Today is Ash Wednesday. You may or may not be familiar with this other than the day before people got together and ate pancakes. That day is called Shrove Tuesday. One writer described it this way. “The word shrove means to confess. And, in the Middle Ages, this day was a time for people to confess their sins and ask forgiveness for them. This allowed Christians to enter into the season of Lent and prepare for Easter with a clean spirit.” “Shrove Tuesday is also known as 'Mardi Gras'. This means 'Fat Tuesday' in French and also comes from the idea of using up food before Lent.” Another said, “Pancake Day is great, and whatever topping you choose you can’t go wrong. However, Mardi Gras takes the indulgence to the next level.” Another writer said tongue in cheek, “The day after Fat Tuesday, when all the nonsense is to stop and you have about six weeks to try to remember what you did and ask forgiveness for it, is called Ash Wednesday.”
So that brings us to this day called Ash Wednesday. “Each year, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. Lent is a 40-day season (not counting Sundays) marked by repentance, fasting, reflection, and ultimately celebration.” A Catholic writer wrote “Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday, and is chiefly observed by Catholics, although many other Christians observe it too. Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person's forehead, he speaks the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Alternatively, the priest may speak the words, "Repent and believe in the Gospel." “Ashes also symbolize grief, in this case, grief that we have sinned and caused division from God.”
Today I want to look at this day as a reminder that we have caused our division from God. God has turned his face from shining on us and we must repent. 2 Chronicles 30:9 “If you return to the Lord, then your fellow Israelites and your children will be shown compassion by their captors and will return to this land, for the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.” Unfortunately we are like Samson who was unaware God had turned his face form him. Judges 16:20 Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him.” Like most traditions they go from potentially a good idea and then they turn into a ritual and in the end you end up eating pancakes and wake up in New Orleans not sure why. St Patrick’s Day is another like this and yes I realize not everybody has missed the meaning but most have.
As we start our Lenten journey I would ask that when you see someone with ashes on their forehead, or on you yourself, to look at this day differently. We are far from God and as we see in Nehemiah 1:3 “They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” The church lies in ashes and in desolation and I think this day is a good reminder of where we are. This day called Ash Wednesday is not all bad as Jesus said, Matthew 4:17 “From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” If people went into his day knowing that we must repent before we return to dust and ashes, this could be a powerful day but definitely not something that needs to be continually repeated. That is where ritualism (the regular observance or practice of ritual, especially when excessive or without regard to its function) ruins things.
As we start this journey please understand that we are desperate to be freed from our captors, so as Daniel prayed we too pray. Daniel 9:3 “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.” We also join with Mordecai. Esther 4:1 “When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. 3 In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.” Why were they mourning? Esther 3:13 “Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.” The good news in both cases was God heard their cry and they were saved from their enemies. Esther 9:1 “On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, the edict commanded by the king was to be carried out. On this day the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them. 2 The Jews assembled in their cities in all the provinces of King Xerxes to attack those determined to destroy them. No one could stand against them, because the people of all the other nationalities were afraid of them. 3 And all the nobles of the provinces, the satraps, the governors and the king’s administrators helped the Jews, because fear of Mordecai had seized them. 4 Mordecai was prominent in the palace; his reputation spread throughout the provinces, and he became more and more powerful.”
If the church actually saw the vast enemy that has us surrounded and taken most captive, we would be a repentant people. Yet when a ritual becomes ritualistic it looses its purpose and people just go through the motions. Isaiah 58:3 “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” This is a deadly serious time for the church. Many are dying and will die without knowing the truth. God has allowed the enemy to rise against us due to our disobedience to His word. Jeremiah describes the situation we find ourselves in. Jeremiah 5:3 “Lord, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction. They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent. The people of Israel and the people of Judah have been utterly unfaithful to me, declares the Lord. 12 They have lied about the Lord; they said, “He will do nothing! No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine. 13 The prophets are but wind and the word is not in them; so let what they say be done to them. 23 But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts; they have turned aside and gone away. 24 They do not say to themselves, ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, 30 “A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: 31 The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end? Jeremiah 6:10 “To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it. 11 But I am full of the wrath of the Lord, and I cannot hold it in. 13 “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. 14 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. 17 I appointed watchmen over you and said, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But you said, ‘We will not listen.’ 18 Therefore hear, you nations; you who are witnesses, observe what will happen to them. 19 Hear, you earth: I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not listened to my words and have rejected my law. 26 Put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”
We need to take this time of repentance very seriously because if we do, God will hear our cry and save us from our enemies. 1 Kings 8:33 “When your people Israel have been defeated by an enemy because they have sinned against you, and when they turn back to you and give praise to your name, praying and making supplication to you in this temple, 34 then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them back to the land you gave to their ancestors.” Jesus said, Luke 10:13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. 16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” 17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” In this time of desolation we must turn from our ways back to God’s way. 2 Chronicles 7:13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. 16 I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.
As we start this journey we do so with a solemn heart but we also have great joy because we know that God has heard our cry. So today while millions are going through the motions, know that 2 Chronicles 16:9 “the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” So don’t be one of those people who are not fully committed. If we want to take back the land and defeat our enemies, then we must be a repentant people. We must also be a people that believe God will once again turn his face upon us if we do repent. Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”
So even though we start this journey with this focus on repentance, we know that the church will rise up once again in victory. Hebrews 12:25 “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.” It is with great expectation that as we return to God he will return to us. Isaiah 44:24 “This is what the LORD says— your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the LORD, the Maker of all things, who stretches out the heavens, who spreads out the earth by myself, 25 who foils the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners, who overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense, 26 who carries out the words of his servants and fulfills the predictions of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,’ and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’ 27 who says to the watery deep, ‘Be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’ 28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”
"Repent and believe in the Gospel" is the cry of this day. Mark 1:15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”