Tag Archives: repentance

Ash Wednesday

Remember 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 the First Epistle of John:

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?

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Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Turning Away From Evil

The message of John the Baptist was also the message of Jesus. Reading from today’s Gospel:

After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”   (Mark 1:14-15)

The good news of the Gospel followers repentance. It is the repentance part that often obscured. Today’s Old Testament reading will explain:

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.

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 3:1-5, 10)

Nineveh was a wicked city and very much the enemy of the Jewish people. We remember that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He initially ran the other way from his assignment from God to preach repentance there. But when he did something happened. God had a drastic change of mind what he was planning for Nineveh. What happened?

The people of Nineveh repented. They did more than confess their sins. They did more than say they were sorry. They actually turned away from evil. Words of repentance mean nothing when they are not put into action. The action part is difficult. We have to let go and abandon what we have been doing in order to change. How difficult for us is that? How many people are prepared to do that at a moment’s notice. Jesus’ disciples were. Reading from the Gospel of Mark:

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)

What is remarkable is that these fishermen left their nets, they left their livelihoods, they left their way of life. How could they do that on such short notice? How could all of Nineveh do so on such short notice? The psalmist wrote:

For God alone my soul in silence waits;
truly, my hope is in him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

In God is my safety and my honor;
God is my strong rock and my refuge.

Put your trust in him always, O people,
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath,
even those of low estate cannot be trusted.

On the scales they are lighter than a breath,
all of them together.   (Psalm 62:6-11)

We are all lighter than a breath, In fact, we live only by the breath of God. From Genesis we read:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.   (Genesis 2:7)

Much of what we may hold dear is just a fleeting fancy. Are we possessed by our possessions? Are we captive to our captivations? Or are we ready to turn away from these things? For some of us, in order to turn away from the evil we cling to, we must see something infinitely better. Circumstances in life can bring us to an understanding that what we have falls far short of what God has prepared for us. As it is written:

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—   (1 Corinthians 2:9)

The disciples saw the glory of God in Jesus and they were immediately drawn to him. Do we see Jesus for who is?

For those of us who are stubborn, there is an element that drives us away from evil, once we clearly see it. The citizens of Nineveh must have seen it, that is the fear of the Lord. They heard the preaching of Jonah and they believed what he said. The wrath of God was coming upon them if they did not heed the warning. The wrath of God is coming in this last day for those who refuse to walk away from evil.

John, the Revelator, was asked a question:

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.   (Revelation 7:13-14)

Do we need a washing today?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.   (Hebrews 12L1-20

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