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Ash Wednesday

March 5, 2014

Psalm 51;Isaiah 58: 1-12

 It’s often said that showing up is 80% of life.  If that’s true, it’s very hard to find fault with the Israelites that we read about in today’s passage from Isaiah. 

After all, they are the ones who showed up. 

 In the two chapters preceding today’s reading, chapters 56 and 57, the prophet Isaiah extols all those who keep the Sabbath.  He says that God will joyfully accept their burnt-offerings and sacrifices.  And Isaiah tells us that God condemns the wicked—those who drink too much, pay homage to idols, live decadently and forget about God.  But God will forgive the sins of the righteous; He will heal and comfort them. 

 So it’s easy to understand why these worship-going Israelites are a little bit upset with God.  The passage tells us that “day after day they seek God” and “delight to know God’s ways.”[i]   They have “fasted” and “humbled themselves” before God.[ii]  They might have even dressed in sackcloth and ashes to publically demonstrate their repentance from sin, but all to no avail.  God says “such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.”[iii]  In other words, “Close only counts in horseshoes.”  And these Israelites in Chapter 58 are close, but they do not have a ringer.

 This passage seems particularly harsh for a congregation gathered on Ash Wednesday.  After all, you are the deeply faithful.  Ash Wednesday is not nearly as cuddly as the eight pound six ounce infant Jesus we celebrate on Christmas Eve.  Nor is it the candy-laden, timpani-driven celebration of Easter morning.  We don’t have to pack in 3 services or provide overflow seating in Courtenay Hall for Ash Wednesday.  No, Ash Wednesday is a much tougher sell because Ash Wednesday is the only Christian holiday where we are visibly marked as sinners and mortals.  Our society is so filled with spin-doctors and PR Reps that we almost never have to admit to having been wrong.  And our culture worships youth with such gusto that the reminder that we are all going to die some day sounds overly dramatic and hyperbolic.

 This fall, I organized a Young Adult Sunday school class.  The target audience is what is known in the church world as the “missing generation”—those 25-35 year olds who do not have children.  They are infamous for being unengaged with church until they have children that pull them back into Sunday school. 

   Before we began the class, I confessed to the excellent team of four teachers that I had no idea if anyone would show up on Sunday mornings.  Well, the Holy Spirit must have been laughing because somewhere between 12 and 20 young professionals have attended the class every Sunday since we began.  We have been growing into our adult faith together through Bible Studies on themes like grace, abundance and balance. 

 Early on, in our discussions of grace, one of the teachers posed the question to the group, “Are we essentially good people who sin?  Or are we essentially evil people who sometimes do good?” 

 Now, as an admittedly die-hard Calvinist, I thought the answer to this question was a no-brainer.  King David said it so eloquently in Psalm 51: “Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”[iv]  In the five theological points of Calvinism, known by the pneumonic device TULIP, the first letter “T” is for Total Depravity—which is just a fancy theological term that states we are all enslaved to sin and, without God’s grace, we cannot do good. 

 But just as I began to think that the silence in the room implied that the teacher of Young Adult Sunday School had asked an obviously rhetorical question, one of my classmates stammered out, “I mean, I think we’re all trying to be good people.”  “Yeah,” someone else chimed in, “we all mess up, but we want to do the right thing.”

 I was shocked.  It was clear that I was the only person in the room harboring passionate feelings about original sin.  But just before I broke out into a theological proof that started at Genesis and didn’t let up until Revelation, I had another thought: these are the young adults who showed up.  These are the members of the missing generation who refused to be lost.  Somehow lecturing these Sunday-school attending Young Professionals about our inability to do good seemed counterproductive.  So I fell silent and reminded myself that even I had some wild Methodist days in college.  A little bit of Wesleyan optimism about the state of humanity wouldn’t kill us.   

  But still, God-fearing, church-going folks would be wise to listen to the warnings of the prophet Isaiah. Showing up may be 80% of life, but showing up is not all that God requires of us. 

 You see, it seems that these faithful Israelites were doing the right things for the wrong reasons.  In verses 3 & 4, God criticizes them, saying, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”[v]   Fasting and humility are good, but not if they only serve ourselves, oppress others and lead to disagreements. 

 God will not be amused with our observance of Lent:  if our chocolate fast is really a kick-start to our new diet, if our increased time in prayer makes us feel holier than our neighbor, or if our boycotts of certain products only bolster our own political platforms.  King David said it well: that God “desires truth in the inward being.”[vi]  It is not enough to go through the motions of religion; our motivations must also be in the right place.  

 What God is trying to communicate to the Israelites and to us is: We do not worship or fast or sacrifice in order to obligate God to our agenda.  Rather, we worship, fast and sacrifice to be conformed to God’s agenda. 

 And God’s desire is not merely genuine spiritual devotion but also a heart for ALL of God’s people.  God puts it this way, starting in v.6:

“Is not the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to let the oppressed go free? 

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

And bring the homeless poor into your house?”[vii]   

 Think of it this way: if God gave you a Barnes & Noble gift card and asked you to go buy books that would concern Him, most of us would head straight to the Religion & Self-help section.   After exhausting it, some of us might get a little more creative: 

We might head over to History—God did author it. 

God might enjoy Travel & Leisure—after He created all the earth, God rested. 

We might even wander into fiction—Jesus enjoyed a good parable.

 But I doubt that many of us would head straight for the Newsstand, or the Business & Finance section, or the International Development shelf.  And yet, these topics and issues, are exactly what God tells us matter to Him.  The fast that God desires makes the world a better place.  Allen McSween said, “Worship that pleases God is inescapably social and compellingly personal.”[viii] 

 So, to pit social justice against spiritual disciplines or acts of compassion against acts of piety is to create a false dichotomy in God’s mind.  God is telling these faithful Israelites that, when they seek God honestly, their hearts will begin to break for the tragedies that break God’s heart.  Their genuine worship of our merciful and just God will spill out into their community with them as they advocate for mercy and justice. 

 It makes me wonder what would change about my life if I really believed that my relationship with God depended on my relationship with others.  Would I volunteer to tutor local children and youth in underprivileged schools?  Would I care a lot more about who sewed my clothes or picked my food?  Or perhaps I would learn more about the root causes of homelessness and hunger so that I could be an advocate for ending both maladies? 

 I wonder what fast God would choose for you this Lent?  Christian writer Frederick Buechner frames Lent this way: “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question ‘what it meant to be Jesus.’ During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask, one way or another, what it means to be themselves.”[ix]

 Friends, ‘showing up’ for the Christian journey is not enough.  It requires our hearts.  And it requires our minds.  And it requires our strength.  But when we do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, God promises us His awesome presence in return.  In verses 8 and 9, after God challenges the Israelites to care for their neighbors, God continues:

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

You shall cry for help, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’”[x] 

 If your desire over the next 40 days is to grow closer to God—to call upon the Lord and hear Him reply, “Here I am,” then learn from the faithful Israelites’ mistakes.  Do not choose a fast or a practice that serves yourself.  Instead, follow the fast of God’s choosing.  Repentance is not feeling bad about yourself, but it is genuinely allowing yourself to be changed. 

 In a moment, you will be invited to come forward down the center aisle to receive ashes in the sign of a cross on your forehead.  Throughout the Old and New Testaments, ashes were used to symbolize mourning and sorrow for sins.  After Adam and Eve committed the first sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,  God cast them out of the Garden of Eden.  God’s final words to Adam and Eve were, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[xi] 

 Likewise, Todd’s and my words to you will be: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  The ashes remind us and everyone who sees us that we are mortal and sinful. 

 The ashes bear witness to the darkness we have know,

But the cross bears witness to the hope that we know. 

 Because in the beginning, before there was Adam or Eve or sin, there was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[xii] 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, may your ashes, may your Lent, may your lives bear witness to the justice and mercy of our living God. 



[i] Isaiah 58: 2a. 

[ii] Isaiah 58: 3. 

[iii] Isaiah 58: 4b. 

[iv] Psalm 51: 5. 

[v] Isaiah 58: 3-4 (selected sections). 

[vi] Psalm 51: 6a. 

[vii] Isaiah 58:6-7 (selected sections). 

[viii] McSween, Allen. “Isaiah 58: 1-12” Feasting on the Word. Year A, Volume 2.  David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).  4. 

[ix] Buechner, Frederick, Listening to Your Life, Ed. George Conner (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), 56.

[x] Isaiah 58: 8-9 (selected sections). 

[xi] Genesis 3: 19c. 

[xii] John 1: 1-5. 

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