Ashes that Matter
Reverend Anthony R. Locke
March 6th, 2011 www.FirstPresTucker.org
at the First Presbyterian Church of Tucker
Do Presbyterians celebrate Ash Wednesday & Lent?
English Standard Version
1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The early Church set aside the six weeks before Resurrection Sunday for spiritual preparation. Easter is the high point of the Christian calendar and it seemed appropriate, surely we all think it is appropriate, to prepare spiritually for Mundy Thursday, for Good Friday and Easter.
The elders in the early church exhorted believers to set aside extra time for prayer, repentance and self-evaluation. People who wanted to join the church were catechized during Lent, baptized on the Saturday after Good Friday and received as members Easter morning.
I have participated in these commitments at ARP churches. Most ARP churches encourage members to pick something in their life that they could give up as a reminder that Easter is coming. Many people replace meat with fish. Some people stop eating chocolate. I have friends that stop watching television and stop drinking soda. One year I stopped playing a game that was monopolizing my free time.
The goal is similar to fasting. During a fast we stop a common activity which gives us pleasure so that we can use that extra time for spiritual commitments. Many Christians fast during Lent and redeem that time for godly pursuits. The early church also used Lent to collect special offerings for the poor.
Lutherans remove rich foods from their kitchen. On Tuesday of this week many Lutheran churches will have Pancake Tuesday. They follow the tradition of removing eggs and leavened bread by making pancakes.
This is also called Shrove Tuesday. To shrive is to repent. So many of our Christian brethren will remove, repent from, rich foods that are in their kitchen. The next 40 days until Easter they will make family meals without these food luxuries.
This March 9th is the beginning of Lent and we start by celebrating Ash Wednesday.
Now all this might sound a little superstitious or extra religious to some of us. Most Presbyterians do not have roots in these sorts of religious traditions. Our roots are in careful Bible expositions, thoughtful prayers, catechetical disciplines, formal worship and solid church discipleship.
But we can’t ignore the fact that the Bible records many religious habits, and some of these habits were prescribed by God. Bible people had religious commitments covering their food, rest, dating, music, education, sacrifices and more.
God doesn’t like plain worship. Some Christians think God would like our churches and lives to be stripped of all elaborate religious activities. Consider that even parts of the Tabernacle were covered with gold according to the specific design of God.
And God repeatedly told His children how to repent. Jeremiah 6:26 O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only son . . .
God will not be offended if we use the sign of the cross on our foreheads during Lent. It isn’t unreasonable that we might use Ash Wednesday to begin a season of repentance.
The name Lent means lengthening. Lent begins in the middle of winter when the trees are bare, the nights are long, and much of the world is covered in snow. As the days get longer we remember that God will not leave us in darkness, but fill our world with the light of the resurrection of His Only Begotten Son.
The passage in Isaiah 58 tells us how to celebrate Lent to the glory and honor of God.
The people in this passage are recently returned from almost 50 years of exile in Babylon. A civil culture is not well established. Some of the people are running real-estate scams. The wealth of widows is not being protected. Charlatans, thieves and con-artists abound. The people are economically oppressed and face the daunting task of rebuilding their temple and their lives. This isn’t the glorious return Isaiah predicted.
So the people in Israel reconstitute their religious habits thinking that this will obligate God to blessed them. Israel goes through the motions of religious activity as if that will force God’s hand to bring blessings.
Isaiah confronts the religious habits of God’s people because they are empty.
God always rejects a religious life that is not filled with humility, justice and holiness.
Let’s begin with verse 2. This verse at first looks like a compliment. It is not.
The people of Israel worshipped every week. They really enjoyed going to church. They enjoyed the sacrifices. They had fun eating the Passover meal. The whole religious experience was pleasant.
Sometimes we do that. We go to church because there are people there we want to see. We enjoy the monthly covered dish meals. We feel the need for fellowship. We go through the motions because it’s a delight.
But if we don’t live holy then God will not accept our religious traditions of worship.
God’s people in Isaiah 58 were not living righteous. They acted religious AS IF they were holy. But they weren’t. Israel was not working to protect the oppressed and poor.
And the people of God complain in verses 3 that God did not recognize their religious activities. Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?
God’s fellowship and blessings do not turn on like a water spigot. We cannot earn His favor. If we stop eating meat and chocolate we do not earn God’s blessings.
Verse 4, God says clearly that a fast for personal glory or earthly ambitions do not help lift your prayers to heaven.
God takes delight in religious passions only if they work themselves out like verses 6 + 7. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
God isn’t interested in religious rituals that don’t bring us toward holiness and love for others.
Look again at verse 5. We can say the prayers, put on sackcloth and ashes, bow down, offer the sacrifices and so on – but if we do not treat our neighbors and our family better then it is all pointless.
Actually, a religious life void of personal holiness will increase God’s anger against us.
Our outward activities of faith must go further than personal enrichment. We must address community problems — verses 6 + 7. We must work as a people of faith to make community changes for the glory of God and the increased welfare of our neighbors.
We can’t turn a blind eye to the needs of our community. Our faith should be impacting our culture and our world for Jesus.
And as we connect our faith to our culture, then Isaiah prophesies, our light will shine in the darkness. Verse 8. The ruins will be rebuilt, the streets will be restored, and generations of Israelites will honor and serve the Lord.
If we want to be connected to God in verse 9, then we must connect our faith to real world problems were sin hurts people. We have to join with the rest of God’s people to push back the gates of Hell and expand Christ’s Kingdom.
Verse 10 says that we must pour ourselves out for the hungry and the afflicted. That’s an irreversible sacrifice of service to another person. In this we mirror the love of Christ.
By serving others we serve Christ. And as our faith blesses others, God blesses us. — verse 11 And the Lord will guide you continually Satisfy your desire in scorched places Make your bones strong
If we live with a view to serve others, then we will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
So does all this mean that God hates Lent? Does God despise Ash Wednesday observance?
God hates all religious observance that doesn’t work itself out in real love to others. We have to be authentic. Going through the motions isn’t going to help anyone.
Making pancakes on Tuesday night is fine if you do more than just eat well. We must add to our religious activities faith in God’s promises. We must repentance from our sins. We must bring our faith into the world in which we live. God isn’t happy with religion until it moves the salt out of the salt shaker.
God is more interested in changing the world than your personal devotional life. We are to be a channel of blessing, not a holding tank.
This is God’s summary in verses 13 + 14.
“If we turn back our foot from the Sabbath, from doing our pleasure on God’s holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if we honor it, not going our own ways, or seeking our own pleasure, or talking idly; then we shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Honoring the Sabbath is a metaphor that we obey all of God’s commandments. If we live redemptive lives within our world and pursue personal holiness, then God will give us deep spiritual food and bless us by His promises through Christ.
So go ahead and celebrate Shrove Tuesday, but remove the things which dishonor God. Observe Ash Wednesday, but don’t forget real repentance. Observe a fast from certain activities and habits between now and Easter and redeem that time to pursue love for your neighbor.
God gives His word that this will bring us His richest blessings. the Lord has spoken
Thanks be to God. Amen
 The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.