Ash Wednesday 2020

Ash Wednesday
February 26, 2020
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The world must look on us and think that we are a strange bunch. I remember once having to go to an auto parts store after an Ash Wednesday service to buy a new spark plug. The guy behind the counter couldn’t take his eyes off that smudge. He said, “uh, you have some dirt on your forehead.” The world must think that we are a strange bunch, gathered on a random Wednesday to talk about how we are going to die one day. In a culture obsessed with youth and beauty, here we are contemplating our death and smudging our faces with dirt. What a strange bunch indeed.

But in the eyes of the world, perhaps nothing is so strange as that other great proclamation we make on Ash Wednesday; that God forgives us. Forgiveness is a radical idea. See, usually what happens, is that you do something wrong and then are punished for it. You drive too fast, you get a ticket. You steal something, you go to jail. Pretty simple equation. The other thing that might happen is that you do something wrong but come up with an excuse for it. “My wife was in labor, so I was flying down Spring Cypress Road trying to get to the hospital.” “I was just really hungry, so I snagged a Snickers in the line at the grocery store.” Those are excuses. You might admit to the wrong-doing but you claim there were mitigating circumstances. But neither one of those are forgiveness.

God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, is the radical claim that yes, we have all done wrong. Yet at the same time God does not hold it against us. The world wants punishment. The world wants a reason. But neither of those have anything to do with forgiveness. God is gracious. And God forgives. A strange idea indeed.

That is why we are here this day. To celebrate the very idea that God knows everything that we have done and left undone, and yet still forgives us. This is the radical, strange, bizarre idea that through the blood of the cross, somehow, some way, we are given amnesty by our Lord Jesus Christ and allowed to walk free. And while it sounds foolish to those out there, God’s forgiveness is the very thing we delight in. I think that is what Jesus is talking about in this passage from Matthew. When we fast, when we consider our own sins, we ought to look like we’re feasting because we are filled with joy because the Lord God has chosen to forgive us.

These forty days of Lent are not so much about you convincing God to forgive you, or about you earning God’s mercy. No, our penitence is about opening our hearts to rejoice in the God who is always forgiving, always merciful. So I urge you to take some time to confess your sins. Hold up a mirror to your lives and take an honest assessment. An honest assessment.

See, the first real step to accepting God’s forgiveness is to own up to those things in your power that you could have done differently. Do not try to justify your sins to God. Do not try to explain them away. That, I believe, is the first and hardest step on the path to reconciliation.

This look different for each of us. For some, you will use these forty days to own up to those sins by talking to your family members that you have wronged. For others, it might be some long, intense moments on your knees in prayer. For still others, it might mean finally telling the truth to a friend after spinning a web of lies.

And yes, this will seem strange to the eyes of the world. Out there, when wrongs are committed, you are supposed to cover up, to retaliate, to fight back. To do anything other than confess. But that will never get you to healing. Those sins, those negligences, those wrongs will just continue to fester and burn you from the inside out. The world says that strength comes through power but that is actually weakness and insecurity. 

True strength, true power from God, means opening up our arms with Jesus upon the cross in perfect vulnerability; admitting even those things that we can hardly stand to remember. The strongest people I know are the ones who are willing to tell the truth about themselves. The saints I know are not perfect, sinless people. No, they are sinners like the rest of us but they don’t try to come up with excuses for themselves. The saints I know may not be secure about themselves, but they’re certain about God. About a God who is always, always willing to forgive a penitent heart.

Martin Smith was a priest in the Episcopal Church who wrote a book about confession. He says, “God’s forgiveness is not the reward for having changed one’s life, but the source and condition of that change” ( Martin L. Smith, “Reconciliation: Preparing for Confession in the Episcopal Church,” 5.) God’s forgiveness is not the reward for having changed one’s life, but the source and condition of that change. In other words, by giving yourself to God during this season of Lent, by your prayer and fasting, don’t expect Easter to be a pat on the back from God. God’s forgiveness is not a reward. No, by your prayer and fasting, by your willingness to accept responsibility for your offenses, God’s presence will be made known to you. The hardness of heart, the pride, hypocrisy and impatience of your life that had built up between you and the Almighty, like plaque in an artery, will wear down and finally, finally, you will know the absolute truth of God’s mercy. The blood, the love, will start flowing again. You’ll recognize that God has always been there, in your heart, you just had to get the other stuff out of the way to recognize it. This work of honest spiritual confession will open your eyes to the Lord God who desires not to punish, but to love.

As you go about your day, some folks may look at you askance. Wondering why in the world you have a black smudge on your forehead. If they were to walk in right now, they might be shocked that we would have the audacity to talk about our own death. But most of all, I hope they would be floored to hear us say that God forgives them. For this Lenten season is not about escaping a punishment, neither is it about coming up with an excuse. These forty days are a gift, a time to repent and return to the Lord who forgives.

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