ASH WEDNESDAY MEDITATION
Dr. J. Matthew Burton, Jr.
Clemmons United Methodist Church
February 18, 2015
An imposition is something that is burdensome, inconvenient, or unwanted. I hate going to the Dentist. Twice a year I have to interrupt my day to go let some stranger dig around in my mouth. It’s quite the imposition. So why do we have the imposition of ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Are we being forced to do something we don’t want to do?
We come to have the ashes imposed on us because as T.S. Elliot once asked, “Why should [we] love the church? Because she tells us of sin and death and other unpleasant facts of life.” There are fewer people here this evening than there will be on Easter morning. Easter morning feels better that Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday reminds us or imposes on us the fact that we spend a great deal of our time, money, and effort to avoid the obvious: We are Dust. We are fallen, and we can’t get up on our own. There is no way we can stabilize ourselves or make ourselves permanent. We come this evening because if we want to stop our self-sustaining behavior and grow closer to Christ, then we must admit we need help.
Ash Wednesday is like a 12 step process for bad behaving Christians:
1. We are powerless over sin and our life in so many ways has become unmanageable.
2. We believe that only God in Jesus Christ can restore us to sanity.
3. We know we have to make an intentional decision to turn our lives over to God’s care.
In order to turn ourselves over to God we must:
4. Make a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.
5. We must admit to God, to ourselves, and to one another that we have sinned.
6. We have to be ready to ask God for forgiveness.
7. We then have to ask God for forgiveness.
8. We must think of those persons we have wronged and make a list.
9. We have to ask for forgiveness from those whom we have sinned against.
10. We have to be on watch for those sins that we continue to do and ask for forgiveness.
11. We then must strengthen our spiritual lives through prayer and constant conversation with God so that we might have the strength and power to live in His will.
12. We must carry the power of God’s forgiveness to others.
The twelve steps for an alcoholic and my suggested 12 steps for Ash Wednesday are not easy but they are the only way to health and wholeness. Ash Wednesday, the imposition of the ashes, confession, our admitted weakness in the face of temptation, and the willingness to ask for help are the way to spiritual wholeness for God’s people. We see this process all through the Bible:
·Jonah preached repentance at Nineveh and Nineveh responded; the whole population, in sackcloth, sat in ashes (Jonah 3:5-9).
·Job, at the end of all his troubles, repented to God with dust and ashes (Job 42:6).
·The prophet Jeremiah told Israel to repent by putting on sackcloth and rolling in ashes (Jeremiah 6:26).
·Jesus told the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida that they would be punished for their unwillingness to put on ashes and turn to God (Matthew 11:21).
The ashes impose on us the fragility and transitory nature of our lives. God tells Adam that he will die; “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Evidently, Adam didn’t understand that harsh truth. We also tend to forget it as we get caught up in our own power and ability. We have this notion that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps but the only person that can really pull us up is God. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our need for God’s grace and forgiveness.
We Christians, as someone has suggested, too often overlook the wonder that God not only convicts us of our sin but graciously forgives us of our sin. Ash Wednesday not only helps us to remember that we should repent but that we can repent. By God’s grace, we do NOT need to hold on to our sin, nor do we need to be burdened by it. We can be forgiven.
Syndicated writer David Brooks hit the nail on the head this week commenting on CBS News anchorman Brian William’s fall from grace. He writes that our response in America to these kinds of scandals has become barbaric. “When someone violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize [them]. A sort of coliseum culture takes over, leaving no place for mercy. He ends his article this way: “Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?”
Thank goodness God is always there in love. We can come to the altar this evening with the confidence that in the midst of our struggles and sinfulness, God loves and will continue to love us even when we stumble. Wouldn’t it be better world if we could always to that for others as God has done it for us? Thank about it as I close with this prayer:
God of the repentant, summon us to repentance. Shout the word that will startle us to attention. Call us to return to the paths that lead to your glorious Kingdom. Sing you gracious presence into our stony hearts until they shatter, revealing your image imprinted within.
Weep your mercy over our sin, melting it and washing it away. Whisper your hope for your holiness until we become people committed to your joy in harmony with your peace. Amen.