This is the night of ashes. Whether last evening was a mini Mardi Gras here or a quiet time at home, or TV as usual, those times and opportunities are behind us.
Now comes the harsh truth. We are on the losing end of our talk with God on this night.
We’ve come as a community of faith among friends and fellow members of the household of God. We already accept each other without judgment of any kind.
Nothing we have ever done to other persons, even those we think of as enemies, can compare with what we have done or left undone in our relationship to God.
So we are here to say “God, you are right and I am wrong. My life is not what it should be.
“I confess to you, God, that I have broken my promises to you as well as to my relatives, friends, other people of God,
“I have bowed down before other gods and I have neglected my duties to those closest to me.”
So. Now we begin our preparation for the great exultation, the ancient Easter greeting of Christians to one another, ‘”The Lord is Risen; he is risen indeed.”
In due time, we shall observe Holy Week, remembering and recalling how Jesus had a solemn meal with his companions, and how he was captured , treated like a criminal, crucified by the legitimate, respected, honorable, religious people in Jerusalem.
We and all Christians together are still an extremely distinct minority. Truth be told, we are out of line with most of the world around us.
Our great voice together is only a whisper against the roar of the world and its departure from God, just as this brief moment may not, even for us, be a true turning from sin to the new life in Christ.
Even as we sing and pray and wrestle against secret sins and hidden faults, we have to notice how hard it is to be the people of God in a world so obviously headed away from God and toward its own destruction.
From the catastrophic warming of the earth and the poisons in our water supply with consequences that will last perhaps hundreds of years, to the political chaos we don’t want to think about, and warfare in more countries that we can name, there is global chaos.
From continuing violence between Israel and Palestine, to unwanted babies born to mothers on crack, children who fail in school because their parents fail at home, where politicians sell their vote to the highest bidder—all these and more involve sins and failures too enormous to comprehend.,
In a world that worships power, wealth, skin-deep beauty, success at any price and pleasure at any cost, we have met to tell God that our hearts and minds and eyes, are set on a different goals and standards.
We are different, are we not? But we are in the minority.
We live in a world that caters to self-glorification and putting God in second place. We should be different from many others who know not God, but we are met to admit to God that we are not different enough.
It goes against the grain to be consciously Christian.
Repentance goes against every stimulation from the mass media, programs and commercials on TV and slick magazines.
Repentance goes against every influence of a consumer-oriented marketplace dedicated to making us want what we often should not have and persuading us to buy what we don’t need.
Do these ashes and our prayers and the sacred Bread and Wine suggest that we want to grow in a different direction?
Do these symbolic gestures and prayers of repentance suggest a cry to God for reassurance that in a stormy life we can be saved by him from certain disaster and destruction?
We are here as part of the family of God, not only asking God’s help in global disasters and national meltdowns, but asking for help on being morally upright in an age when it is not popular or easy to live a morally upright life.
In the story of our first spiritual parents in the Garden, Adam and Eve heard the voice of the snake saying this fruit is so desirable that we should want it even if God said we should not have it.
Do we have the self-discipline to tell the devil he is a liar? And do we have the character or strength of will to resist? God, forgive our weakness.
God calls us to a different standard than that exhibited by most of the world. The mark of ashes upon us is a reminder that God’s mercy strengthens and empowers our resolve to accept God’s agenda, God’s direction, for the days and years ahead.
What, then, does the Lord require of us? As James characterized it so simply, religion that is pure and undefiled before God the father is this – to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
That’s not all there is to doing good in a complex world, but it’s certainly an indication of one’s heart.
And more important, because we believe that our salvation is by God’s grace, we want to respond with faith.
How many times have we heard that we are saved not by our good works but by the love of God?
Then why should we want to lead a life worthy of our calling as the people of God in this place?
Answer: Because God has noticed our sins and our predicament and sees that we are harassed and assaulted by contrary forces against which we have so little resistance.
God turned to mercy and forgiveness and having his own son take our place on the cross so he could rise in victory over sin and death.
It was in our place that he lived and died and rose again.
As Isaiah the prophet wrote 400 years before the appearance of Jesus, “Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities.
“Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
This Ash Wednesday not only signifies our repentance and our determination to resist the attractions and the stains of the world.
As the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, we are given the strength the presence and the love of God to return again and again to him.
For our God is full of mercy, and he abounds in steadfast love.
Thanks be to God.