Repenting in Dust and Ashes
This past week marked Ash Wednesday. What is that all about, anyway? It’s not in the Bible, obviously. Tertullian records the use of ashes as a sign of repentance as early as the 3rd century, an idea that emerged from Scripture. There, ashes were associated with humility and mortality, fasting and remorse. If you sinned, sometimes you would sprinkle ashes on your head as a sign of repentance. They reminded you that you were mortal and that you will eventually become ashes after you die.
In the 7th or 8th century, the church incorporated this idea into the practice of Lent, the period of fasting before Easter. Of course, Lent is also not in the Bible. We will talk about its origins a bit in our sermon this morning. But, at root, it is a time to think about your own temptations, sins, and repentance.
It is easy to simply dismiss these as unauthorized by Scripture. I obviously do not advocate practicing Ash Wednesday or Lent. But the underlying principal is a good one. It is so important, in fact, that it should not be focused on for a mere 40 days every year. We ought always to evaluate ourselves in light of God’s Word. To abandon the sin we have perhaps let casually take hold in our life. To take time to renew our desire to serve God and to be the people that God intends us to be. With that thought in mind, consider a passage commonly read in conjunction with Ash Wednesday, Isaiah 59:12-20.
For our transgressions are multiplied before you, and our sins testify against us, for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities (v. 12). If you were to count all the sins we committed in just one week – not just our deeds, but things we ought to do and do not – they would be numerous. We must honestly evaluate ourselves and acknowledge that changes need to be made.
[T]ransgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning back from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.(v. 13-15a). Isaiah describes some of the things he has seen that are wrong. Are we guilty of any of these? Let us all examine ourselves. Do I really love God above all else? Where do I need to improve in my life? That is the first part of a life lived penitently before God: to look at ourselves and recognize our sins.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment. So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the Lord drives. “And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord. (v. 15b-20).
Here is the second part: to look away from ourselves and look to God. God saw our sin, and he was appalled at what he saw. But most appalling of all was that there was no one to intervene, no one to rescue humanity from its sins. So God in Christ did that himself. That is what the good news is all about.
We need to be cognizant of these things, and not just at a special time of year. May we all look deep within ourselves and acknowledge our sins. May we then look to Christ, who won the battle for us, and receive forgiveness. It will help us to grow in our appreciation for what God has done for us, not only through becoming more aware of our shortcomings and refining our character, but in becoming more aware of just how much our Lord loves us.