A Journey to the Cross
Danish Painter, Carl Heinrich Bloch 1834-1890
These last couple of years have certainly increased our awareness of the frailty of life and the certainty of death. Phrases often heard in recent months are: “they died far too young,” “it was so sudden,” “they are in a better place,” or “they are finally at peace.” Really, do we know that? The pandemic has proclaimed loudly to everyone, “Death is real.” The truth is our culture has been in a deep denial of death. As a result of the current health situation fear abounds. We see it all around. Have you noticed that the focus is on avoiding the inevitable. That is natural but everyone is eventually going to die. Not surprisingly I have not read one article, heard one commentary, or seen one podcast on looking beyond death. What happens to you when you die? Suddenly, most people believe in a heaven? If your good outweighs your bad you get in? He or she was such a good person. Is that as deep as we go? Where are the real answers to these questions? The theme of Ash Wednesday addresses these fundamental questions truthfully and definitively!
You will die physically at some point, but that’s not the end. God has the last word and it is not death for those who die in Christ Jesus! A better word for Christians is “departure.” You depart this life for eternal life beyond death.
Back to Lent. For some people having to give something up, like not eating meat, or focusing on death are their primary thoughts regarding Lent. Such thoughts are a fundamental misunderstanding of Lent. The root of the word “lent” simply means “spring,” new life, buds, blossoms, the end of the long winter. Sounds more like life than death to me; a new life made possible because of Jesus’ journey to the cross.
Though observing a season of fasting and prayer were practiced regularly during the first centuries of the church, the days prior to Easter were initially devoted to the final preparations for those being baptized into a new life in Christ. In the early church the primary time for the baptism of new converts was Easter Sunday. By the fourth century we began to see more widespread evidence of a six week period of preparation for Easter by the whole Christian community, with fasting, almsgiving and prayer being key elements (Matt. 6:1-8). You see then, Lent is not a Catholic thing as many people believe, though it was at times subject to legalism and abuse in the Roman Catholic church. Many Reformers rightly reacted to the abuses, but missed the spiritual discipline at the core of the season.
The heart of the Christian faith is our participation in the life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as Lord. Those things affect us personally. While Advent is concerned with the final Judgment, the Incarnation, and the birth of Jesus, this season points us to the price paid for redemption in bringing us new life. It is our prayer that these days leading up to Easter Sunday will further shape and form us into the image of Christ as we reflect with repentant hearts what he has done to free us from the bondage of our sinful selves and grow in our understanding of our new life in Christ. “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone, a new life has begun.” (2 Cor. 5:17)
A short word about the Scripture passages themselves. The Bible was written originally without chapters and verse numbers. With that in mind, I left out the verse numbers so that it reads a little differently. I find it easier to grasp the whole thought this way. I trust you will find the same. The translation I used is the New Living Translation. The music we have chosen comes from a wide variety of sources and ensembles simply reflecting the wonder and creativity of God’s handiwork. Nothing you hear or see is original, the composers have simply rearranged the notes God made!
One final word. Feel free to pass the link along to family, friends and co-workers around the country and the world who may benefit from these free devotionals. The link to subscribe is: sharpdevotional.com. Simply enter your name and email and thank you for subscribing and passing the link along! Then they will receive the emails in their boxes each morning at 5:02 EST. A reminder, they are free.
All Scripture is taken from the New Living Translation Second Edition, Tyndale House Publishing, Inc. Carol Stream, IL ©2008
© Daniel Sharp 2022
March 2, Ash Wednesday
Reader: “This is the kind of fasting I want:”
Response: “Free the wrongly oppressed, share your food, give clothes.”
Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12
“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don’t even notice it!’
“I will tell you why!” I respond.
“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.
“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.
In biblical times the use of ashes was an outward symbol of repentance and mourning for one’s sin and a humbling before God. The use of ashes hearkens back to Gen. 3:19, “You were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” (E.g. Job, Jonah, Mordecai, Daniel, Jeremiah, Esther, Tamar) The ashes imposed this day are a reminder that our time on earth is limited and that our Savior has solved our death problem. That is the good news, but what do we do, how do we live in the meantime?
One of my Old Testament professors, (Walter Kaiser I believe,) told the class that whenever you read about Israel’s disasters and think those people were so awful, realize you are Israel. We are no different! As I read the above passage of Scripture, I couldn’t help but agree. While the gospel is individual it is also communal and believers have significant communal responsibilities.
Isaiah forcefully and loudly speaks God’s words to his people! Imagine Isaiah speaking these words to you. We gather at church (most Sundays). We’re delighted to hear a good sermon giving us more insight into God and our faith. We are in a small group Bible study. We believe God’s way is best. We pray to God to act on our behalf. We might even read our Bible and pray every day and even fast once in a while, subconsciously thinking, “Surely all this counts for something God.” Well . . . yes and no. Isaiah’s words are challenging and get right to God’s point.
Our relationship to God as individuals and as his people is about the heart and honest transparency. Isaiah’s word (God speaking) is making it very clear that the outward actions are to grow out of the heart relationship, not the other way around. Actions, however spiritual or otherwise, do not ever produce a heart relationship with God. A living, vital, God-perspective faith should affect the world around us. Going through the outward spiritual motions without a repentant, humble heart doesn’t work. Do the acts stem from obligation or the compassion for Christ?
Isaiah is challenging the Israelites to look beyond earthly faux “spirituality” and realize what God wants from his people. To experience the fullness of the relationship with God both as individuals and as a community of faith, our actions must grow out of a deep love for God. His design is that the Christian community should have a practical impact on the surrounding society―the poor, the weak, the down-trodden, the lonely, the fearful, the broken. Notice, these are the people to whom Jesus most often ministered. May our faith flesh out likewise. Is there someone or something you can do today to lighten someone’s load? The transforming love of Christ in his people brings transforming love to a society so desperately needed in our day. That is why we’ve called the season of Lent a “Journey with Jesus,” a journey that requires our whole life. It did his.
Music: “If with All Your Heart” (Ye people rend your hearts) from Elijah Oratorio Mendelssohn Andrew Haji Concours Musical International de Montreal
Prayer: In these dark days when negation has so deeply entered into thought, and the futility of life oppressed many souls, when belief and unbelief appear indifferent and what is left is natural passion to express the pride of life, or the empty void of nothingness when the nerve to lie and to create is weakened and suicides increase―O Lord, forgive the failures of your Church to witness to the world that justice should run down as water and righteousness a mighty stream, O Lord, forgive the failure of the Christian life that lies so worldly that few can see the life of Spirit that must proclaim the kingdom of God’s love to glorify his Name. ―Fr Gilbert Shaw, 1886-1967, from The Oxford Book of Prayer, p.108