christ, not practices relegated to a small portion of the ecclesiastical calendar. I explained that I felt that to confine these practices to the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter minimizes and trivializes them.
But on further reflection, I’m thinking a bit differently…
My first argument (that Lent is not Biblical) is the same argument used by the Puritans to explain their refusal to observe either Christmas or Easter. While I deeply respect the holiness and piety of the Puritans and the heritage they have passed on to us, I observe both of these days as commemorations of important events in redemptive history; the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, I don’t believe that my special celebration of these events on those two “special” days of the year in any way minimizes my thankfulness for Christ’s birth and resurrection on each of the other 363 days.
In short, I don’t think either of my arguments hold water.
God is aware of our weaknesses and that we’re prone to forget His mercy and grace. He commanded Israel to regularly observe several festivals annually as continual reminders of His faithfulness toward them. Obviously, tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Traditions are useful to the extent that they regularly remind us of the person or event they commemorate. However, they become dangerous when they take on a life of their own; becoming more important than person or event they commemorate.
That’s what is described in 2 Kings 18. During the time when Israel was wandering in the desert (see Numbers 21), the people were complaining about God’s provision for them and questioning his goodness. As a result, God allowed them to be afflicted by venomous snakes and many Israelites died. When the people repented, God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and set it on a pole so that anyone who looked up at the bronze snake would be healed.
If the Israelites had been content to keep that bronze serpent as a continual reminder of God’s mercy toward them, everything would have been fine. After all, the bronze serpent wasn’t evil. God Himself had directed Moses to make it. However, the Israelites had turned it into an object of worship. That’s why the righteous king Hezekiah had it destroyed.
The same principal should apply to our traditional observances – including Christmas, Easter, and Lent. I don’t think there is anything wrong with establishing special times when we remember God’s grace and mercy toward us. But we must be careful that we never allow the observances and the trappings associated with them to become more important than the One who gives those observances meaning.
I say go ahead and observe Lent. But do it for Jesus’ sake, not for the sake of tradition.