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Lent is an Inside Job

A message preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on Ash Wednesday February 10, 2016.  

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 


Lent Is An Inside Job


At times the scriptures read during worship come off sounding really harsh. Listening to some of the words of the Prophet Joel and Psalm 51 might leave some of us feeling like God sees no good in us.  So I want to start by reminding us that God made us in God’s own image. So God doesn’t consider any of us worthless.  And also that Jesus came into this world … Jesus comes to us … because GOD LOVES US.

Okay. And another thing: contrary to what some may think or even practice, Ash Wednesday isn’t supposed to provoke self-loathing.  Neither is this season of Lent.  Both commemorate how Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness where he was tempted (recruited) to use his gifts in service to “the dark side” (if you will).  Evil in its most clever and attractive disguises worked on Jesus, who had no weapon other than his intimate relationship with God.

So if God doesn’t consider any of us worthless or inherently “bad” then let’s not see ourselves or each other that way—not now, not during Lent, not ever!  And let’s also realize that Jesus himself never engages in self-loathing or -shaming so let’s not do that either. So many people are held down by shame when they could be sharing their gifts and their life in service to the Kingdom of God.

Scripture might have something to do with this problem.  For example, notice v5 from Psalm 51: I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.  People who get stuck on that one verse and miss the rest of Psalm 51 could be easily misinformed.  This is not justification for shaming ourselves. It’s more of a nod to Adam and Eve, our spiritual ancestors and progenitors of our human condition/tendency to rebel against God.  Moreover, Psalm 51 is a prayer by King David, seeking God’s mercy. David is an otherwise good man and godly King who got lost in his own mind. Drunk on power and lust, David abused his royal authority by raping a married woman and then arranging for her husband to be killed.

Ash Wednesday places this Psalm-prayer before us to remind us how easily we can deceive ourselves, just like King David. Not so that we wallow in shame, but rather to recognize and take seriously the negative spiritual forces which seek to divert us from God.

So as we enter the season of Lent, let’s remember where Lent leads: into the Second Exodus God has planned for all of us through Jesus Christ.  The ashen mark upon us, the nail we take with us tonight, these are meant to open our eyes to see the spiritual forces at work / in us and around us each day—forces that are far more powerful than us—both for good and for ill.  The energy we expend condemning ourselves or others only feeds the negative spiritual forces.

In outer space there’s all kinds of energy and power and intense light. There’s also intense darkness—in particular the phenomenon known as Black Holes.  Black holes gobble up light, and even time itself—from which these cannot and do not escape.  Black holes expand as they absorb light and matter.

I often think of the energy of sin in that way.  When we deceive ourselves or are deceived by the world, when we get lost in negative spirituality, negative spiritual forces, like King David does, we become like those black holes in space: it’s like we devour and trap light—such that these elements actually disappear … replaced by a darkness that can and does grow and expand.

To me, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about helping us practice seeking God’s help to stop our light devouring sin.  Ash Wednesday collides with our assumptions that only “bad people” are responsible for all of the evils of this world.   Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are all complicit …  we all contribute to the demise of humanity and to the demise of our Lord.

Living in the times that we do and in the culture that we do Ash Wednesday makes an outrageous claim that is literally “in your face”:

remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

This not a condemnation.

This is not prophecy.

It’s a declaration straight from Genesis:  without God’s breath in us We. Are. Dust.  

Similarly, take away God’s love for us, we’d be absolutely obliterated by the forces of chaos that daily surround us and those that daily lurk within us.

The basic idea confronting us tonight is that this life does not belong to us—our life is hidden in God–our gracious and loving God.  But our culture invests nearly everything into convincing us that we ARE God. Every day we are told and we are shown examples that we can do whatever we want.  That we can have it all.  That we are the be-all and end-all of existence—keep on chasing and spending … and you can have the world.

“ … you can have all this world… give me Jesus.”

Many people give up something they enjoy for Lent.  And that’s fine.  But it can also be self-indulgent as Jesus himself notes in the passage from the Gospel of Matthew for Ash Wednesday (Mt.6)

Lent is not merely about confronting our internal, “spiritual” sins, it’s also about our compliance in the injustices of our world–our own acts of greed, racism, lust, exploitation, arrogance, etc. ….   Lent is not for engaging in self-loathing or shaming.  It’s is all about self-examination and our willingness to work on, to allow God to transform our worst selves into someone better.  Because my salvation is intimately bound with yours and yours with mine; our salvation is intimately bound with anyone/everyone who is oppressed, abused, neglected.

Rev. John van de Laar observes that it’s normal practice in our culture to deny responsibility.  He notes that little if any true repentance followed the devastating economic crisis of a few years ago.  Same goes for racism.  He cites all the denial of any human responsibility for climate change in the corridors of power.    So nothing changes. But, he continues, 

As followers of Christ, we are called to be liberators, but this does not mean that we all have to become activists or politicians or freedom fighters. Rather, it means that we commit to confronting and conquering the ways we are tempted to oppress others, and it means that within our sphere of influence, we practice justice in small, hidden, but significant ways – generous giving, just employment … compassion and solidarity with those who suffer. 

The ritual of ashes … can seem to devalue our physical human lives, but, in fact, it does the opposite. It reminds us that we are more than just dust and ash, but that all human beings are divinely created and eternally valuable. … Ash Wednesday calls us to honor and celebrate our authentic humanity and to “live up” to our best selves, and not be oppressed by our worst selves, both within our hearts, and in the systems we have created.[1]

That’s what it means to “REPENT and BELIEVE” the Gospel—to turn away from our worst selves.  An enormous task to be sure.  Overwhelming, even.  We cannot singlehandedly stop racism or climate change or terrorism.  But Jesus empowers us to, as van de Laar says, to “live up” to our best selves   Each of us has a voice and a spirit and a prayer we can use wherever we are / to oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, refugee-phobia, muslim-phobia, etc.

We cannot do any of this alone.  Not without each other, and certainly not without Jesus.  But when we do give the best of ourselves in this way, Paul says

… we are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

We are not in this alone.  We are together.  And He is with us … every step of the way … every breath of the way … and he’ll be there with us at the end.  Together, let us draw near to Him—now and for all the days to come. See, now is the acceptable time.  Today is the day of our salvation.    we begin at the Lord’s Table nourished for this journey.

Thanks Be To God!



[1] John van de Laar, Lectionary Worship Resources, February 10, 2016