March 5, 2017
This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, marked the beginning of Lent. If you attended our service that evening, you went home with ashes on your forehead in the sign of a cross. Throughout the Bible, sprinkling one’s self with ashes, or even sitting in them, has either been a sign of grief, or sorrow for sin. Imposing ashes on the first day of Lent has been a tradition followed by Catholics for over 1000 years; however, United Methodists have only had resources for worship that include the imposition of ashes since 1979. Some other denominations have variations on the practice, and some do not follow it at all.
So does walking out of church on Ash Wednesday with ashes on your forehead mean that you are truly lamenting your sin and grieving over the painful death that Christ endured for those sins? It should if you did it for the right reasons. But if you did it because it is ‘tradition’ and your fellow church members expect it of you, or you did it to show everyone what a humble person you are (which makes that a blatant contradiction), you might as well have stayed home;
because the whole purpose of Lent is to cleanse one’s inner self and get back into a right relationship with God. Not that we need a special time of the year to do that. Ideally it should be something done every day of every week of every month. However, we as imperfect human beings often need special helps when it comes to staying on track with the Lord. And so we have church seasons to focus on varying aspects of Christ’s life and our faith. Is it a sin to not get ashes, or to not adhere to the church calendar? No! Although our second Scripture reading (Romans 14:4-10), doesn’t specifically mention ashes or Lent, they fall under the classification of things that we are not to judge our Christian brothers and sisters on. If you feel led to observe Lent in some special way, be it by fasting from a certain food, or any other private practice, that is well and good. May the Lord bless you in your desire to get closer to Him in the way that He leads you to do so. But if you do not, then do not judge those who do. And even more so, the same rule applies in reverse. For remember how harshly Jesus judged the Pharisees and what he told them in Matthew 6:16-18, “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”
But is getting ashes on your forehead one day out of the year, giving up chocolate or coffee for 40 days, eating fish on the Fridays in Lent, or any other such practice, what God really wants from us? Our third Scripture reading today (you know, the long one… Isaiah 58) outlined what God is really looking for. Remember verse 5 said, “You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD?” If we are truly penitent and remorseful for our sins, and sincerely want to do the Lord’s will, then we should not just deny ourselves little extras and lament about it on facebook, but give up one of our meals to someone who doesn’t have one at all - and tell no one else about it. Or how about instead of that new TV or porch or whatever else you were planning on purchasing, help someone who doesn’t have a home to put a TV in or add a porch to? It all boils down to what’s truly in your heart. For if your heart is right, then right actions will follow. If your heart is right, you don’t need the approval of others and aren’t looking for their praise. And if your heart is right, the joy of being in an intimate relationship with the Lord will bring you more happiness than anything on earth ever possibly could.
So during this Lenten season, take a long hard look in the mirror. Do you see someone who is still searching, or still hiding, or still refusing to face their own sin and need for cleansing? Or do you see a reflection of Christ and His love? I pray it is the latter. Amen.