We are about embark on our Lenten season. Too often people think that Lent is a time of gloom and hardship – only about reluctantly giving up of things. This is not really what Lent is supposed to be like.
Notice that Jesus says When you fast (not if – when) – do not look dismal. This is a penitential season – not a depressive season – we still retain the joy of our salvation through Lent.
So what is Lent for? Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect on our lives – to set aside some deliberate space and time to listen to God and to examine ourselves. It’s not about trying rake up the bad stuff – we simply reflect and examine ourselves honestly and truthfully allowing God to speak to us. Psalm 26:2 says Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; Try my mind and my heart. We ask this to see what we need to let go of AND what we need to take up; prayer, reading the scriptures.
Rather than saying I am giving up something for lent, I prepare to think of Lent as a time of shedding – shedding the things we have accumulated over the year that we do not need. And lent is also a time of reorientation as we turn our eyes, hearts and bodies towards Christ.
I want to suggest we do this by holding onto two truths over this Lenten season.
Firstly, judgment is coming.
Our reading from Joel is very clear. A dark day is coming. The day of Judgment.
A friend visited W.C. Fields, in hospital just before he died. He found Fieldsthumbing through a Bible. Asked what he was doing with a Bible, Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”
I have said before that we can be too glib about Jesus’ second coming – we say “I can’t wait for Jesus to return!” Really! Joel tells us this will be a terrifying event – the very glorified Christ appears – and when that happens the scriptures say that EVERY knee will bow – Satan included – not because he wants to but because he MUST in the presence of Him who is the center of all existence in the universe. And when Jesus returns we will all stand before the Judgment seat and be required to give an account. Now, as believers, our destiny is assured – we are going to be with the LORD because we trust in Him. But we will be asked to give an account for how we lived as a believer.
Each of us, those who were called to minister, to lead in the church to serve on the Vestry, or to serve generally in the Church, God will ask for an accounting. Heb 4:13 says And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. I cannot lay the blame for my lack of spiritual walk, or my failure in leadership on anyone else, and neither can you.
Are we ready for that day?
This is why Lent can be so powerful – reflecting – not in a morbid, depressive way – but in an open and honest way – on our life, where we need more of God, asking the Lord to cleanse us, to forgive us, to reorient us and to fill us with his presence.
You know, piety is more than religious activity. And we, as Christian’s and especially as Anglican Christian’s, can be in very real danger of becoming pious without being truly spiritual. Jesus’ warning in the Gospel reading is towards those who were steeped in religion – who have even been cradle Pharisees! Jesus challenges these pious people to re-examine their motives. Why do we do what we do? Is it for the glory of the Living God ONLY or is it to impress others?
Joel says that God is not interested in our outward rituals of contrition – but about the inward one – don’t rend your garments but your heart – that is the key. The outward ritual is simply a tool to allow us to rend our hearts towards God. That was the point of the animal sacrifices – you did not just bring a bull, give it to the priest, have it killed and walk away thinking you are now OK. God intended the animal sacrifice to be a vehicle for allowing the heart of the worshipper to be broken as the innocent animal is killed in their place. That’s why God says a number of times I don’t want your sacrifices. I want your heart!
It has always been about the state of the heart! That is why Jesus says store up treasure for yourself in heaven not earth. Where your heart is, there your treasure will be!!
We know that a judgment day is coming – a day when the state of our heart – when our real treasure is revealed.
The Second truth we hold onto in Lent is God’s mercy & compassion.
As we reflect and consider our walk with God, we do so knowing that God is merciful and compassionate. Our Psalm sings this out loud and clear this evening – The Lord is FULL of compassion and mercy – slow to anger and of great kindness. This Psalm is a Psalm for the believer – v13 – the Lord cares for those who fear him. The father cares for his children – he removes their sin – as far as the east is from the west.
Despite knowing that judgment is coming – we as believers need not fear it – but we must be ready for it. Again, Lent gives us a time to prepare ourselves each year to contemplate and reflect on our walk with God – God’s coming judgment and God’s mercy in our lives.
Despite our mistakes – despite the baggage we may have collected – despite times of doubt, we have a God who is faithful and loving and compassionate. We are not left to doubt whether God will forgive us – he will. We are not left to doubt whether God will accept us – he will. When we repent and come before Him acknowledging who he is we know that we find ONLY mercy, compassion, love and, as Paul says, reconciliation with God.
Don’t let that pass you by quickly – Reconciliation with God. Paul says that the passion of Christ was for our sake so that WE might become the righteousness of God. Let that settle on your hearts for a moment.
God’s mercy is available today – salvation is available today – reconciliation is available today. The Penitential season of Lent magnifies this – for we come before him with all our sins knowing that we will not be cast out and we can then tell others that they too can come to Him, regardless of what they have done, knowing that God is merciful and compassionate. There is no sin, no action, no past that God cannot deal with if we com e to him and ask him.
I am, shortly, going to invite you to come forward to receive the ashes. This is not an act or sign of piety, but a sign that you have inwardly rendered your hearts to the Lord – that you come to make him your treasure – that he would take our hearts and make them clean – that we can do nothing to make ourselves right with him and that today we commit to stop avoiding him and to let me completely into our hearts and minds to do as he pleases.
So the sign of the cross on our foreheads does not represent that we are holy and righteous but that we so desperately need a savior, savior who has reconciled himself to us and that today our gracious, compassionate, merciful Lord offers to mark not our forehead but our hearts with the work of the cross.