Ash Wednesday - Our Identity is in Christ
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
We are entering the season of Lent. Lent is the 40 days (but we don’t include Sundays so it’s not exactly 40 days) before Easter when we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday. Many of you are probably wondering what Ash Wednesday is all about.
On Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We remember that we are mortal, that we are finite, that we are not God. In our culture today, there is a so much pressure on us to be capable of everything. The technology that we have should help us to lead more relaxed lives, but instead it has increased the pace of life. We are trying to do more in less time. And many of us feel a lot of pressure to excel at all the things we are trying to do in less time, but we can’t and we feel like we have failed. We also often have a dream of something that we want to do, but we just can’t, for whatever reason, and we feel empty. Often we find ourselves in difficult situations in our relationships with a lot of pressure on us to be able to figure out how to fix it on our own, but we can’t and that feels like failure, too. And, with our access to news from all over the world, we are bombarded with stories of hardship and crisis and injustice which leaves us feeling anxious and guilty because we think that we should be able to do something about all of it.
Ash Wednesday is important in the Christian year because we focus today on the fact that we are dust - that we are dust. God formed us from the dust of the earth, and to that dust we shall return. Our lives are ashes. That’s all we have to offer God. And that’s OK, because our identity is not in our accomplishments. It’s not in what we have done or who we are in our relationships. We take the ashes and put them on our foreheads in the shape of a cross to remind us that we are ashes, AND we are in Christ. Today is a day when we can lay it all down, all of it, at the foot of the cross, and remember our true identity is in Jesus Christ. We can come and lay down all of the effort and the busy-ness, all of the success and all of the failure, and remember that the only movement in our lives that matters it the movement of the Holy Spirit.
I want to lead you in a prayer that I learned last week at the CyclicalPCC event for potential church planters. Close your eyes and let this prayer help you turn towards Jesus.
A Prayer of Recollection
(giving us a moment to remember the truths in this prayer)
I am not God, but a finite creation of God
Lord, I know that I have a body that has limits. I am here right now and cannot be other places. I cannot grant everybody’s wishes. I am grateful for the truth that I am not you, God. Only You can meet all the needs around me.
God calls us to rest in God’s sovereignty and love – God will accomplish God’s purposes. We don’t need to be God.
In my deepest place, I am not my names, roles and qualities, and these are not my righteousness (my salvation, my rest).
At my deepest place I am not a child or a spouse, a parent, a significant other. I am not what I do. I am not how much money I make. At my deepest place, I am not what others have named me. I am not my failures. I am not my successes. I am not my strengths. I am not my weaknesses. I confess any image of myself I cling to as a means to find my own salvation, my own righteousness apart
God calls us to rest from, indeed to repent of, our efforts to somehow find our identity, our worth, our salvation, in things apart from God.
I affirm the truth of my soul’s identity in Christ.
In my deepest place, I am a spirit now clothed with the righteousness of Christ. I am precious in God’s eyes. From all eternity, God calls me beloved and holds me with an everlasting embrace.
God calls us to rest in our deepest identity as God’s beloved, which was given to us through the cross of Christ and the gift of the Spirit.
On Ash Wednesday, we begin 40 days of repentance. Repentance means turning towards God. It’s a shift in focus. As we turn towards God revealed in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, where is the resistance? What is preventing us from really and truly turning to Jesus? For each one of us it is different. And every year it’s different. This year, for me, what I need to repent from, what I need to turn away from in order to turn to Jesus, is this feeling that I am responsible for everything that happens at church. First of all, it is not true. And also, my son helpfully pointed out that this is also very self-centred. I want to repent from it because it leads me to feel anxiety and worry for things that I have no control over, and then I act out of that anxiety and worry. But God spoke to me last week. And reminded me of something very important. The first step to everything is prayer. That my identity, and the church’s identity, is in Jesus Christ, and the only movement that matters is the movement of the Holy Spirit. The only way for me to act out of my identity in Christ and to be tuned into the movement of the Holy Spirit is to pray.
Jesus’ words in our Matthew passage this morning sound harsh. In verses 8 & 9 Jesus says that we should cut off our hand or our foot if it causes us to stumble, or gouge out our eye if it causes us to stumble. He’s exaggerating to make a point, which is that often the things in our lives that keep us turned away from God seem essential. We think we can’t live without them. And I can tell you, often I feel that my flurry of activity in response to anxiety and worry about the church seems essential. Often, I think that the church cannot function without it. But really, that flurry of activity in response to anxiety and worry causes me to stumble, and God forbid, might cause the church to stumble, too. But what Jesus is saying is that whatever it is that is causing us to stumble, we think it is essential, like a hand or a foot or an eye, but it’s not. Get rid of it. Throw it out, cut if off. So that...you can really repent from it, turn away from it, and turn towards God, finding your true identity in Jesus, and being attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
For each of us, the thing that causes us to stumble, whatever prevents us from finding our identity in Jesus and being attentive to the Holy Spirit is different. But it is a common problem that we all have and that human beings have had through history. We read in Joel 2:12-13a, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; [tear] your hearts and not your clothing.” God wanted a genuine repentance not the appearance of it.
And then we read in Isaiah, that people were fasting, but they weren’t turning to God. And we learn a lot about what their struggles were as people of God, and also about God’s character because of what God wanted them to do. In Isaiah 58:6ff it says this, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, (Not an egg yoke, but the ropes and harness that keeps an ox attached to a cart, in other words, bondage.) 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 them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin… [continuing in the middle of verse 9] If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
In Isaiah’s time, there was a lot that was wrong in their society. People were living in bondage, people were going hungry and homeless, they were blaming each other for things and speaking evil. These things were causing them to stumble. And God was saying get rid of this stuff, turn away from it, do something about it, turn towards me.
Often people ask each other what they are going to give up for Lent, and often the response is, I’m going to give up chocolate. Unless you are going to give up all chocolate that isn’t fair trade and rainforest friendly then there is no point. Whatever we give up for Lent should draw us deeper into our identity in Christ, so that when Easter comes, we too can experience being a new creation, after 40 days of practicing a new discipline. Jesus is saying, give up something that prevents you from finding your identity in me, whatever it is that prevents you from being attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Cut out of your life whatever it is that causes you to stumble, no matter how essential it seems to you. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Amen.