Thanks to my friends and co-workers for reading it and helping me iron it out. No-thanks to my Dad, who never emailed me any feedback! I've tried to slim down how much is actually written here by linking to all the Bible verses.
I remember going to see the movie “Titanic”. I leaned over to my sister and said- “Hey, betcha I know how it ends…the ship sinks!” She didn’t think that was very funny. It’s a little bit like that with the season of Lent. I don’t mean to make light of anything with a Titanic reference, but we know how the story ends don’t we?
We just came out of advent; a season of the church that centers on hope, love, peace, and joy coming to us with the birth of Christ. We had a wonderful sermon series continuing these things beyond just Christmastime. But during Lent we prepare for Easter not with wreaths and signs of life, but with ashes- signs of decay. The centerpiece of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus, so Easter is the culmination of the hope, peace, joy, and love. But before we get to the good stuff we need to remember that Jesus was betrayed by a disciple, and his closest companions bailed on him; among them the case of Peter’s denial. We remember that Jesus was tried as a peasant criminal, beaten mercilessly under Roman rule, executed as a heretic to the Jewish authorities and a subversive to the imperial authorities.
In a conversation with someone from another church once, I was relating to them some of the things our church has done to remember Good Friday; with a funeral type service to remember the Passion of Christ, the Earthly, bodily sacrifice of Jesus. She sort of frowned through what I was saying and remarked: “I just don’t like those types of services. I just think it should be a celebration. Where’s the joy?” Lent is not happy time. Easter is happy time. Lent is about remembering why and how Easter came to be. I hope to reveal some of the biblical images and concepts we’ll be incorporating tonight, first by hearing about them then by acting on them.
So what’s the deal with the ashes? We use Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent. Ashes have two meanings: Repentance and Mortality. Neither of those are real causes for celebration are they? Here are some places in the Bible where we see ashes as a symbol of repentance:
Job 42: 6
Job uses ashes as a sign of self deprecation before God.
Nehemiah 9: 1-3
Note the first part of this scripture- they gathered wearing sackcloth and had dust on their heads. They gathered and heard the word and confessed their sins. Sounds a lot like what we’re doing!
Daniel 9: 3-11
Daniel is praying for forgiveness for his own sins and the sins of his people with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. Also note the inclusion of fasting to deny ones self as a sign of repentance, a tradition that many still observe during Lent by “giving up something”. We’ll come back to that later.
So clearly ashes are a sign of making one low before God, to be a sign of repentance before the God that we have sinned against. We are orientating ourselves to God as lowly in comparison to him.
The other thing ashes symbolize is mortality. Again, not a real fun topic is it? That we are all born and will all die. As my Dad says: “Death bats 1000”. Check these out:
Psalm 90: 2-3
Genesis 3: 19
Genesis 18: 27
So once again we see ashes reminding us that were are humans, and God is God. We are the pots, not the potter. God is marvelous, and we are dust. It is important to remember what ashes symbolize. We come tonight to be humiliated in being convicted of sin and assured of our finite state before God.
So then Lent becomes about the journey towards glorious Easter while remembering our sinfulness and acknowledging our need to repent and turn to God. Lent is a church wide reminder that we are not immortal or invincible, something you parents may have said to your growing children. This is a lesson not just for careless teenagers but for every human and for all times. Listen again to the words of Joel:
“Even now declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity (other translations read “punishment”).” Joel 2: 12-13
We are not without hope! Again, we know the end of the story! We can allow the season of Lent to transform us. We’re called to change! We’re called to repent, to turn from our ways and start living the way God intends us to. We can “rend our hearts” to God by taking time to examine our priorities, our decisions, our relationships in light of the Cross. Listen to what Paul says in the epistle to the Corinthians, Epistle is derived from the Greek word for “message” or “letter”:
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”
We don’t need to despair, for God has made himself available through Jesus. Christ took our place on the cross, so that through the resurrection we are restored back to God. His sacrifice once and for all has made all those who believe in him collaborators with God! We are suddenly much more than just dust aren’t we? Yet the season of Lent calls us to be reminded of our sinful or mortal state so that we don’t lose sight of the resurrection on Easter.
“We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (this and the above quote from 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6: 10)
So no matter what happens, we still remember who we are to God. We are still human and God is still God, but what was mere dust is now to be commended! Paul describes enduring lots of tough things, which he himself did. But notice at the end Paul sets up dichotomies of seemingly contradictory nature: “genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” What do I mean by “dichotomies of seemingly contradictory nature”? Things that are this, and yet also are that. Just like clay is clay, but is becoming a pot. It is at once formless but is being formed.
Could it be that God is transforming us from one to the other? The potter molding his clay? The mysterious is being made known. While we are yet dust and dying, we may live in Christ. We may suffer but we will endure. Seemingly having nothing but really possessing everything.
I invite you to experience Lent as a formative process, honestly looking at your priorities, decisions, and relationships. If you want to “give up” something, then please, go ahead if that will help you in being formed back in God’s image. Many times I’ve given up something like soda and said “Ok, every time I want a soda, I’m going to pray.” Then once Easter hits it’s like: “Fill er up!” So consider more than dropping something; why not take up something this Lent? A sacrifice of your time is probably worth more than a sacrifice of caffeine. Regular, intentional acts of service (notice I didn’t say Random Acts of Kindness). Take time for relationships that matter, whether that’s “dusting off” old ones or starting new ones. Find ways to remind yourself of your needy state, yet also finding encouragement in knowing the end of the story.