For as long as I can remember, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, one of my daughters always tells us every year that she doesnít want the ashes on her forehead. And whenever we ask her why, the answer is always the same. She says, ďI donít want to die.Ē And while weíve always asked her to go up with the rest of the family, and sheís always been compliant, sheís also been known to have wiped them off her forehead almost by the time sheís made it back to her seat. At some point, we realized that she also thought dying always meant literally being crucified, dying on a cross. Now, she still talks about not wanting to die, though she still occasionally reminds us that she might not die on an actual cross, and she often remembers to mention that after she dies Jesus will raise her from the dead. But she still doesnít particularly like Ash Wednesday. She still doesnít want to die.
Iím convinced that my daughter actually understands this service far better than most people do. Next to Christmas and Easter, I sometimes wonder if Ash Wednesday is the third most attended service in the Christian Calendar. I couldnít find statistics to confirm or deny that, though among Protestants it appears that Motherís Day has the third highest attendance. So maybe Iím wrong. But thereís still a strange sort of enthusiasm surrounding Ash Wednesday that seems all wrong. Itís understandable that Christmas and Easter would be popular celebrations even among unbelievers or nominal Christians. But as a culture, we donít really know what to do with death. We are a nursing home culture. We are a distraction culture. We are a drug and alcohol culture. We pay to be numbed, to be distracted, to be lied to, to avoid the harsh realities of suffering and death.
But come Ash Wednesday, if you live in a big city youíll see people on the street with crosses on their foreheads. Joe Biden will no doubt make an appearance on national television with a cross on his forehead. And then, if you drove down Main Street today here in Moscow, you saw a woman on the corner of Sixth Street with a big white sign that read ďAshes To Go.Ē Which pretty much sums it up for me. We want death like we want most things: fast, easy, painless, and could I get fries with that? She might as well have been smearing a Nike swoosh on peopleís foreheads.
One of the things that makes God really mad are shows of devotion that are empty. One of the things that makes God really angry are confessions of sin that are paper thin and result in no actual repentance. Isaiah calls it an abomination. I suspect that Ash Wednesday in particular and the season of Lent in general is one of the times of the year that God is most angry with His people, especially in our country. Not because itís sinful to set aside days for confession of sin, fasting, introspection, repentance. Not because itís sinful to proclaim the beginning of that season through a special service of confession or even to enact that commitment with ashes on your head. Thereís nothing necessarily wrong or sinful about any of those things at all. No, the reason I suspect God may be most furious with His people on these days is for how they confess sins and do not actually repent, for how they claim to have drawn near to God and yet they still smell like the world and their hearts are far from Him, for how they put the cross of Jesus in ashes on their heads and then proceed to trample the blood of the covenant by which they have been sealed in their words and behavior and lives.
Getting ashes on your head is like putting up a Christmas tree at Christmas. God didnít command us to put up Christmas trees. God didnít command us to get together once a year and put ash on our foreheads. Itís a fine thing to do if you know what it means and encourages you to worship Jesus, to bow before the King of the Universe in true, honest humility. But throughout Scripture the pattern is clear that the closer you get to the sanctuary, the closer you get to Godís holy things, the more dangerous it gets, the more careful we must be. People must not trifle with Godís holy things. God is a consuming fire.
Thereís a wonderful passage in Annie Dillardís essay Holy the Firm where she points out that liturgical churches tend to come at God with ďan unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.Ē Dillard writes: ďI often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten the danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.Ē
As in Isaiahís day, so also in ours, faithfulness is submitting our entire lives to Jesus. Hypocrisy occurs when only portions of our lives are submitted to Him Ė which amounts to a lie. This was the sin of Ananias and Sapphira who brought a portion of the proceeds of some land that they sold and laid it at the apostlesí feet. They wanted the glory of sacrifice without really sacrificing everything. They wanted to look humble, to look holy, to look faithful. But God sees the hearts of men. And God struck them down for their insolence.
Across our nation, millions are going into churches today to lie to the God of heaven. They are mouthing words that they do not mean in their hearts, that they have no intention of keeping. They are having crosses smeared on their foreheads like some kind of ancient voodoo magic, to soothe their aching souls, playing make believe and dress up as though God does not see them.
But God does see. God is not dead. God is not imaginary. God is not a feeling you get. God created this world. God is alive. And we know this because God has come for this sorry, messed up world in Jesus. God has come for sorry, messed up sinners like us. And on the cross, God poured out His wrath against sin, that ancient curse that Adam brought down upon us all and we have all embraced. And when Jesus died, the curse was exhausted, the curse was spent, the curse was undone, and Jesus rose from the dead, alive forever.
The cross is the symbol of that curse, and now in Christ, the cross is the symbol of that curse broken, that curse shattered, that curse defanged. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling over death by death. And this is the only way we wage war against sin, death, Satan, the flesh, and the world. Itís the finished work of Christ on our behalf. Itís Jesusí blood and righteous or itís nothing at all.
Baptism is our official enlistment into the army of Jesus. The sign of the cross, the symbol of the cross can be a wonderful reminder of that moment, but Scripture says that baptism is the sign of the cross. Baptism is our death, burial, and resurrection with Jesus. And therefore, baptism means that you are sworn to die. You are sworn to take up your cross. He gave His life for you, and now you are sworn to give your life for Him. We sing war songs during this season because by the death and resurrection of Jesus and His Holy Spirit, we have been joined to His conquest of all the darkness. Lent means itís getting lighter. Lent means the days are getting longer. And this is happening because the crucified King is proclaimed, the crucified King is exalted, the crucified King is obeyed.
It doesnít really matter if you come forward and have ashes put on your head or not. What really matters is whether you go to war or not. If the ashes help, then come on down. But if they are just a distraction, please stay in your seats. Either way, you are being called to die: die to yourself, die to your sin, die for your neighbors, die for your enemies, die for your King. But none of us really want to die. Weíre all like my daughter really. People get excited about Ash Wednesday because they want to look like theyíve died. They want to look like theyíve been through Hell. They want to act like theyíve sacrificed. Theyíre putting on a show, but the show is a sham. The show is worthless.
So donít come down here unless youíre ready to die. Donít mouth these words of confession, unless youíre ready to die, unless you mean them. And hereís what I mean: Are you ready stop lying? Are you really ready to come clean? Have you lied to your parents, to a friend, to your wife, to your husband? Are you terrified about what it could mean if you came clean? Are you ready to stop lying about your drinking problem, your porn problem, your anger problem? Are you ready to confess your sin honestly? Are you ready to die? If you come down here, if you mouth the words of our confession of sin and do not confess your lies, you are only a bigger liar. And God is not mocked. God is alive. God sees. God judges. And the very sign you mock reminds you that your sin will find you out. You will meet God. And He will see through your games, your lies.
What about your mouth? Whatís in your mouth? Filthy words? Curses, foul language, vulgar jokes, bitter criticism? Donít say to yourself that thereís no list of bad words in the Bible. Do you talk like somebody who doesnít know God? Jesus says out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Or do you listen to vulgar music? Do you watch filth on television or in the movies? Donít tell me itís artistic, that you donít really listen to the words, that it doesnít really bother you, that it doesnít really offend you. Thatís the problem. It should offend you. It should bother you. It should make you feel sick to your stomach to hear that kind of filth, to see that kind of raunch. Bad company corrupts good morals. You become like what you are around. You are being shaped. Are you ready to tell your friends, your coworkers that youíre done talking that way? That youíre done watching that stuff? Are you ready to die? Donít come down here and confess your sins and keep spewing obscenities and vulgarities. Donít come down here and keep watching and listening to filth. If you do, you are a liar, and the truth is not in you.
Men, God made you to be strong and courageous. He made you to work hard, to use your strength to build His Kingdom, to rule over creation with wisdom. He made you to sweat, to bleed, to ache, to get up early. He made you to lead, to take responsibility for your own life as well as the lives of those entrusted to you. Have you been shirking your duty? Do you resent the fact that no one seems to notice how hard you work? Are you bitter that your wife doesnít seem to respect you enough? Are you slouching, cutting corners, whining, making excuses? Is your work hard? Are your coworkers hard to deal with? Is your family challenging? Are your roommates difficult? God made you for hard work. Hard work is your glory. Responsibility is your glory. Are you ready to serve, to give, to be unappreciated, to be forgotten, to be misunderstood, to fail? Jesus calls you to die. Jesus calls you to follow Him. Jesus calls you to take responsibility for the state of your home, to take responsibility for your family, for your wife, for your children, for your life. You are not a victim of your circumstances. And you do not take responsibility by making excuses, by bossing people around, by yelling or threatening or losing your temper and scaring everybody into submission. You take responsibility by losing your life, by laying your life down, by offering it all up to God in Christ. Are you ready to die? Donít come down here unless youíre ready to give up your bitterness, your anger, your laziness, your cowardice.
Women, God made you to be lovely, to be beautiful, to be the glory of man. He made you to adorn the gospel with a quiet and gentle spirit. He made you to be the bearers of life, to nurture life, to be fruitful in all good things. Have you given in to fear? To worry? To insecurity? Have you taken matters into your own hands? Have you grabbed for things not yet given? Have you taken offense easily? Have you carped and criticized? Have you been defensive about what you think others might think of you? Have you been wallowing in disappointment about what you have not been given? Have you envied other women, their children? Their husbands? Their houses? Have you been disrespectful toward your own husband? Have you neglected your responsibilities to him? Have you resented his weaknesses? Have you cut him down in your speech to his face or to your friends? Are you ready to die to all of it? Do not come down here unless youíre ready to give it all up, to confess it all to God and whomever else you have wronged.
God is not mocked. No man lies to God and gets away with it. We are not here because itís kind of sexy or cool to do something a little bit different, a little edgy, a little mystical. We serve the living God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who sees and searches the hearts of all men.
Millions may lie to God on this day. But we will not. Millions may put on a show today. But we will not. We will not lie to the God of Heaven who has loved us with an everlasting love. We will not lie to the God of Heaven who has loved us and sent His Son for us. We will not lie to the God of Heaven who has loved us and reconciled us to Himself through the blood of the cross. We will not trifle with His holy things. We will not play dress up. We will not pretend to confess our sins. Today and in the weeks and months and years to come, we will walk in the Light as He is in Light. We will confess our sins honestly, and we will not hide anything from Him, so that the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from every sin and so that we might have fellowship with one another.
God is Light, and there is no darkness in Him at all. There is no other peace. There is no other joy. There is no other way. There is only Jesus. There is only His cross. There is only His blood. There is only His Spirit. There is only His righteousness. And we must have it. Because we all will die. Death is coming. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. You will go and meet your Maker. You will answer for all that you have done, all that you have said, all that you have thought. And therefore your only hope is Jesus. But Jesus is enough.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Matthew Petersen says
So I really really like the exhortation to take the ashes seriously, and I like the story of your daughter too.
But I’m a little worried on two points: First, I’m not sure if the exhortation to celebrate rightly gains anything by including a warning not to be like those Christians who do worse. Reading it sometimes, I felt like I was supposed to be a little smug that I wasn’t like those Christians. (I know that wasn’t your intent, but the language concerns me.) I should consider others better than myself, not think everyone else is worse than me. I should be able to say with St. Paul that Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am the worst, not that Christ came to save sinners, like those people over there. And I shouldn’t be like the Pharisee in the parable who prays “thank you for not making me like this tax-collector”, but like the tax-collector who prays for mercy on him. So perhaps others celebrate poorly. How is that my business?
And second, “Donít come down here and confess your sins and keep spewing obscenities and vulgarities. Donít come down here and keep watching and listening to filth. If you do, you are a liar, and the truth is not in you…Are you ready to die? Donít come down here unless youíre ready to give up your bitterness, your anger, your laziness, your cowardice…Are you ready to die to all of it? Do not come down here unless youíre ready to give it all up, to confess it all to God and whomever else you have wronged.”
Something seems backwards here. No, I’m not ready to confess it all to God, and whomever else I have wronged–if I were, I would be perfect. No, I’m not ready to die–again, if I were, I would be perfect. I should come not because I already am ready to die, because I already an ready to confess it all; but so I can learn to die, so I can learn to confess it all, because I need to. The physician is for the sick, like me, who need to learn to die; not for people who don’t need to learn. You quote St. John, but he says that you’re a liar if you say you have no sin, not your a liar if you have sin, and you come to Christ to learn to kill it. Indeed, it seems you get the quote almost nearly backwards. If I listen to that litany, and then decide that I am worthy to receive the ashes, precisely then, I am not, but am a liar, and the truth is not in me.
Somebody needed to say that, Matt. Thanks.
Thanks for the comment and questions.
To your first question/concern, I would only point to Jesus who plenty of times says: “Do not be like the pharisees who… ” “Do not be like the hypocrites who….” Likewise, Solomon tells his son in Proverbs, “Do not be like the simple who…” or “Do not be like the fool who… ” If Solomon and Jesus say it, so should we. While it certainly may become a point of pride, telling the truth is actually an act of humility.
To your second question/concern, it’s only backwards if you think there is something automatically holy, sanctifying about the ashes or coming forward. But there isn’t. That’s why the whole thing depends on telling the truth. Honest desire to confess, forsake, repent doesn’t necessitate perfection, otherwise all of the scriptural calls to repentance are impossible. On the other hand, millions of people think that vague religions feelings amount to real repentance, and then the ash on their foreheads is only more condemnation.
If you aren’t ready to die then you aren’t a Christian.
Matthew Petersen says
Well I guess I’m not a Christian then, but I suspect, by that standard, neither are you.
Jesus said, “If any man would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross & follow me.” That’s the only kind of Christian there is.
Matthew Petersen says
Yes, but neither of us does. That’s why we have to keep coming to Christ.
Matthew Petersen says
Regarding your claims: There is a world of difference between an injunction to do something well, and a command to only do something if you are well. The first acts as if the Spirit dwells on your word, and will use it powerfully. The second acts as if the Spirit has abandoned your words, and I must save myself before coming to Christ. But your words are powerful, however weak you think they are, if you tell people to save themselves before coming to Christ, you teach people to try to save themselves before coming to Christ.
If you only meant “This means death, do it honestly, take it seriously.” your rhetoric got away from you; and continues to in your accusation that I, and all honest Christians, are not really Christians.
Matthew Petersen says
Thereís also a world of difference between saying ďDonít do thatĒ and saying ďThey do badly. But we do not.Ē
If you had said:
ďNo, the reason I suspect God may be most furious with His people on these days is for how we confess sins and do not actually repent, for how we claim to have drawn near to God and yet we still smell like the world and our hearts are far from Him, for how we put the cross of Jesus in ashes on our heads and then proceed to trample the blood of the covenant by which we have been sealed in our words and behavior and lives.Ē
ďDo not lie to the God of Heaven who has loved us and sent His Son for us. Do not lie to the God of Heaven who has loved us and reconciled us to Himself through the blood of the cross. Do not trifle with His holy things. Do not play dress up. Do not pretend to confess our sins. Come, but come to the God who kills. Come and die. Come and rise.Ē
It would have been a completely different sermon. The way it is, it condemns them, and praises us. This way I have it, it condemns us, and directs us to the the remedy, Christ. And, perhaps more importantly, rather than disassociating ourselves from the bad Christians, my version, like Christ, considers them better than ourselves, and unites us to them.
Steve Perry says
Toby, thank you for the needed somber words. It’s good for a man to examine himself in light of God’s word to see if he is in the faith. I agree with everything you said, but have a question about the symbol of what you said. How do Ashes on the forehead of the penitent, help the believers spirituality? What understanding does one need to know, that these ashes might help one draw closer to the Lord? Does this conform or conflict with Christ’s words to “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them” and “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting.”
Great questions. First, as I noted in this message, in one sense the ashes don’t really matter very much. On the positive side, I would say that they function like a Christmas tree functions at Christmas. It’s a way of remembering with material signs together (e.g. Dt. 6:7-9, 20). And in the Bible we see that ashes can symbolize mourning and repentance. On the negative side, as I hope this message made clear, I think the overwhelming use of ashes is often hypocritical and (as you note) disobedient to Jesus. That’s why we encourage our congregation to immediately wipe the ashes off their foreheads following the service so as to “not be seen by men.”
Hope that helps!