"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." ~ Romans 3:23
Tonight was a special evening on a number of levels. We shared a meal in advance, and enjoyed one another’s company over soup and sandwiches. This kind of fellowship is good for strengthening ties to our church family.
On another level, the Ash Wednesday service inaugurates Lent, a period of time leading to the Cross and resurrection, the centerpiece of Christian faith.
Pastor Brad opened by noting that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are traditionally created by burning the dried palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. In this manner a certain continuity is created as we simultaneously prepare for Easter and remember it.
It was pointed out that the ashes on Ash Wednesday point back to the Old Testament notion of sackcloth and ashes, a sign of repentance and purification. In Matthew 11:21 associates sackcloth and ashes with remorse. Other verses referencing ashes include Numbers 19:9 & 17, and Hebrews 9:13.
There is a difference between penitence and repentance, Brad said. Repentance is identified with the will or volition, and indicates a turning around, a change of direction. Penitence is more a matter of the heart.
Ashes are also a reminder that we came from ashes and to ashes we will return. The service offers an opportunity for us to recognize our brokenness, and once again remember the wonders of His grace.
After the customary introit, worship and responsive readings, Pastor Brad shared a message.
That Pesky Word
Sin, he noted, is a word that is not used much anymore. The dictionary defines sin as a “transgression of divine law.” It is a willful wrong.
Nowadays we use different language. We say things like, “I made a mistake,” or “I goofed.” Sometimes we say “oops” as if it was just a stupid little mess-up or an error of judgment or “I didn’t know an better, shucks.”
We don’t like the word sin because it says something fundamental about what we are. If everything is just a mistake, then it’s not sin. And if there is no sin, then there’s no need for a savior. The solution for a mistake is to try harder next time, or study more and pay attention more, get more education, whatever. But if I am a sinner, I need a Savior.
Sin is indicative of intentionality. It was not just a goof up. It reflects something deeper going on.
If everything is just a mistake, then there can be no guilt.
When Jesus enters the situation, he not only says that being “good enough” to please God is a challenge, he raises the bar so high it is impossible. No one can be “good enough.” Yet, He says, “I love you.”
In other words, it is worse than you thought because you’re worse than you thought, and simultaneously God loves you more than you can imagine.
Jesus said, “I have come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.”
The essence of Matthew 5 vs 21 and following is that (a) you’re a sinner, and (b) God loves sinners.
Until you embrace the fact that you’re a sinner, you’ll never embrace the Savior. People who see themselves as goof ups don’t need a Savior.
Brad then re-told the story of the Prodigal Son as found in Luke 15. After the son takes his portion of the inheritance and squander it, he reaches such a low point in his life that it would be better to be a servant for his father than what he is doing now. He returns home, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
The father’s response is remarkable. “Bring the best robe… “ and he puts a ring on the son’s finger… sandals on his feet, saying, “This son of mine was dead…”
The sooner we embrace the fact that we are sinners, the sooner we experience grace.
In Romans 3:23, Paul essentially says, “You owed so much there is no way you could repay it, so I had someone else pay the price.”
It’s not about figuring it all out and getting it right someday. The ashes are a symbol that say, “I can’t do it on my own.”
With this we came to the table at the front of the sanctuary in a ceremony named simply the imposition of ashes.
It was a very special service, and time of remembering the grace and mercy of God in Jesus.