It is written that “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Our salvation is not based on our works or anything we can do. We are saved by believing in our heart that Jesus was raised from the dead and confessing with our lips that Jesus is Lord. By believing, we are justified before God. Our sins are forgiven through believing in Jesus who died for us. “10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Romans 10:10). We must then believe and confess our faith. Furthermore, there is no longer a necessary distinction between Jew or Greek “13For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'” (Romans 10:13). The Lord loves and saves all who believe: “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (Romans 10:12).
This past Week, on Wednesday, we began the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday. Lent, is the 40 days (not including Sundays) before Easter. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday as a day of mourning for our sin and the sin of all humanity before God, a recognition of our mortality, and a request that by the grace of God, the Lord remember our creation and breathe new life into our burned-out, dusty lives once more.
You might have attended a service on Ash Wednesday, with imposition of ashes for the remembrance of baptism based on the assurance that though we are dust, we are baptized dust, and that makes all the difference. What is the significance of the ashes? Why is it used to mark the beginning of Lent? Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one’s penitence is found in Job 42:1-6.
Then Job answered the Lord:
2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)
Job first acknowledges that he has known that God can do all things. And that though he had heard of God, he did not “see” God: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear: but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).
The purpose of Lent, which starts with putting on of ashes, is repentance. The prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel pleaded for God this way: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). The ashes were used in the Hebrew Bible as an expression of mourning as one turns away from the way they have been and turns towards God. As it is written Psalm 51, it is a broken and contrite heart that God wants from us. In Joel 2:12-13, the LORD pleads with us to return with all our hearts, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning. But it is not our clothing we tear up but our hearts. We are urged to return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful. And if we do, God’s grace extends to us through the gift of Jesus Christ whose righteousness covers us, if we turn away from old ways and turn towards God.
The Lenten journey from the ashes of death to resurrected life begins on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, which signifies a time to turn around, to change directions, to repent. To reset. To turn towards God once again. We are saved through believing and confessing, but we also need to repent and go nearer to God. Season leading up to Easter when we remember Jesus’s death and resurrection, we prepare ourselves by marking ourselves with ashes, fasting, praying, and with alms giving. Daily practices, spiritual disciplines, during Lent can remind us that unless we are willing to die to our old selves, we cannot be raised to new life with Christ. The first step of this journey calls us to acknowledge and confront our mortality, individually and corporately.
In many traditions, the individual and corporate acknowledgement of our mortality and of our falling short of the glory of God is symbolized through the imposition of ashes – placing a cross on one’s forehead. During the imposition of ashes the words: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) are repeated again and again. We are to remember that we are but temporary creatures, always on the edge of death. Ashes on the forehead is a sign of our humanity and a reminder of our mortality. Lent is not a matter of being good, and wearing ashes or taking on spiritual discipline to show off one’s faith. The ashes are a reminder to us and to our communities that we are created beings. Similar to the ashes we wear on Ash Wednesday, spiritual disciplines during our Lenten journey symbolize the dust we have come from and broken debris of our lives as well as the reality that eventually each of us will die and return to dust. We stand in solidarity as fellow creatures before God, acutely aware of our mortality. We use the spiritual disciplines of praying, fasting, and alms giving to remind ourselves and to acknowledging that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. In the face of our transience, we pledge ourselves anew to live unto God’s Word in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word that remains forever.
Our Lenten journey is one of metanoia (“turning around”), of changing directions from self-serving toward the self-giving way of the cross. Ash Wednesday begins our Lenten journey through the desert toward Easter. Trusting in the “accomplished fact” of Christ’s resurrection, we follow Jesus into the wilderness, resist temptation, fast, and proceed “on the way” to Jerusalem, and the cross. During the season of Lent, let us remember Jesus who after being baptized was led by the Spirit to the desert where he fasted. Jesus was tempted by during those days by hunger and given opportunities to tend to his meet only his needs rather than to prepare for his upcoming days of ministry. “1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” (Luke 4:1-2). We too will be tempted during the days of Lenten season. Let us remember that when Jesus was tempted by the devil, in every response, he responded with his knowledge of Scripture.
When the devil tempted Jesus to turn the stone into bread, “ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4:4).
When the devil offered Jesus the world if only Jesus would worship the devil, “8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Luke 4:8).
Then the devil used the scripture to tempt Jesus:
9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” (Luke 4:9-11).
Jesus’s response was the following: 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:12-13).
Simply knowing the scripture does not save us. The devil could also use scripture. But Jesus used the scripture to overcome the temptations in order to go nearer to God, while the devil used it in order to further his own gain. We must be on guard during the season of lent as we use this time to go nearer to God. We will be tempted and face obstacles as the devil waits for “an opportune time” to thwart us from our intention to turn from our old ways that fall short of the glory of God.
All that said, let us remember that our salvation is not dependent on us, our works, not even our spiritual disciplines we take up during the season of lent. We are saved through our faith and by confessing our faith. Our salvation is locked in. In fact, preparing for Easter through the season of lent is not necessary for our salvation. Having been saved, having a relationship with God who loved us first while we were sinners, we use the time of Lent to turn towards God: we do this not because we have to, but because we want to go nearer to God in response to God’s unmatchable love for us.
In closing, let us remember Ukraine, people who are facing attack and violence on their home land. Let us remember those who have lost their loved ones through Covid-19 pandemic. Let us remember the hungry, the cold, the widows, and the orphans. Let us remember those who lost their jobs or living through financial insecurity. Let us remember not only ourselves during the season of Lent, but our neighbors. Let us get to know people who are in need. Let us strive to find out what their needs are. Let us pray for ourselves and our neighbors. And let our prayers be only the beginning, and not the end point of our involvement in the world where there is so much need for the good news of the love of God. May we be ambassadors of God to bring about justice, mercy, and compassion to the world we live in. So that all those who see us can say, we have heard of God’s love, but now I see God’s love in action. May it be so. Amen.