Tag Archives: fasting

Ash Wednesday

ash-wed-pictureRemember That You Are Dust

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.

Let us consider these instructive 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 with our rituals or our piety. 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 come before Him in true repentance.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.  (Joel 2:12-13)

The Ash Wednesday service serves as a reminder of who we are and whose we are. Man was created out of dust by the hand of God. Our lives are sustained by His very breath. One day His breath will be taken away and we will have to give an accounting to Him of how we lived our lives.

Ash Wednesday is a check to the triumphant Christians who have arrived and no longer need to acknowledge their sins before God. It questions the “once saved, always saved” mentality.

Meaningless ritual? It might be for some. The act of fasting and repentance was not meaningless to the King of Nineveh. Jesus did not say that we should not fast. He said that we should not make a show of it. If we do, we may receive approval by some, but not by God. God looks at the heart.

If we say that we have given our heart to Jesus and yet deliberately sin, how should our God judge our act of contrition? The Book of Hebrews has the answer:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.   (Hebrews 10:26-27)

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The Season of Lent

artprint77The Wilderness Experience

The Season of Lent is a time of fasting and prayer for the Church. It 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. Thus, Lent begins with the service of Ash Wednesday and runs through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. This time period is actually forty six days, because the six Sundays in between the beginning and end of the Lenten Season are not really part the days of fasting. Sundays are always days of celebrating the resurrection of our Lord.

Historically, in the Earth Church, Lent has provided a time in which new converts were prepared for Holy Baptism. This practice is still observed in many liturgical churches.

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 because they do not have enough faith.

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.

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Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

Follow Me

There are times when the call of God may interrupt our lives. This was true for Simon and his brother Andrew. From today’s Gospel we read:

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20)

These fishermen left their nets and their livelihood to follow a man whose purpose and direction was unknown to them. Nevertheless, they were able to put their trust in him.

The Prophet Jonah was called by God to go to the city of Nineveh. In this case, Johan understood what God was asking but he did not like it. As we remember, he ran in the other direction from Nineveh. Nineveh was a notorious city. It was hated by the Jews for good reason. How could God be asking him to preach revival to this city Jonah must have thought.

When God calls us he does not easily give up. From Jonah we read:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.   (Jonah 3:1-5)

God may give us impossible assignments. If the calling is from God then it is guaranteed to be impossible without his help. What is amazing about many biblical examples of the calling of God led to the fulfillment of impossible tasks. Nonetheless, the obedience of those who were called was absolutely essential.

What keeps us from obeying the call of God? We remember the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus but had too many possessions to give up. God has blessed our nation. Worldly possessions may just be a hindrance to us in answering God’s call.

The Apostle Paul wrote:

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.   (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

Paul was saying: ignore the circumstances in which you may find yourself. This world is passing away anyway. Follow God.

Our obedience to God can help to bring great changes in the lives of others. When God calls us he calls us for a reason. His reason is well beyond ourselves. Do we value his agenda more than our own? Do we love others the way he loves us?

In the case of Noah, a great city was saved:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.   (Jonah 3:10)

Our calling may not be as significant as Noah’s. We may not think that we are great prophets or preachers, but who are we to say? Some of the apostles were simple fishermen. The important thing is that they were obedient to their calling and their calling changed the whole world.

The Season of the Epiphany is a time to listen to God. What is he asking us to do? If it were not important he would not be asking us.

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