Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday: Outward Sign, Inward Grace

Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance for many Christians throughout the world, including Anglicans, some Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. It marks the beginning of Lent, a forty-day period of prayer and fasting in preparation for Good Friday and Easter.

Whether or not we receive the outward sign of repentance on this day – the ashes – we are all called to inner repentance of the heart. Whether or not we fast from certain foods, or spend certain days without food at all, we are called to examine our hearts and confess our sins with faith in Christ. Whatever we practice outwardly to show our faith, God wants us to draw near to him with our hearts.

Making a public sign of our faith carries with it a certain obligation. I’ve seen many cars on the highway over the years with bumper stickers that proclaim the owner’s faith. If my car sported a bumper sticker like that, I’d want to make very sure my driving was a good example to others. Likewise, receiving ashes is a very public display of faith and repentance. It carries with it the obligation to match that outward display with inner repentance.

The Lord said through the prophet Joel, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate.” (Joel 2:13) In the ancient world, tearing the garments was another sign of repentance or grief. The Lord is more interested in the condition of our heart. It is from our heart that our thoughts, words, and behaviors flow. When the heart is right with God, everything else falls into place.

Fasting can also be an outward sign of sorrow for sin and a desire to repent. Jesus taught us that when we fast we should do so quietly, in a manner that doesn’t draw attention. Those who eat together as a family or in a common dining hall, however, can hardly hide the fact that they are skipping a meal, or perhaps not eating meat that day. So fasting, while very personal, also becomes an outward sign, and carries with it the obligation of an inward reality.

In the time of Isaiah the Lord spoke to the Israelites and chided them for fasting and yet forsaking his commands. They gave every appearance of seeking God, while at the same time exploiting their workers, quarreling and fighting, accusing each other, and speaking unkindly of others. In God’s eyes, this made their fasting meaningless. He said,

" Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? (Isaiah 58:5 NIV)

When our hearts are right with God, our actions toward others will be right, as well. When we truly know God’s Son, Jesus, by faith, we begin to live out his life in the world. God wants true repentance of the heart that leads to real changes in the way we live. When our hearts are transformed by God's Spirit, we bear the fruit of love, and that flows forth in compassion. That means treating others the way we would like to be treated, living generous, compassionate lives. It means sharing our wealth with others instead of exploiting them. It means seeking peace rather than doing violence. It means using the gift of speech not to accuse, criticize, and judge, but to encourage and build up one another. These are the fruits of a changed heart, and that is what God desires.

The Lord promised his people through Isaiah that if they did these things,

“Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:9-11 NIV)

However you express your faith in Christ today, I pray that he will grant each of us the grace of true repentance of the heart. For,

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9 NIV)

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