I was fairly “bummed” that we had to cancel the Ash Wednesday service last night. It is truly one of my favorite worship opportunities of the year. I enjoy the quiet, reflective atmosphere and the almost chant-like music; it puts me in the right frame of mind to draw closer to God during the 40 days of Lent.
But, rather than being disappointed in not having the service, I decided I would share some of my reflections with you here. I hope they are a blessing as we begin this journey called “Lent” together.
“The Journey Begins” – Jonah 3
The story of Jonah is familiar to most of us. But, we usually stop the tale too early. Some of the most interesting parts of the story happen after Jonah is spat out by the whale. We read some of that story in the third chapter of the book (the link is above to “The Message” version of the story.)
Jonah finally does as he has been commanded by God and he enters Ninevah. After walking for one day, not even reaching the center of the city, Jonah preaches one of the shortest sermons in the history of the faith. “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”
From what we read in the story; that is all Jonah says. He turns around and leaves the city. As amazing as that short sermon might be, I find the reaction to it even more amazing. The people of Ninevah change their ways. They put on sackcloth and cover themselves with ashes as a sign that they understand that their fate lies in God’s hands alone.
And, not just the men symbolize their repentance. Not just the working men. But the king, all of the people, regardless of their status. Men and women alike. The cover themselves in sack cloth and ashes, and they fast.
But that’s not it, either! Not just the people. The animals are cloaked in the evidence of death, the evidence of the sins of the community.
That’s one of the most powerful parts of the story for me. Ninevah’s reaction recognizes both the sins of the individual, and the sins of the community.
Ash Wednesday reminds me that I have sins in my life with which I haven’t dealt. Ash Wednesday reminds me that not only am I responsible for my own sins, sins I commit, but I am also responsible for the sins that I knowingly allow to happen without saying anything. When I see someone abused verbally, I’m as guilty as when I lie.
On this day that begins Lent, we are reminded of the sin that burdens our lives and keeps us from doing God’s will. Often, I feel that it is easy to confess my sin and ask for forgiveness. It is not easy, however, to fully understand the weight of sin and fully turn away from it. It is easy to think my sins are small in comparison to the rest of the world around me. However, when I consider the weight of sin I begin to realize that I am just as broken as everyone around me and that I need a Savior just as desperately as the next person.
That is one of the things we see in the story of Jonah. The story continues after the people of Ninevah repent. We learn about how Jonah feels about Ninevah’s reaction to his sermon. Now, if I could get that kind of a reaction to my preaching, I’d be overjoyed. But not Jonah.
Jonah, God’s prophet, is dismayed when the people of Ninevah realize their evil ways and turn to God. Jonah becomes irate with God and says, “This is why I didn’t want to come here in the first place. I know you are a loving God and would forgive Ninevah.” The sub-text is that Jonah doesn’t want Ninevah to be forgiven. I believe that is because it is always easier to feel good about ourselves when we have someone at whom we can look and say “At least I’m not like them!”
Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to do better. Indeed, Lent, we learn on Ash Wednesday, is about realizing that God is a forgiving God. It is about realizing that we need that forgiveness not more and not less than everyone else. Lent is about opening our hearts one more time to the Word of God in the hope that, this time, hearing it anew, we might allow ourselves to become new as a result of it.
As we open ourselves to God and realize the sins that impinge on that relationship, it is good and right for us to confess our brokenness before God, to turn from our wrongdoing and to seek God’s forgiveness.
If we had been gathered together to worship, we would have symbolized this confession of our sins by writing or drawing them on a piece of paper, then symbolically offering them to God by burning those papers. That’s an option for you, today, as well. If you have a way to safely burn a piece of paper, you can make your own “burnt offering” to God. If you don’t have that option, or are worried about setting your home on fire (PLEASE DON’T!) there are other ways you can confess before God:
- You could type your confession into a document on your computer, then delete the file
- You could write your confession on a piece of paper, then tear the paper into tiny shreds
- You could simply set aside some time of prayer, beginning by actually confessing to God, then spending time listening for God’s voice and feeling God’s forgiveness
- You could chose to confess to a close friend or spiritual leader (whom you trust to keep your confession confidential)
- Or you can choose any other way to practice confessing your sins before God.
The goal is to somehow acknowledge your brokenness and then offer that to God as you seek God’s help in healing and restoring your relationships, with God, with others, and with yourself.
My prayer for you is that you sense God’s loving presence in a special way this Lent, and in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Come, let’s journey together through these 40 days, and beyond.