Sunday, March 20, 2011

God: "Give Up!"

Scripture Text: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Many of you who know me know that I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. Yet, in a culture dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), God somehow in the eternal wisdom of His sovereign decrees predestined me to be raised a Presbyterian. Until the last two or three decades or so, things like “Ash Wednesday” and “Lent” were foreign concepts in the Presbyterian church and most of the rest of the reformed world (they still are, in many corners of the evangelical church). For Protestants, Lent was initially viewed as a leftover from Rome, to be discarded with the rest of popery. But now, Ash Wednesday and Lent are regularly observed throughout Christendom, including many reformed churches. Although Ash Wednesday, Lent – and other Holy Days for that matter, even Christians – are nowhere commanded in the Scriptures, they can nevertheless be helpful to us by focusing our attention on the grace of God in the face of massive distractions in our culture.

How is Ash Wednesday, in particular, helpful to us? Here are a couple of reasons why.

First, Ash Wednesday is, in this day an age, perhaps the most pronounced reminder in our culture that every human being alive today will one day die, and that the reason for this is our sin.

Second, Ash Wednesday invites us to throw away all religious pretense and self-serving, self-righteous, self-salvation projects that never “work” and instead surrender, again or for the first time, to the God who has graciously called us to be his children so that we might be saved from our sin.

In short, Ash Wednesday is about the gospel.

First, Ash Wednesday is, in this day an age, perhaps the most pronounced reminder in our culture that every human being alive today will one day die, and that the reason for this is our sin. Ash Wednesday is a defiant pronouncement of truth in the face of our cultural denial over the reality of sin and its consequences, death. We do everything we can to hide this reality. We dye our hair. We undergo cosmetic surgery. We carefully whisk our beloved dead away before anyone can really notice. In our culture, it almost seems that the most impolite thing you can do is die. Look at all of the inconvenience it causes, the unwanted emotions, the abrupt changes in plans. But worst of all, a person’s death reminds me of the truth that I’m going to die, too. In this service, we proclaim biblical reality, which is the only kind of reality: Because of sin, we die. We acknowledge the truth of Genesis 3:19, when God pronounced humanity’s punishment for the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve:
“…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When you come forward to have ashes imposed on your head, you will hear these very words from the Scriptures spoken to you. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, and the cause of our mortality, our sin.

This is the bad news reality of sin. This is the bad news that our sin deserves punishment. It is the bad news that God’s judgment for sin is real. This is the reality of the bible, and it is the reality of life for those with eyes to see it clearly. Ash Wednesday is simply a statement of the truth that we try so hard to hide. We are sinful, and we are frail. Our eyes need to be opened to the reality of our sin so that we can see how deeply we need a savior to rescue us.

If we were left with only the bad news, we’d certainly be in bad shape, wouldn’t we? We’d end up feeling like the people of Judah and Jerusalem who faced a huge locust plague, a national calamity that Joel declares is a message of God’s justice and forthcoming judgment. The judgment comes like the army of God bearing down upon the people:
[2:1] Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, [2] a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations.
If this were the only news out there, then we’d be in pretty bad shape, wouldn’t we? We would be a people without hope, especially with the knowledge that God’s final judgment is coming, a promise that is found throughout the scriptures. Perhaps you are here tonight feeling like one of the people in Joel’s target audience of Judah and Jerusalem, trembling in fear at the announcement that the day of the Lord is coming, a day of judgment for rebelling against God and God’s plan for you.

Indeed, if that were the only news for us, we would be in very bad shape.

But praise God there is more to the story! There is hope, because God desires sinners like you and me to return to Him by repenting of our sin and turning to him in faith.

Joel 2:12-13a
[2:12] “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; [13] and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
God wants you back! Even though you may have rejected Him, he still desires you to return to him because his loves his children.  “Return to me!” God shouts, “Return to me with all your heart!” Don’t think repentance is accomplished simply by making a show of things. Don’t rend your garments so that others can see how pious and religious you are. Don’t just do all the right things, attend all the right worship services, attend all the right classes, be seen doing all the right things. Instead, God says “Rend your hearts” child of the covenant! Loved ones, God desires not your external performance but the inward contents of your heart.

Let me just say something about that: The imposition of ashes is for us a reminder of our deep need for a savior. It is not something we do to look good or to earn favor with God. Listen to these words from Jesus, taken from the first verse of tonight’s reading in Matthew, “[6:1] Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”  If you think that by participating in Ash Wednesday service you are in any way earning righteousness before others or God, you should probably consider more carefully the meaning of God’s grace and refrain from receiving the ashes altogether. God doesn’t desire your outward performance or conformance to rules. He desires the very contents of your heart, as the scriptures state very clearly.

Back to Joel:
[13b] Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. [14] Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God? [15] Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; [16] gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. [Can you see what this means? Repentance, returning to God, is more important than anything you can think of, including the nursing of infants and your forthcoming wedding night!] [17] Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
I said there were a couple of reasons that Lent is beneficial to us. This is the second reason: Ash Wednesday invites us to throw away all religious pretense and self-serving, self-righteous, self-salvation projects that never “work” and instead surrender, again or for the first time, to the God who has graciously called us to be his children so that we might be saved from our sin. Tonight is a night for surrendering and proclaiming together with others our ongoing need of this magnificent God, who in his mercy saves us from the destruction of all the sin that would otherwise consign us to hell.

The means whereby you and I are saved from certain destruction will be visibly traced onto your forehead. It is the sign of the cross. It is the sign that signifies the horrendous consequences of our sin in the crucifixion of the Messiah. But it is also the sign where “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). At the precious cost of his blood, Jesus purchased forgiveness of all your sin. That forgiveness is available to you right now if you haven’t already received him by faith. Ash Wednesday, therefore, is not an occasion for being morose and sad. Instead, it is a time of hope that points to the cross and the victory of Christ over sin and death when Jesus was raised from the dead on Easter morning.

Tonight, my hope is that each person here will say in his or her innermost heart, “Lord Jesus, I surrender. I give up. I want the forgiveness only you can give.” This Lenten season, don’t just give up coffee or TV, or take on something you think will make you more holy or more righteous or more “in” with God. The thing that makes you right with God is giving in to the grace and forgiveness he offers through the Cross of his Son, Jesus Christ. The gospel way of living is giving up to God continually, of drinking more of his grace, not in trying to do more. Tonight, God is saying to you, as he did to the people of Israel who faced calamity in the face of God’s overwhelming army, “Surrender!” Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Don’t give up stuff for Lent. Instead, give yourself up to Christ for Lent. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
March 9, 2011
Ash Wednesday Joint Worship Service with Salem Lutheran Church and Belmont Lutheran Church
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew

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