The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)
So why do we participate in Focus 40? I think it is good to regularly ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing. So why are we oining hundreds of other churches in focusing on Extreme Living from March 12th through Easter Sunday (4/20)? Are we trying to be more "high church"? Do we feel left out of Lenten Fish Fries here in Milwaukee? Did Pastor Nathan recently discover the lost pamphlet of F. G. Smith that describes the importance of a pre-Easter intentional fast as part of a robust understanding of sanctification? In reality, I don't know all that went into the people at Church of God Ministries organizing Focus 40 a few years ago. Maybe it was an attempt to offer a Lent alternative that fits the ethos of the Church of God more than some of the other Lenten traditions. Maybe it was because many congregations were starting to expand their Easter preparation beyond Holy Week and this offered a way for the Church of God to do something in a more cohesive manner? Whatever the initial motivation, the Focus 40 has been an annual time for Church of God congregations to join together in an intentional season of seeking after God's will and activity in one certain area. Last year, the emphasis was "Extreme Love." This year, the emphasis is "Extreme Living."
In a recent "Dean's Report," Duke Divinity School dean, Richard Hays articulated the importance of tradition for theological vision. He noted the difference between trying to repeat tradition and recoveringthe tradition for the present situation. I think the embrace of a larger preparation season for Easter is a good example of us exercising theological imagination and vision. Yes, you can certainly go online to the Anderson University Library website and access Gospel Trumpet articles from the late 1800s that will make the case against the "Romish" and "works righteousness" of Lent, but the practice of the church to view the season before Easter as a special time of reflection and preparation remains something that is available to us to recover. As I mentioned in the sermon on 3/9, we use different language here than you will find for Lent in many other "high church" contexts, but let's not be so afraid of other traditions as to miss an opportunity to think more deeply about Christ's invitation for us to "have life, and have it to the full." Extreme Living is all about learning to hear and follow the Holy Spirit's guidance instead of listening to the cacophony of negative, idolatrous, and prideful words from the bandits who seeks to "steal and kill and destroy" the true and good lives that Christ offers us.
In keeping with our tradition--we can also test this idea of a 40 day preparation by what we find in Scripture. On that front, I am very confident that we have a good precedent. 40 days is a common biblical period for preparation and testing. Consider this list of 40s: 40 days and nights of rain for the flood, 40 days of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Israel had 40 years of wandering before they entered the promised land, Elijah ate one meal that sustained him for 40 days, Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai with God (Twice!), Israel's spies searched Canaan for 40 days, Ezekiel lay outside the temple for 40 days, Jesus was on earth after the resurrection for 40 days.
I invite you to join so many others in this season of preparation. Consider a regular fast of something. Meat, chocolate, coffee, or candy are good old fashioned standbys. Maybe you want to try a technology fast... an NCIS fast, a "sports on tv" fast, a lunch fast, a no food after 6 fast... Whatever it is, make an effort to spend saved time or money on something that flows from God in the direction of "Extreme Living." Check out this page for resources. There are daily devotions, daily podcasts, weekly family devotions, a prayer calendar, and a few other items. Remember--we are called to follow the Good Shepherd instead of all the other "hired hands" who will lead us astray and abandon us when we are most vulnerable (see John 10).