Today is the first day of Lent which starts our 46-day journey to Easter. As I said on Sunday, this really isn’t about the ritual of Lent or even about Ash Wednesday, even though eating pancakes at any time (Shrove Tuesday) seems like a good idea. The strange thing about Shrove Tuesday is that it means to absolve, so people take this last day before Lent and as one person said, “it’s the last day of fat eating or gorging before the fasting period of Lent.” It is also referred to as Mardi Gras. “The term Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods.” Obviously if you have seen Mardi Gras, it is more about revelry that just fat, which is absurd. This term came from “Boeuf Gras,” French for “fatted calf. Exodus 32:5 “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the (golden) calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. Paul pointed out 1 Corinthians 10:6 “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.” The idea is not to live however you want at any time and then ask God for forgiveness. Today many people live their lives year-round like this and then expect God to forgive them, yet they never change, nor do they follow God wholeheartedly. 

        Our journey is a focused study into a particular theme. Our theme this year is “Prepare to Meet Your God.” This comes from the book of Amos. Amos 4:12 “Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel, and because I will do this to you, Israel, prepare to meet your God.” 13 He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the Lord God Almighty is his name.” The context of this passage is an unrepentant Israel. Over and over God said, “yet you have not returned to me, declares the Lord.” This was said after God withheld rain, gave them empty stomachs, struck gardens and vineyards with blight and locusts and some were overthrown. Still, the people did not respond. Jeremiah said 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.” On Sunday we read this verse from Jeremiah 6:27 “I have made you a tester of metals and my people the ore, that you may observe and test their ways. 28 They are all hardened rebels, going about to slander. They are bronze and iron; they all act corruptly. 29 The bellows blow fiercely to burn away the lead with fire, but the refining goes on in vain; the wicked are not purged out. 30 They are called rejected silver, because the Lord has rejected them.” God had warned them over and over to obey, but they refused correction. He also warned them over and over that they would be attacked and destroyed if they refused to obey. Jeremiah 6: 22 “This is what the Lord says:“Look, an army is coming from the land of the north; a great nation is being stirred up from the ends of the earth. 23 They are armed with bow and spear; they are cruel and show no mercy. They sound like the roaring sea as they ride on their horses; they come like men in battle formation to attack you, Daughter Zion.” For the person who thinks God is just a God of love, know that God is a jealous God also. Deuteronomy 4:23 “Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. 24 For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” This is why repentance is not high on the list for most Christians as they do not fear God. Most people in today’s church really have no idea who God is, nor do they feel the need to submit to Him, unless they need something. 

        Today is called Ash Wednesday. Some traditions have a service where ashes are placed on the forehead and then during the day you will see people who have attended with ash on their forehead. When the ash is placed, the priest or minister says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I prefer the first because repenting and believing the gospel is what it is all about and when you do die and return to dust it is too late. The symbolism of the liturgy can be powerful. One that I read was powerful in word on paper, but do most know what they need to repent from and do they know the God they are repenting to. Giving up something for Lent really is not what God is looking for. For some it seems to be chocolate. This year we just had Valentine’s Day, so you could get your fill right up to Fat Tuesday and then you give it up for Lent but thankfully the easter bunny comes at Easter with more chocolate. That is definitely not what this is about as God is looking at your heart. Honestly, He is not looking at your forehead either to see if you have ashes on it but whether you have a repentant heart. 1 Corinthians 15:2 “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” Yes, you could go to the services and still believe in vain. Solomon prayed this prayer. 1 Kings 8:46 “When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to their enemies, who take them captive to their own lands, far away or near; 47 and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly’; 48 and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and pray to you toward the land you gave their ancestors, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; 49 then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause. 50 And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their captors to show them mercy; 51 for they are your people and your inheritance, whom you brought out of Egypt, out of that iron-smelting furnace.” 

        God is looking for a change of heart, but most do not know what they need to change as many are taught they are safe and secure because they followed a tradition. Many are attending services that teach and follow other gospels yet still believe they are serving God. What God is looking for, is for us to turn from those wicked ways. 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.” Notice the drought, famine and plague in the first verse. We are told Amos 8:11 “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” We are in that famine and sadly the word of God is not being heard. Therefore people are not truly repenting. Most do not know God enough to fear Him, for most have not been taught the whole truth about God. Most of us do not really understand the magnitude of worshipping our God. Job was a righteous man and even he humbled himself before God. After God blasted Job with questions Job responded and said Job 42:4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ 5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. 6 Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” When the people heard about the destroyer coming from the north Jeremiah 6:24 “We have heard reports about them, and our hands hang limp. Anguish has gripped us, pain like that of a woman in labor. 25 Do not go out to the fields or walk on the roads, for the enemy has a sword, and there is terror on every side. 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.” When Jonah was sent to the people of Nineveh they responded appropriately when preached. Jonah 3:4 “Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish. 10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” God said to Jonah, Jonah 4:11 “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” Today is no different. Jeremiah said, Jeremiah 5:20 “Announce this to the descendants of Jacob and proclaim it in Judah: 21 Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear: 22 Should you not fear me?” declares the Lord. “Should you not tremble in my presence?

        Putting on sackcloth and dust and ashes is an outward gesture. If you are fasting, Jesus said Matthew 6:16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” God is looking at your heart to see if you will obey and turn from your wicked ways. It is not about ashes on your forehead but about submitting to God wholeheartedly and standing steadfast on His word. This is for the church. Joel 2:1 “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. 12 Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 13 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. 14 Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God. 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. 16 Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. 17 Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” As we begin this journey, seek God, rend your heart, repent and take action and submit your life to God.