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Ash Wednesday

February 22, 2012
Sermon:  Ash Wednesday
Text:  Isaiah 58:1-12


I had a wonderful time of devotion this morning as I began thinking about the many events that are happening on this Ash Wednesday and during these next forty days of Lent.  I often go to one of the more liturgical churches for an Ash Wednesday service, as I did today.  I went forward to the altar, knelt, and received the imposition of ashes on my forehead from the priest.  To some, receiving the ashes is just a formality, but it is very significant for me.  Then I participated in taking the Lord’s Supper, communion, with others who were worshiping at the Episcopal church.  I spent a lot of time in prayer though I did not open the Book of Common Prayer.  The reading of Scripture, the times of prayer, and the music during the service really touched my heart.  That Ash Wednesday service gave me a way to begin this season of Lent.Listen as I share a passage of Scripture read in a worship service at the Episcopal Church of the Advent earlier today, Isaiah 58:1-12:

1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.


When I was growing up, the churches I attended did nothing to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent.  Ash Wednesday was the day to clean out the fireplace.  Lent was found on the filter of a clothes dryer or in a belly button.  To say that we were observing Lent brought to mind cotton mill workers.  Neither observance was an important part of our culture.

It was not until I attended seminary and became a member of Crescent Hill Baptist Church that I observed Lent for the first time and found out the significance of this season. The observance is not a new invention.  It has been around for a long, long time.  Baptists – then Anabaptists they were called – treated this practice in the church just as they treated so many other observances during a time of radical reformation; our forebears threw the baby out with the bath water.  When the Anabaptists were purging so many traditions that seemed worthless to them, they also eliminated many customs that really can be quite meaningful. We can set aside these days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday for a time of deep reflection about our relationship to God in Christ.  It is a time for self-examination, a time to acknowledge our sins, a time to repent and seek the forgiveness of God.

Sacrifice during the season of Lent has a long tradition based on Jesus’ experience of fasting in the wilderness.  At its best, this important practice of surrender can strengthen our spiritual journey, allowing us to grow deeper in our Christian faith.  Some people, though, make light of sacrificing and fasting.  When asked, “What are you giving up for Lent?” a wag answered, “Watermelon,” a fruit not even available this time of year.  Giving up watermelon during the season of Lent is a trivial response to the season.

Consider some other decisions that are just as trivial.  I hear people say that they are going to give up chocolate.  I guess for some that may be a big deal.  I read last night that somebody had decided to give up Facebook for Lent except on Sundays.  Sabbaths are not considered a part of Lent in the Methodist church.  When I think about sacrifice, somehow chocolate and Facebook do not quite measure up to the image I have of Jesus on the cross.

What shall we sacrifice for Lent?  Ephesians 4:29-32 offers some suggestions:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Most of us have heard the little children’s nursery rhyme “Ring around the rosie, A pocketful of posies, Ashes, ashes, We all fall down.”  Some credit the rhyme’s origin with the tragic story of the Black Death, the bubonic plague.  A tell-tale sign of this scourge was the appearance of red spots surrounded by white rings on the flesh of the afflicted.  Rats were thought to be the vermin that spread the plague, but actually it was a contagion carried by fleas from person to person, one bite at a time. A commonly held belief was that a pouch of the fragrant herb mint pennyroyal would ward off the plague.  Nearly every child and many adults during those days wore a cloth bag filled with pennyroyal as a necklace – “a pocket full of posies.”  The superstition had merit.  Pennyroyal was then, and is now, a natural insect repellent. “A pocket full of posies” could indeed help stave off the plague – the “ring around the rosie.”

Weathered fishermen along the Outer Banks of North Carolina coat their faces, necks, and arms with Avon’s lotion named Skin-So-Soft to protect them from voracious mosquitoes, black gnats, and green-headed deer flies.  The chief ingredient in Skin-So-Soft is pennyroyal.  The lotion gives even salty fishermen the aroma of sweet perfume.

When a family member contracted the plague, the entire family was quarantined.  Their house became off-limits to all visitors.  Once those affected by the plague died, they were usually cremated.  When the last person in the infected family died, the house was torched so that the entire structure was burned to the ground and reduced to ashes – “Ashes, ashes.”  The fact that the plague did not discriminate in its victims relates to the section of the rhyme “We all fall down.”

Some plagues in our day, some contagious ailments, are worse than the Black Death.  Some plagues of the human soul are more harmful than physical disease.  Think of the seven deadly sins:  pride, prejudice, anger, apathy, bitterness, hatred, sloth.  The wages of these sins is death.  “A pocketful of posies” cannot remedy these ailments.  Only one who baptizes with fire and the Spirit can purge these sins from our souls.  Ashes are imposed, not just on the forehead, externally, but also internally, prompting genuine confession and repentance.  From the ashes we rise, phoenix-like, as Paul pens in II Corinthians 5:17:  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ Jesus, he is a new creation.  Former things pass away, and all things become new.”

We do not impose ashes in the Baptist church.  I would like to suggest, however, that in the privacy of your own devotional time, think about what should be purged in your life.  Think about what interferes with your relationship to Christ.  My prayer is that your introspection will lead to a sacrifice more significant than chocolate or Facebook.

One person I talked with today said, “I used to sacrifice something for Lent every year.  I found that for forty days I bragged about the nature of my sacrifice and my progress.  I realized that I had basically been caught up in an exercise of arrogance.  Last year, I decided to give up the pride.”

In your own conversations with Christ during this important season, consider your options. When you decide what you will sacrifice, see how it compares to the cross.  Doing so will indicate whether you are being trivial.

Let’s bow together for prayer.  Gracious God, it is our prayer that we can go through the season of Lent with a sense of anticipation.  We ask that the Holy Spirit will prompt in us those responses that are pleasing to You.  Bestow upon us Your benediction.  In the name of Christ Jesus, we pray.  Amen.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2012

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