February 17, 2010
Text: Matthew 6:1-21
Today, on the church’s calendar, is Ash Wednesday. I wonder, what is the appropriate greeting on Ash Wednesday? “Happy Ash Wednesday” doesn’t sound right. “Blessed Ash Wednesday?” Maybe. I don’t think there is an official Ash Wednesday greeting.
Clearly, Ash Wednesday is not a holiday in the sense that we usually use that word. There are no Ash Wednesday parties. No Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday television specials. Holiday, no, but Holy Day, yes. This day is holy in that it marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent.
Between now and Easter, the Church will be encouraging its members to engage in a searching and fearless moral inventory of themselves. Please, take some time each day, perhaps at bedtime to pray about this. Before God, acknowledge all the ways in which you have personally fallen short of His will for us and determine to change your ways. That’s repentance. It’s not easy and it’s not pleasant. We’ll sing hymns with titles such as “Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted” and “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Serious stuff. But it’s good to be serious sometimes.
The Bible says: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die… a time to kill and a time to heal, …a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, … (Eccl. 3:1-8).”
Observing Lent, as we do, is just acknowledging that this is the time to mourn, not dance, the time to weep and not laugh. That’s why we said farewell to the alleluia on Sunday. During Lent, we don’t sing alleluia. That’s why the purple vestments and the fasting and the somber music. Lent is a penitential season and there is no way to lighten that up. There is no such thing as Lent-lite.
When I speak of repentance, what do I mean? Repentance is more than just saying you’re sorry to God. That’s not repentance. One of the main words translated “repentance” in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word, shuv, which literally means to turn or to change course. If someone does something to hurt you and then says he is sorry, but then continues to do it, don’t you question whether he truly meant it when he apologized? When someone apologizes for offending you, don’t you just assume that he will at least try to stop it in the future? Repentance means to change course, to fight against the flesh, and amend your ways. You might fail again and again – and in this life we will never achieve sinless-ness, not even close – but repentance means exerting an effort, aided by the Holy Spirit, to turn around.
One of the things I have noticed about Pastor Fitzpatrick is that he is very good at giving driving directions. That’s true. I’ve asked him several different times, including today, to tell me how to get somewhere and he gives very precise directions, with just the right amount of detail. He mentions enough landmarks to provide context without overloading me with unnecessary information which would only be confusing.
I definitely used to be one of those guys who’d get lost but wouldn’t ever admit to himself that he was lost. I still do this to some extent. And so what do you do? You keep driving and turning left and turning right, hoping soon to see something that looks familiar. But the farther you go, the loster you get.
My problem is that I never want to stop and pull over to ask for directions. And I’m not sure why not. I think part of it is denial: “I don’t have a problem.” Part of it is stubborn-ness: “I can get out of this by myself.” And part of it is foolishness: “I’m going to be late so I don’t have time to stop and ask directions.” But of course, because I won’t take five minutes to pull over and find help, I waste 45 minutes going in circles.
Jesus said that He came to seek and save the lost. But what good is that if you’re lost but don’t know it or worse, stubbornly refuse to admit it, even to yourself? The Hebrew word for repentance literally means “to turn.” A wise man is the one who knows when and where to turn.
Ash Wednesday is not about something I do for God. Coming to church and getting your ashes are not ways to impress God or man. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Getting your ashes is a way of showing that you know there is nothing you can do for God to impress Him. It’s a sign of helplessness. You are dust and to dust you shall return…and there’s not one single solitary thing you can do about it. But God can. And He does.
Repentance must have a purpose. We’re not just randomly sitting around feeling rotten about our sins. You know, there is good sorrow and there is bad sorrow. Bad sorrow is when we stew in a pool of misery and dwell there. Because it’s so inward focused, it shuts God out. This kind of sorrow leads to death.
But good sorrow, or godly sorrow, is the sorrow that leads us to seek help from the outside. The captain of our salvation is the Lord Jesus. We look to Him for strength. Godly sorrow opens your heart to what God has to offer.
In the Gospels, when Jesus was arrested by the Romans and crucified, two of His disciples overtly betrayed Him. Judas, of course, pre-arranged to hand Jesus over to the Jews in exchange for 30 silver coins. Because of that, Judas has gone down in history as the grand-daddy of all traitors. No one ever names their children after him. No Judas Stiegemeyers or Judas Fitzpatricks running around out there. When Judas realized the evil he had done, he was filled with sorrow and went out and hanged himself.
Peter also betrayed Jesus when he denied three times that he knew Him. The bible says that when Peter realized what he had done, he went somewhere and wept bitterly.
Two men commit essentially the same type of sin: betrayal of an innocent man. Both of them feel bad about it. One of them fell into despair and died. The other looked for forgiveness and was restored. And that is my final point about repentance and Lent. It’s not just about how crummy can we make you feel. It’s about acknowledging our condition before God, who loves us, and seeking Christ’s forgiveness. And Jesus never turns a penitent away.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.