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A Season, A Discipline, A Sign

Fred Harrell
A Season, A Discipline, A Sign

On Wednesday of next week City Church will join millions of Christians all over the world for a particular kind of worship service called "Ash Wednesday" which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Why? What's the purpose of this season and why do we need to hear "You are but dust, and to dust you shall return?"

A Season to Embrace The Truth About Ourselves
Lent is an old English word that means springtime. It was a way of speaking about a season before Easter, and over the centuries Christians have used this time of year before Easter to say "I need springtime in my soul". It's a way to stop the cycle of spiritual status quo and to engage more fully with God and deal with those things in our lives that are out of conformity with Him. When we do that, and die to ourselves, we actually find life. It's a way of saying "I don't know God the way I need to and I want more of Him in my life. I'm going to intentionally look at trouble areas in my life that I know are hindering my own spiritual progress."

Blaise Pascal, in his Pensees put it this way, "Being unable to cure death and wretchedness people have decided in order to be happy not to think about such things." Lent counters this propensity and provides us a season as a community to take on the deep counterintuitive wisdom of Scripture. The way up is down, and the way to find joy is actually to face your problems, and to see them more clearly.

A Discipline to Discern The Truth About Ourselves
Fasting occurs throughout the Bible. For some reason there is a seasonal number of 40. Moses , Elijah and Jesus fasted for 40 days. More than just "going cold turkey", fasting is an intentional simplifying and making room in one's life to focus on what's being neglected in your soul; in your relationship to God and with others. It's a way of making room in your life to think about where you are in your own spiritual journey and pilgrimage. Do you like your current trajectory? Do you feel stuck? Has a behavior or attitude seeped into your life that you know robs you of the joy of your salvation? Fasting is an opportunity as a community to come together and cut some things out and/or to cut back on some of the good things God has given us. In a frantic and cluttered world, giving things up for a period of time to focus and take inventory on the state of our souls makes all the sense in the world. Simplifying and even denying myself things creates room for that kind of process. And then to ask hard questions such as, 'Am I putting God first in my life? Do I love my spouse well? Am I glorifying God in the way I spend my money? In the way I do my job?' Or if you are exploring faith, consider this time as a chance to journey and pursue answering the questions about the veracity of the Christian faith and what a more serious pursuit might look like.

When Pascal talks to us about diversion, that's really a deep problem. Not only do we avoid thinking about these things, we also anesthetize ourselves with food, entertainment, career, social status, etc., in such a way that we often care more about those things, than we do about the giver of the gifts. Diogenese Allen puts it this way "If we cannot control our appetites it is unlikely that we will ever be able to give up anything for the sake of another person or do something for the sake of another when it runs counter to one of our appetites. Loving our neighbor as ourselves will always be out of our reach." I like that point. It makes fasting a way of becoming better relationally. It's an opportunity to cut back, to make room, and to dig into life with God by focusing on things like the quality of our relationships, learning and committing ourselves to Scripture, to prayer, so that we grow in our ability to love.

A Sign To Tell The Truth About Ourselves
Why ashes? If you lived in the Ancient Near East and you were "found out" in some kind of scandalous activity, and you wanted to "come clean" about it and own it, you covered yourself with ashes. It was a way of saying, "Yes I did this, I know it, I see my true situation." Throughout the centuries Christians have tied this idea particularly to the teaching of Genesis where it tells the story of human beings and how they were formed from the dust of the ground and because of our sin and rebellion we will return to that dust. It becomes a way of remembering vividly that my days are numbered, and it's because things are not the way they are supposed to be. Sin ravages God's Shalom in my life and in the world around me. I tell the truth about myself with the ashes on my forehead. I'm a sinner in need of grace. But friends, remember also, the ashes are placed on our foreheads in the sign of a cross. We are not without hope. We take our sins seriously with the ashes, we take God's grace seriously by receiving them in the sign of the cross, because in the cross is the promise of resurrection, and new life in Christ right now.

Ash Wednesday is a reality check.  I love the way the late Robert Webber put it in his book, which I highly recommend, "Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality Through the Christian Year":

"We too easily forget our Maker and Redeemer; replacing God with things and ambition. Lent is the season that does something about this situation. It calls us back to God, back to the basics, back to the spiritual realities of life. It calls us to put to death the sin and the indifference we have in our hearts toward God and our fellow persons. And it beckons us to enter once again into the joy of the Lord–the joy of a new life born out of a death to the old life. That is what Ash Wednesday is all about–the fundamental change of life required of those who would die with Jesus and be raised to a new life in him."

Join us next Wednesday, February 22nd at 6:30 PM, The truth about ourselves awaits, and a reminder that God in his great love for us, promises new life in the midst of the old, new birth in the midst of the old, new creation in the midst of the old.

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