Lent 2024: Do This in Remembrance
february 14 | Ash Wednesday |Year B
Relationship and Ritual
Isaiah 58:1-12 | Psalm 51:1-17 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
What’s the historical context?
Aren’t we doing what you’re asking of us?
The people of God are wondering why their fasts and rituals have not accomplished what they hoped. “Why have we fasted and you see it not?” they ask. “Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” The problem, says Isaiah, is that the people in their fasting have sought their own pleasure and oppressed all their workers (Isaiah 58:3). Though they “seek” God daily, though they “ask” of God his judgments, though they “delight” to draw near to God, their true desire is selfish. They want their own pleasure, and as a result their knowledge of God has been distorted. Their desires have shaped their theology.
Although, the practices and rituals have continued as normal, they have ignored the call of justice. The problem isn’t exactly their public displays of repentance, but the motivation for these acts. God opposes acts done in human pride. The acts themselves are not the issue; the human heart is the problem.
Listen to what the Lord requires
Isaiah confronts the problem head on. “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet.” God calls on Isaiah to address the problem boldly and clearly. The people’s hearts and minds need to be shown the truth. Their questions have been heard, and Isaiah is ready to deliver God’s response.
It is not the head-bowing nor the sackcloth and the ashes that God requires. Those are outward demonstrations of a deeper humility and repentance. But without the true humility and repentance, the outward shows are meaningless hypocrisy. Every form of oppression and injustice needs to be rejected.
We hear echoes of Isaiah 29 here in chapter 58. There the Lord says, “This people draw near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (29:13). God desires hearts that know, worship, love, and serve the Creator God. From this genuine worship will spring the love for God’s goodness and justice. And only then will “your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing spring up speedily” (58:8). What is needed is a sincere and deep knowledge of God. In knowing God truly, the people will come to a genuine knowledge of themselves, and then they will find their delight and purpose in loving God and neighbor.
Restoration will come
Isaiah has a vision of a restored people: people living in the light, people walking in the strength of the Lord, people rejoicing in the salvation and rescue that has been given to them. The situation is difficult and dire, but there is great hope. The light shines in the darkness.
How do we point to Jesus?
The final part of our Isaiah passage ended with a message of hope. The people of Judah could live and love differently, they could choose justice and mercy. God’s people were called to free the oppressed, feed the hungry, care for those without homes, clothe the naked, help the poor. Did they answer the call? Did they repent and change their ways?
We know that sin and evil continued to rear its ugly head, both within and without the Jewish community. We know that oppression and injustice continued to infect human history. But, we also know that one came and fulfilled all the calls to justice and mercy: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. When Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, he read from Isaiah’s scroll:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19, ESV)
These words (from Isaiah 61) are proclaimed by Jesus, and he finishes by declaring “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21, ESV).
Jesus lived the life to which the people of God are called. He obediently fulfilled the call to justice and mercy. He taught his disciples how to love God and neighbor by practicing their righteousness humbly and genuinely. Practice your righteousness (i.e. love your neighbor) under the gaze of your Heavenly Father (Matthew 6:4). Outward displays and the approval of others is not the goal. The goal is to remember who God is, and respond with lives of love and obedience.
Jesus fulfilled the call perfectly. He taught his followers what a life of obedience looks like. And he gave them what they needed in order to answer the call with their own lives. He gave them himself. Jesus made it possible for hearts to be restored, made soft by the work of his Spirit.
How does this impact us today?
Don’t Replace Relationship With Ritual
Just as the people of Isaiah’s day and the people in first century tended to over rely on their rituals and practices, so we too can fail to remember the foundation and purpose of our religious habits. When going to church, having quiet time, and other church activities become the focus of our Christian identity, we are forgetting the Savior who is calling us into relationship with himself. God wants us to be in relationship with him. He desires our hearts to be turned towards him in love and worship. We need to hear the good news again and again: the good news that we are loved and called by the living God. And from that knowledge flows the desire to love and serve God through spiritual habits and to love and serve our neighbor through acts of love and mercy.
Ponder the Cross
Lent is a time to ponder and remember the cross. Only when we have “surveyed the wondrous cross” do we recognize the extravagant amount of grace that we have been shown. And only when rituals and habits lead us to turn our hearts to Jesus are they fulfilling their design. Then as our hearts are changed by this meditation on grace, as we repent of the lack of grace we have shown others, our lives will bear fruit. Relying on the power and grace of Jesus, our hearts and lives can be made new.
Yes, we mark our heads with ashes—public shows of piety are not in themselves evil. But we must guard our motivations and do most of our spiritual work in private, because the privacy of those acts reveals (if only to us) our dependence on God.
The private acts Jesus calls for include acts of mercy toward the needy… Ash Wednesday, then, reminds us of one of the things it is easy to forget during the course of our journey with God: the stepped on people of the world… Lent is not merely about extended reflections on our own mortality. It’s a chance to open our lives and hearts to the pains of the world in imitation of our Lord, who looked with compassion on those with spiritual and material needs.
—Esau McCaulley, Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal (IVP, 2022), 24-25.
The Book’s Not Boring, You’re Boring
Trish Harrison Warren shares the following story in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary:
While my husband, Jonathan, was getting his PhD, he got to know a former Jesuit priest turned married professor—a holy man, a provocateur, and a favorite among his students. Once a student met with him to complain about having to read Augustine’s Confessions. ‘It’s boring,’ the student whined. ‘No, it’s not boring,’ the professor responded. ‘You’re boring.’ What Jonathan’s professor meant is that when we gaze at the richness of the gospel and the church and find them dull and uninteresting, it’s actually we who have been hollowed out. We have lost our capacity to see wonders where true wonders lie. We must be formed as people who are capable of appreciating goodness, truth, and beauty.
—Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary (IVP, 2019).
- How did the people of Judah take things that were “good” and make them into “gods”?
- In your own life what good things have become idols?
- How did Jesus’ life demonstrate the importance of where one’s heart is?
- How is Isaiah’s declaration to Judah a word of judgment on our own forms of hypocrisy?
- In what areas of life are you being called to pursue God’s righteousness?
- What do you find hopeful about the passage from Isaiah?
God who is near at hand,
Draw us humbly into your present with the expectation you will listen and we will be heard. By the power of your Holy Spirit, soften our hearts, reminding us that we are your beloved. You are worthy of our worship, our love, and our devotion. Give us hearts and minds that are willing to offer a sacrifice of praise to your most holy name.
Through Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.
Prayer of Confession
We confess that too often our hearts are far from you. We are a people who honor you with our lips but trust in our own wisdom to save us. We humbly repent of our hypocrisy, our blindness to injustice, our selfishness and pride. As we fix our gaze on Jesus, the author and perfector of faith, stir in us a holy desire to love and worship you with our whole heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
1 John 3:19-22 (ESV)
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.
Psalm 37:3-6 (NIV)
Year B: Do This in Remembrance (Series Page coming soon)
Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi, 1872. Oil on canvas. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Jesus during his 40-day fast in the wilderness.
More Quotes: Ash Wednesday
More Illustrations: Ash Wednesday
Rachel Clark is a pastor in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at New Monmouth Presbyterian Church. Rachel has a B.A. from Wheaton College and an M. Div from Princeton Theological Seminary.
She and her husband, Casey (with whom she co-pastors), have five children who keep them busy running around but also provide lots of laughter. In her free time, Rachel enjoys reading, hiking, baking, walking with friends, and playing board games.
Among her many accomplishments, Rachel played a pivotal role as a member of the 2006-2007 PTS intramural football championship team (The Golden Calves) alongside TPW founder Stu Strachan.