Remember That You Are Dust
Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Ash Wednesday is traditionally a day of fasting and repentance. In many liturgical churches ashes are placed on the foreheads of each participant. Ashes were a sign of penitence in the Ancient Near East, particularly in Judaism. Recall this example from the Old Testament. Jonah preached to Nineveh that God was going to destroy the city and the people listened:
So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. (Jonah 3:5-8)
Notice that the King of Nineveh decreed that the people must turn from evil. God is never impressed with meaningless rituals.
Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)
As a campus minister I remember a particular Ash Wednesday service when a school official who wanted to know at what precise time I would be doing the “imposition of ashes” (making the customary sign of the cross in ashes on a person’s forehead). She did not want to sit through the scripture readings, homily, or prayers. The mere sign of the cross on her forehead would prove that she had done her religious duty. Did she not consider the words of Jesus?
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
We cannot impress God. Why should we try to impress others who must also stand before His throne as we are required? God is calling us to a holy fast – one in which we bow before Him in true repentance.
Blow the trumpet in Zion,
declare a holy fast,
call a sacred assembly.
Gather the people,
consecrate the assembly;
bring together the elders,
gather the children,
those nursing at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room
and the bride her chamber.
Let the priests, who minister before the LORD,
weep between the portico and the altar.
Let them say, “Spare your people, LORD.
Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2:15-17)
Filed under Ash Wednesday, fasting, Holy Day, humility, Jesus, lectionary, Lent, liturgical preaching, liturgy, penitence, piety, prayer, preaching, repentance
The Wilderness Experience
The Season of Lent corresponds to the time of preparation that Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning His earthly ministry. Scripture tells us Jesus was led there by the Holy Spirit for forty days of fasting and prayer. Historically, Lent provided a time in which new converts were prepared for Holy Baptism.
Why should we observe this time of preparation and what does it mean to each of us and the Church today? Clearly this observance is not required for salvation. The saving act of Jesus on the cross and our response to His loving sacrifice is required, followed by our endurance in the Faith with His help. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that life does present us with wilderness experiences. What is false is a church that suggests that Christians should not have them. We do have them. Job stood head and shoulders above his peers as a righteous man in his day, yet he experienced a terrible wilderness experience. The false triumphalism found in some of today’s churches would have us believe that such experiences should not occur, bringing condemnation on those who go through them.
If we have wilderness experiences as a matter of course then why designate an appointed time to go through one within the Church Year? Is not this appointed time artificial? It is my belief that the Season of Lent in the early church was very much influenced by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is better to observe a wilderness experience appointed by the Holy Spirit than the one that is unscheduled and catches us by surprise. We may still endure unscheduled ones but we might be better prepared for them having benefited from the teachings and disciplines of Lent. Jesus required preparation in the wilderness through the Holy Spirit in order to begin His ministry on earth. He experienced other wildernesses as well, Gethsemane being one of them.
Our purpose for Lent should be the same purpose that Jesus had for entering the wilderness: to prepare for ministry. We all have a ministry if we are Christian believers. Lent should be a time of fasting and prayer, self-examination and repentance, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. It should be a time of setting aside the things of this world that so easily creep in and devote ourselves more to God and His Word. In other words, let us come up to the mountain of God and be prepared for his transformation.
What should Lent not be? It should not be about our attempt to impress God by what we are giving up for Him or what spiritual gymnastics we are putting ourselves through. The “giving-up” notion is fundamentally flawed. It makes us dread Lent. We then cannot wait for Lent to be over. That is why Mardi Gras or Carnival has such an appeal for many people. Too often Lenten promises are like New Years resolutions. We make them but we don’t keep them and then we are under condemnation. Satan has a field day with us. He loves our false humility and piety.
It is said that we often grow through our struggles and trials. This may be true but it is not necessarily true. A greater truth is that our struggles do teach us that we cannot get through life on our own strength alone. The struggles often drive us to God. It is God who then changes us and not our struggles. Why should we wait for a crisis to go to God? Why not go to Him early and often?
Perhaps the best observance of Lent would be to approach God with faith in the saving blood of Jesus, asking Him what He would have us discover about ourselves and about Him. Let Lent be a time of intentional fellowship with God in prayer, seeking His will and wisdom for our lives so that we might be better disciples of Jesus Christ and living examples of God’s love for the world.
Filed under Ash Wednesday, fasting, Holy Spirit, Jesus, lectionary, Lent, liturgical preaching, liturgy, prayer, temptation, wilderness