Isaiah 58: 1 – 5
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Lent – from the old English word for spring – this season of decreasing darkness and increasing light, as the days lengthen toward Easter.
Lent is not … a diet plan.
It isn’t. It’s just … that’s not what it’s for.
I want, as your pastor, I want to be supportive and encouraging and empowering of all the ways you might seek to be in right relationship with God. But if you’re going into Lent and saying to yourself it’s about fasting, it’s about giving up, I’ll spend six weeks doing this (or not doing that), because it’s a good chance for me to take the discipline of spirituality and use it to jumpstart a discipline of controlling my choices …
I hate to say it, but I’m going to say it: If that’s what you have in mind, you’re doing it wrong.
If you’re here to sort of fire the starter’s pistol and take off down the track with some super pepped up Jesus-is-my-life-coach motivation for A Better Me in Forty Days, then … no.
This is not that.
That is not what Lent is.
Tonight we’re part of something very particular – perhaps peculiar – in the life of the church. Things happen in this worship service in certain ways for certain reasons … and those reasons are NOT that we aren’t creative and didn’t want to do a new thing.
In this evening, in this Ash Wednesday moment, we are blessing dirt. Ash and oil, mixed together and marked on our skin. We pray that it somehow becomes a blessing.
We come to recall the very moments of our creation – when God took the dust of the ground and formed a human vessel and breathed into its being the very breath of life. We are here to remember that we are created from the dust, and to the dust we will return. We are here tonight to say that we are divine creatures in human vessels and if that’s the case, then we should make the most of what we have.
Lent is not a diet plan.
Forty is a number used throughout scripture, matched with many sacred journeys.
Forty days and forty nights, Noah is at sea, his family wondering what’s going on, and two of every creature getting restless in the cargo holds.
Forty years, Moses wanders the desert, leading people who didn’t want to be led, and listening to them tell him over and over how he ought to be doing his job and how they were happier where they used to be.
Forty days, Jesus separates himself from the crowds, preparing for his ministry to begin. He is tempted in ways that are strikingly familiar: tempted to display his power; to take advantage of his unique and divine nature; to worship an easy master instead of doing the hard work of God’s realm.
So in the early church, around the 4th century, Christians began to mark a season forty days too.
Between today and Easter is 40 days, not counting Sundays. In the Christian tradition of the Lord’s Day, we should already be marking that day of our week as set aside for a focus on God’s work in the world and in us. Those Sunday worship celebrations remain. It is these 40 days in between, from Ashes to Easter, on either side of the Sundays, that we’re saying, right now, we intend to approach differently.
In those early days, believers had often started somewhere else first – a national religion that worshipped an emperor, or a generational ritual that honored multiple gods. So to learn and follow the teachings of this one Messiah/Savior, as a way to know the Divine Creator most closely, was kind of a big leap. So a season of preparing came into play.
New believers spent forty days in study and prayer, sometimes even mimicking Jesus and going off on their own to a wilderness. At the end of their study and following a Holy Saturday vigil, the new believers would be baptized at Easter and claimed fully into the life of the church.
In the same way that we stand and respond together when someone joins our faith community, the earliest believers recognized – or remembered – what we all really know instinctively. We are not here to be alone. God-breathed creations that we are, we are in this world with all the other God-breathed creatures, and if any of us is going to survive, let alone thrive, then we’d better live in ways that recognize and inspire the God-blessed nature of every one of us.
So as a new believer would study and pray in this 40 days season of preparing, the community of faith would stand with them and honor them by studying and praying as well. The road of faithful following is not one of ease, nor of comfort, nor even always total joy. And so if there is a journey to be taken, no one journeys alone.
Think about where you’ve wandered. Where have you stumbled? Where have you caught someone else? Who has travelled with you as you’ve become the person you are? Who do you need to look for, and find, to be part of your journey now?
Poet and pastor Jan Richardson offered this blessing for Ash Wednesday –
To receive this blessing,
all you have to do
is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
Your entire life
is here, inscribed whole
upon your heart’s walls:
every path taken
or left behind,
every face you turned toward
or turned away,
every word spoken in love
or in rage,
every line of your life
you would prefer to leave
every story that shimmers
with treasures known
and those you have yet
It could take you days
to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.
And so let this be
a season for wandering,
for trusting the breaking,
for tracing the rupture
that will return you
to the One who waits,
who works within
to make your heart
Today, Ash Wednesday, is the first day of the Season of Lent. Today we are part of a practice that happens the same way every year, for a reason. It is the day that worshippers take on the symbol of ashes “as a sign of humility before God, a symbol of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings into the world.”
In the earliest days, ashes were only for those who publicly confessed their sin and asked to be restored to the Church, or who renounced their mistakes and promised to dedicate themselves to study and this new faithful living.
But again, Lent is not about one person, or even one kind of person. The church realized that if we were going to really welcome new believers, if we were going to take seriously the instructions of the Jesus we say we follow, then the entire church ought to be reminded of our own shortcomings. We need to take the time to name our sins, and to create a sign – in ash and oil on our foreheads – to be marked as run-of-the-mill human being sinful people. We start this season of Lent in mourning, so that we can look ahead together to the joy of resurrection and new life. The mark of the ashes is our shared confession, and it means that at the end of the forty days, we will share in the resurrection as well.
Lent – the dying, the giving up, the taking on, the prayer, the study, the fasting, the giving – isn’t about us, at all. It isn’t about us as individuals trying to be better people. It isn’t even about a whole community of faith pointing itself in a renewed direction. It is about setting ourselves aside, and recognizing that God is already working – working in us, working on us, and working for us – and that our job is to get out of the way of what God is already doing.
THAT is our fast. That is what we break from. That is what we set aside.
Anything that controls us. Anything to which we cling too tightly. Anything that keeps us from depth of experience, from fullness of faith, from holy and wholly flourishing.
Isn’t this what the prophet Isaiah is saying? We will spend the next five Sundays take a slow and thoughtful walk through this chapter of Isaiah. He starts where we start: By taking a true and careful look at what we’re doing and why.
‘Is THIS your fast?’ he says … you’re fasting so that people can see you? You’re posting on Facebook about what you’re ‘giving up’ so that everyone can know just how faithful and close to God you are? You’re practicing your following by talking trash about whoever doesn’t follow the way you do? Is that the fast you’re going for? Is that the focus you want your faith to have?
This isn’t the fast we desire, and we know it isn’t what God has in mind for us. That’s why we’re here, to start this season of reflection by confessing, and by taking our mark for it. We admit that we’re not who we should be – and there is room for God to step in. We confess, individually and together, that we put other things ahead of our relationships and our faith – and when we do, God turns that confession to mercy. We fast, not so that we are made less, but so that God can make us more.
The mark of the cross is our confession, AND our forgiveness.
We are here to confess our sin. Not just to say that we’ve done things we shouldn’t, or that we’ve not done the things we should. But to say – again – that we have separated ourselves from God – again.
We confess that we
- speak without thinking
- hurry even when there is no emergency
- listen without hearing
- interrupt when waiting would do fine
- work without resting
- disregard because understanding would take too long
- look without seeing
- compete when there isn’t even a contest
- decide without knowing
We confess. And we seek. And we will soon make the slow walk down this aisle to receive a mark our foreheads.
There is penitence, and there is mercy. We come to receive a mark of grace.
Ash Wednesday is about the mess of the human experience. It’ s about the oil and the ash making a print on our skin. It’s about the mud and the Breath that made us who we are in the first place. It is about preparing as individuals, and welcoming as a community, and confessing who we are, and knowing who we can be.
Before we come down the aisle, a short reminder of what taking those steps can mean (again from Jan Richardson):
All those days
you felt like dust,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.
 Jan Richardson, Rend Your Heart: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday
 Dennis Bratcher, Christian Resource Institute, general historical sketch
 Jan Richardson, ‘Blessing the Dust: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday’, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons