Background: Why 40 days?
The Oxford Dictionary of the Early Church tells us that the first mention of a forty-day fast, almost certainly Lent, was in the Canons of Nicaea in 325 AD. Nicaea is the name given to a council of churches who met to settle differences over the church’s teaching about who Jesus was. Before Nicaea, it is almost certain that Christians fasted for only three days before they celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, how did the church move from three days to forty? In the early church, people who wanted to join the church had to be baptised. Before they were baptised, they had to be taught what the church believed and tested to make sure that they understood the church’s teaching. This testing took place during a special period of forty days. During these forty days, they fasted, only eating one meal a day in the evening, and they dedicated the time to reflect on the things that they had learned. This was to make sure that they were ready to make the step of becoming followers of Jesus. Over time, the church decided that what was good for candidates for baptism should be good for all Christians as they prepared themselves to celebrate the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
Why forty days? In the Bible, we learn that Moses, Elijah and Jesus all fasted for forty days in preparation for significant events in their lives. The early church fathers decided that these examples set a pattern for Christians to follow.
To Seek and to Save
When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them.Luke 9:51-55
For his second Lenten reflection, Dr Ferguson takes us to what I have always thought to be one of the most perplexing events in the Gospels, one which took place early on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.
To get to Jerusalem from Galilee, where the journey began, Jesus and His disciples would have to pass through Samaria. And we have to understand that this would not have been an easy journey. Historically, there was no love lost between the Jews and Samaritans. It’s probably true to say that they hated one another. Perhaps this was the reason why Jesus sent some of his disciples ahead to warn a nearby Samaritan village that He was coming to visit them and to ask if they would be able to rest there. The Samaritan village refused, because, Luke tells us, Jesus’ “face was set Jerusalem.” That Jesus was only passing through the village on His way to Jerusalem, His real destination, might have been enough to offend the villagers. It’s also possible that, as the Feast of Passover was coming soon, the Samaritan villagers would face an influx of Jews travelling south, and were just fed up with all these Jews traipsing through their land. We can’t be sure. But we know that there was something in Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem that made them react and refuse to allow Jesus to stop there.
Dr Ferguson rightly reminds us that Luke’s focus is not on the Samaritans but on the disciples James and John, who were incensed by the Samaritan’s response. These two brothers had a well-earned nickname – The Sons of Thunder! Anger, righteous or otherwise, often seemed their go-to response! But on this occasion, even these two hot-headed brothers went too far. They asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the villagers as a punishment for rejecting Jesus!
But Jesus turned and rebuked them. “The sons of thunder wanted to destroy Samaritans; but the Son of Man had come to save Samaritans as well as Jews.”
Dr Ferguson draws our attention particularly to John. By the end of the Gospels, we know him as the “apostle of love”. But he had to learn that selfless love by copying His Saviour. Even at this late point in His life with Jesus, he didn’t suffer fools gladly and thought that this was a virtue. Many of us are the same. But the Apostle Paul teaches us that “love….does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable” (I Corinthians 13:4).
As we read this passage, Dr Ferguson challenges us to reflect.
“Think back to a recent incident when you experienced rejection. If the great test of love is how we handle rejection, what did your response reveal about you? How does John’s story give you hope?”