Ash Wednesday Homily
We’ve said before, and it’s no trouble to be reminded, that we think of the church calendar like a devotional guide. Over the course of the Christian Year, we are reminded of the most crucial, most important parts of our life in Christ: what it means to know Jesus and walk with Him. In the Old Covenant, these reminders were often called “memorials” – sometimes they were big piles of rocks, sometimes they were feasts or rituals or sacrifices, sometimes they were literal words written in various places to remind Israel of who they were and what they were called to.
So too, throughout the year, we remember different aspects of the gospel, and we do it in prayers, in songs, in sermons, and in various decorations, colors, rituals, and symbols. During Advent and Christmas, we sing carols and give gifts and decorate with lights and trees. We drink eggnog and wish one another a “Merry Christmas!” because Christ our Savior is Born. This is true all the time, but we set aside a number of weeks in December and January to revel in it.
Likewise, this evening we mark the beginning Lent or Passiontide, the weeks leading up to our celebration of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. The word “Lent” is literally a contraction of the word “lengthen” and is simply an old word for Springtime, when the days are getting longer. This is true for us in this hemisphere, but it’s always true for all Christians everywhere because of the gospel. The Sunrise from on High has visited us! – Zacharias sings at the birth of his son, John (Lk. 1:78). This is part of what Epiphany celebrates – the light of God breaking out in this world, and so we celebrate the gospel going to the Gentiles and the gifts of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus and the revelation that He is God’s beloved Son, as well as the miracles of Jesus, manifesting who He is and what He has come to do – turning the old broken world into a new and glorious world, like turning water for purification into the wine of celebration.
But God’s light is not limited to foreign ambassadors bowing down and offering their gifts, His light is not limited to a thundering voice out of heaven approving His Son, nor is His light limited to wonderful miracles of healing. Those things are all part of the light, part of the revelation of who God is and what He is up to. But what is striking, startling, and in so many ways offensive, is the fact that Jesus very clearly turns midway through His ministry and tells the disciples that He will now go to Jerusalem and die. He will now go down into the very heart of darkness, into the very valley of the shadow of death, and He will overcome the darkness there with His Light as well.
In other words, God’s idea of bringing light to this dark world is far more thorough, far more exhaustive than we tend to think. And this is primarily due to two complimentary lies that we are fairly quick to believe. The first lie is that we, and this world by extension, are not as bad off as all that, and the second lie is that God’s light cannot actually overcome all the darkness. Of course we do not usually state these lies so boldly, so plainly. Instead, we couch these lies in much more palatable ways, in more presentable costumes. So let’s look at each lie briefly.
The first lie – that we are not that bad, shows up in different ways for different people. Optimistic type people, people who are naturally upbeat and happy, tend to skim over the top of problems, dealing with sin and brokenness only in very superficial ways. Optimists don’t like feeling sad, so they avoid it. They ignore problems, and hope they will just go away on their own. Maybe the sin will just fix itself. Pessimistic types, people who are naturally critical, naturally a little more sober or fearful, ironically also minimize how bad sin is. It’s a lot more subtle, but you can tell this is what they’re doing because nothing actually gets better. They might move from one fear to the next, but no fear is actually relieved. They may move from one concern to the next, but they actually have a deep fear of resolution, a deep fear of actually being happy. These types of people often have continuous, mysterious health problems. There’s always something hurting, something not quite right, something to complain about. But the irony is that they think they will be safer if they limp, it will be less of a let down if they expect difficulty and pain. And they tell themselves they are being honest about the world when in fact they are engaged in an elaborate lie, often with many layers of self-deception involved.
But this first lie is directly connected to the second lie – that the light of Jesus cannot actually overcome the darkness. In fact, it is this second lie that is the direct reason for the first kind of lie. Whatever your personality type, whether your tendency is to be optimistic and glaze over problems or pessimistic in an effort to blunt the problems, you have the same fundamental problem: you don’t believe that the light of Jesus can overcome your darkness. You are afraid to face your sin and the problems in your life because you are afraid that Jesus cannot handle them.
But actually, it’s worse than that. It’s not merely that we are afraid that Jesus cannot handle our problems, it’s that we don’t trust Jesus to handle them the right way. We try not to think about it too much, but God’s ways are not our ways. And God so often chooses the painful path, the way of suffering, the way of death. And we don’t like that.
When Jesus first told His disciples that He must suffer many things and be rejected by the Jewish leaders, and finally be killed before rising again, Peter took Him aside and rebuked Him (Mk. 8:31-32). Most of us are more subtle than Peter, but we all basically think the same thing. We think God has bad ideas. We think this plan that Jesus has to face down the powers of this world, is a bad idea. But Jesus says the same thing to us that He said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan, For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Mk. 8:33).
Lent is a season in the life of the Church in which we reflect on these crucial, central parts of the gospel. In so many ways, this is the central hinge of the gospel story. Everybody likes a Jesus who heals sickness. Everybody loves a Jesus who preaches love and good works. But nobody really wants to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. Nobody really wants to take up their cross and follow Him.
And we’ve said before that it’s terribly easy to gin up some sad feelings, some vague guilt and then walk out of here thinking that you must be repentant cause you felt bad for a little while. Or maybe you take up some fasting regimen, and every time you feel hungry, you pat yourself on the back because you’re following Jesus. But this is just more of the same, more avoiding the light. Lent is not about “giving things up.” There’s nothing inherently helpful about “giving things up.” Lent is about fighting sin more fiercely and following Jesus more faithfully. We are slippery creatures, and we like to slide off the point. But the point is that we need grace, we need the light of the gospel to shine in our hearts and lives. We need Jesus to deal with us. And most importantly, we need to believe that Jesus knows what He’s doing. He is our head, and that means that He has gone first. He went down into the darkness in order to prove that it is safe for us. He has come out the other side, and now He calls us to trust Him and follow Him.
Lent means it’s getting lighter, but we need to recognize that it’s getting lighter because there is darkness. We are in the great tunnel of death, but Jesus has come out the other side, shining in radiant glory, beckoning us to Himself.
So will you follow Him? Will you submit to Him? Some of you need to deal with sin. Some of you need to kill long standing habits and addictions. Some of you run your mouths, cursing and complaining and criticizing your husband, your wife, your children. Some of you cover your insecurities and fears with food fads and mysterious ailments. Some of you sin by your apathy. You find easy grooves to follow, but you are not actively disciplining your children, leading them, teaching them, pointing them to Jesus. Some of you need to have hard conversations with your husband or your wife or your parents or one of your children. You know it might not go well, but you need to tell the truth in love. Some of you need to stop being ashamed of the gospel. You need to stop trying to be cool, stop trying to be respected by the world, stop trying to earn kudos from men. You need to repent of your fear of man, and you need to ask God to teach you to fear Him. Some of you are simply afraid of life, which is actually to say, afraid of death, afraid of sickness, disease, and dying. But Jesus has overcome all of it. And if He calls you to suffer, He calls you into that darkness in order to shine His light through you.
Lent is a call to war. Lent is an annual announcement of the doom of death. Jesus went to Jerusalem for us. He went on a rampage. He went to war with sin, with death, and with all the powers of Hell. Do you believe that? Do you really believe that? Then trust Him with your darkness. Trust Him with your pain. Trust Him with your sin, with your doubt, with your anger, with your fear. Trust Him with your life. He is the Light of the World. And He is our Good Shepherd. Remember that life is short. Life is frail. Life is dust. Spend your life well, letting the light of Jesus shine on your darkness. In the end it will have been worth it. Spend your life following Jesus, trusting Him to take the dust of your life and raise it up into glory.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!