Summary: An invitation to a holy lent, speaking about the desire for revival, and recognizing that revival must be empowered by God, beginning with us (not them).
Having grown up attending a church that had little to no emphasis on fasting, Ash Wednesday, or the season of Lent, I’ve grown to approach this season with anticipation and trepidation at the same time. I appreciate the recognition of the passage of time toward Good Friday and Easter. After all, the celebration of Easter seems much more celebratory after going through a period of Lenten preparation. While we know that the Gospel message is “Good News,” we are much more aware of the “Goodness” of the News after having been reminded of the sinfulness of our condition before the news. We can’t celebrate the empty grave without being reminded of the cruel cross, nor should we attempt to short-circuit the season of prayer, fasting, and preparation.
In one of my favorite quotes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he says, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
On the other hand, I approach Lent with trepidation because I don’t want to go through that soul-searching. I don’t want to examine myself and spend time in corporate and individual soul searching. I hesitate to allow God’s searchlight to shine upon my heart, fearful of what might be found there. Our litany of corporate confession which we pray each year on Ash Wednesday reminds me that I have not always exhibited perfect love toward my neighbor or my enemy, and that there have been times when I have failed to give God ALL of my heart, mind, soul, and strength. I know that I have not preached the Gospel to the ends of the earth, there have been times when I’ve failed at living in Christian community and fellowship, and I’m not always the best disciple or discipler. In short, Ash Wednesday reminds me of what we studied Sunday Morning—none of us are capable, on our own, of perfectly completing the two Great Assignments that Jesus left for us.
I also get skittish about Ash Wednesday because I don’t like being reminded of my own mortality. That whole “dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” just serves to remind me that nothing I do on this earth for myself will last. Only what is done for the Kingdom of God has any real value. I’m reminded that things like trucks that don’t work right really shouldn’t consume my energy or attention the way that it does…but that the things I think I own are really just things—and they really belong to God anyway.
We find ourselves not enjoying Lent as much because Lent is about giving things up and self-denial. Whether we give up some type of food or bad habit—or strive to add extra devotional time to our lives through our study of “The Quest,” lent reminds us that the Christian life is not about fulfilling our own wants and desires. Kingdom living is not about meeting my needs, but about following Jesus all the way to the cross that I might have new life.
There’s also the temptation to pat ourselves on the back because we’re striving to observe a Holy Lent. This morning I had opportunity to be with some brothers and sisters who had already had ashes imposed on their foreheads, and I found myself wishing that I had already had this service so I could stand in solidarity with them. I found myself wishing that they knew I was going to have ashes put on my forehead as well. But I guess that kind of defeats the whole purpose of an Ash Wednesday service. We don’t have ashes put on our forehead or hand to broadcast to everyone else that we are fasting or praying. We have ashes imposed for our own benefit—to remind us that we are mortal and that we are in constant need of God’s grace in our lives. Ashes remind us that without outside help, we are without hope.
We recognize that we are in great danger of improperly keeping a fast or praying. Jesus offers instructions about prayer and fasting in our Gospel lesson. We are reminded to not put on a show or to do our fasting for the praise of men. The words of Isaiah that we just heard are pretty harsh toward the Israelites who had failed to properly fast, and had turned the fast into an empty ritual that did not change the way in which they lived. And so, we might be tempted to avoid prayer and fasting altogether. Indeed, I think that’s probably the approach that was taken by the church I grew up in. We are so afraid that we might improperly fast that we ignore the fact that Jesus said, “when you pray,” and “when you fast,” and “when you give.” He didn’t say “if,” He said “when.” In Matthew chapter six, Jesus is speaking with the assumption that we are praying, we are fasting, and we are giving. It does not appear to be an option.