Tag Archives: repentance

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 do not need any formal type of confession because our sins are washed in the blood of Jesus we may be missing the point of confession. From John First Epistle:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   (1 John 1:8-9)

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)

Ash Wednesday offers us an opportunity for fasting and repentance. Perhaps we should take it?

SaveSave

Leave a comment

Filed under Ash Wednesday, Holy Day, Jesus, lectionary, liturgical preaching, liturgy, preaching, Year A

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Training in Righteousness

In today’s appointed readings from the lectionary we have two very different examples of how people responded to the reading of God’s word. The first example is from the Book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah, the governor, was reestablishing Temple worship after the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. He had the priest Ezra read from the Law of Moses, from early morning until midday. This caused the people to weep as they were reminded of their failure to keep God’s commandments.

This is the power of the word. From The Book of Hebrews we read:

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.   (Hebrews 4:12-13)

The power of the word can also rejoice the heart. The psalmist reminds us:

The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.   (Psalm 19:8)

Genuine repentance is the key. From the Book of Nehemiah we read:

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”   (Nehemiah 8:8-10)

With real repentance there is forgiveness. Ezra helped explain and interpret the Law of God in a way that was more easily understood by the people.

Now let look at Jesus return to his home town of Nazareth:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”   (Luke 4:16-21)

Jesus, the “Word of God made flesh” was reading and interpreting his own Word. But his listeners would have none of it. His message was not the message they wanted to hear. Jesus was proclaiming the year of God’s favor but that message apparently did not fit their timetable.

The Apostle Paul warned Timothy that he must preach the truth of God’s Word whether or not his listeners were ready to hear it. Paul wrote:

Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.   (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

Are we not living in an age when sound doctrine is becoming a casualty of false teaching and preaching. We remember when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Satan quoted scripture but in a twisted and perverse way. He was hoping that Jesus would take the bait. Are we to take the bait of unscrupulous preachers?

Those who preach falsely are placing themselves under a curse. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!   (Galatians 1:6-8)

We do not want to remain in a church that is under a curse. We want to be taught by someone who is using the scripture for Godly purposes. Paul reminds Timothy:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.   (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

We do not need a watered down Gospel. Are we to obscure the corrective measures of scripture and offer a more pleasing and popular message for worldly people? The psalmist reminds us that the commandment of the Lord is clear. It gives light to our eyes and rejoices our hearts.

Many of us believe that Jesus will soon return. He is looking for a church without spot or wrinkle. All of us need training in righteousness.

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”   (John 8:31-32)

What is our witness today? Are we continuing in the word? Are or we looking for false teachers who will tell us what our itching ears want to hear?

Leave a comment

Filed under Epiphany, Eucharist, homily, Jesus, lectionary, liturgical preaching, liturgy, preaching, Revised Common Lectionary, sermon, sermon preparation, Year C

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Year C

His Mercy Is for Those Who Fear Him

During this Advent season we have been preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child. Our reparations are all important. They get us into the flow of God’s Spirit. God is the master planner. If we are listening, he is the one who prepares us in every way for this life and for the life to come.

We might be taking our Advent preparation lightly. God does not take his preparation lightly. His preparation for us began long ago. From the Prophet Micah we read:

You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,

whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.   (Micah 5:2-3)

The prophet writes about a Messiah whose “origin is from old.” The Apostle Paul tells us that the Messiah was planned for us from the beginning of time:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.   (Ephesians 1:3-6)

The children of Israel were trained in a sacrificial system that taught them the seriousness to which God regards sin. Sin brought death into the world for which it must be punished. Jesus has supplanted the sacrifices of lambs because he is the lamb of God that was slain for us. When John the Baptist first saw Jesus he said:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”  (John 1:29-30)

In Hebrews we read:

When Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;

in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.

Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”   (Hebrews 10:5-7)

Mary, the mother of Jesus, could not fully understand what God was preparing through her son, but she willing submitted herself to his divine plans:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.   (Luke 1:47-55)

Mary gave herself to God, trusting him. We should have a greater understanding now than what Mary did at the time of the birth of Jesus. Are we interring into the preparation that God has made on our behalf? Christianity is not a spectator sport. Christian discipleship is a daily entering into God’s presence through the door which Jesus has provided.

We are not just preparing for Christmas. We are preparing for the age to come. Only Jesus can carry us there. John the Revelator on the Island of Patmos saw a vision of this age:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.   (Revelation 21)

We are shown our destination. It is only through Jesus that the gates of heaven are open. Today, let us heed his voice. He calls to us:

I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.   (Revelation 3:19-21)

Are we ready to give praise to God along with the Mother of Jesus:

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.   (Luke 1:49-50)

Leave a comment

Filed under Advent, homily, Jesus, lectionary, liturgical preaching, liturgy, preaching, Revised Common Lectionary, sermon, sermon preparation, Year C

Third Sunday of Advent: Year C

What Must We Do?

We are living in troubling times. We need a breakthrough that only God can provide. Such a breakthrough could help change our conditions; and also our lives, if we respond to it.

The early English colonies in American were experiencing what seemed to them an increasing tyranny from the home country. People were losing hope. Then the Spirit of God broke through. During the 1730s to the 1740s a spiritual revival ushered in bold changes. The period was called The Great Awakening. One of the event that was a great catalyst for this awakening was a sermon by Jonathan Edwards. He preached a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It emphasized God’s coming judgment on sinners who refused to listen to abide by his commandments. At the end  of the sermon Edwards made one final appeal: “Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.” He was interrupted many times during the sermon by people moaning and crying out, “What shall I do to be saved?”.

The Jewish people were living in troubling times. A prophet of God had not spoken to them for four hundred years. They were under the tyranny of Roman rule. People were hungry for change. John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance. He warned of God’s coming wrath against those who continue to break his commandments. From today’s Gospel reading:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”   (Luke 3:7-9)

An awakening has to do with the exposure of sin by the Spirit of God and a warning of God’s coming wrath against unrepentant sin. A number of John’s listeners heeded his message:

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”   (Luke 3:10-14)

Notice that an awakening elicits a response from the people. The common question appears to be: “What must we do?”

Are we experiencing an awakening in America today? Perhaps an awakening in the world at large? What we can say is that evil is being exposed. If we are truly awake then our response should be: “What must I do?”

When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost he told the people that they had crucified their Messiah:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.   (Acts 2:37-38)

We need to see the evil around us, but we also need to see the evil within our own hearts. The good news is that God is ready to take that evil away. In today’s Old Testament reading God speaks through the prophet Zephaniah:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
    shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
    he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
    you shall fear disaster no more.   (Zephaniah 3:14-15)

An awakening is not a spectator sport. Each one of us is called to do specific things. We must get involved. Getting our hearts right with God through the cross of Christ is just the beginning; We need his daily guidance and strength. We live in very unsettling times. If is difficult to know just where to begin. The Apostle Paul reminds us that our “doing” must always begin with prayer and rejoicing:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.   (Philippians 4:4-7)

We need a peace that passes all understanding. Only the Prince of Peace can provide this. He wants to change our world, but first he must change our hearts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advent, homily, Jesus, lectionary, liturgical preaching, liturgy, preaching, Revised Common Lectionary, sermon, sermon preparation, Year C