Ash Wednesday: Not Getting Over Our Sin

Here is a brief devotional I shared as part of our Ash Wednesday service at Safety Harbor Community Church:

Most of us have had loved ones die and have felt the dull ache of their absence.  They can no longer give us a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear or we no longer know the empathy that comes from deep relationship. They are dead and gone and part of us died with them.

Similarly most of us know the pain of broken relationships: bad break-ups, abandonment. Divorce. We grieve as we remember the good times we shared with another, but in the end, they are gone, as good as dead to us and a part of our heart died too.

When we consider for a moment the raw pain of grief and heartbreak and our experience of it, we know there is ‘no getting over it,’ we only get through it. When somebody tries to just ‘get over it,’ to move on to the next relationship or to stuff their pain down, it poisons their heart and their relationships. They are the walking wounded and they wound everything they touch. This is why rebound relationships seldom work. We have not done the hard heart work yet. There is no getting over it, you only get through it.

In a few moments I get the privilege of performing two great pastoral acts. The first is to invite you to the observance of a Holy Lent. Secondly, I will mark on your forehead with the sign of the cross in ashes and remind you that you are going to die. These two acts together remind us of our need: that we are sinners in need of repentance and they call us to prayer and fasting. We are weak and fragile. Lent and Ashes: two counter-cultural acts.

Our culture is pain avoidant. Anything that numbs our anxiety and makes this life more bearable is indulged in. Americans spend a fortune each year attempting to stave off the effects of aging: cosmetics, surgery, fad diets, teeth whitening and Propecia. All these are attempts to avoid the truth that from ashes we came and to ashes will return (Gen 3:19). When we are stressed each of us have our own strategies of filling the deep void in us. Some of us have wrestled with addictions: alcohol, drugs, pornography. Others fill the void with relationships, shopping, exotic foods, computer games, or whatever.  All of us attempt to avoid what we are feeling: loneliness, shame, isolation. We try to just ‘get over’ whatever we are feeling, and to make our lives feel a bit more manageable.

In Lent we are invited to a different space. A space where we don’t “get over” our hunger, our anxiety, our isolation. We get through it. Lent is an invitation to walk in the footsteps of Jesus our incarnate God who drank down the dregs of our full humanity by going to the cross on our behalf.  Jesus didn’t get over the damage our sin has done to God, to our world and to one another. He got through it.  He made his way steadily to Jerusalem knowing that they would hoist him up on a tree. But we serve a risen savior who has conquered the grave!

We are invited this Lent to fasting and prayer in hopes that God will get us through the pain, anguish and anxiety we face day in and day out.  If you haven’t decided to ‘give up’ anything for Lent, I invite you to do that.  Fasting doesn’t earn you a badge of honor. As Jesus reminds us, we don’t fast as the hypocrites do, putting on a show for others to see.   Joel 2:13 says, “Rend your heart, not your garments.” Our fast is a full turning to God.

Our fast isn’t about impressing people. It isn’t even about impressing God or showing him how serious you are in your prayer life. In the words of Scot McKnight, “Fasting is a whole body response to a grievous sacred moment.” As you enter into this season of repentance and contrition, fasting is our way of responding to God with our whole self—with our hearts and minds and prayer, and with our bodies and will through fasting.

So my encouragement to you this season when you feel disconnected, alone, sad, stressed, strained, overburdened is to not turn to the delights and strategies designed to make your soul feel better.  Instead pay attention to what is rising in you. Let it call you to prayer as you offer yourself up to God anew..  So if you aren’t giving up anything for Lent, consider giving up something that will enable you to strive for more of God.  We have strategies to manage our life that we normally employ. Jesus came to give us new life, abundant life, a transformed life. Pay attention to whatever keeps you from surrendering your life fully to him.

The Jesus whom we are following to the cross will lead us into places of self-denial and sacrifice.  He will also lead us through the realm of sin and death toward life and resurrection. We won’t get over it, but Christ carries us through.

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