The season of Lent is a reminder that we live a sinful fallen world; that judgment is coming; that we must respond to sin with a humble return to God so that we can be spared and the Lord’s Name may be upheld. Just as we prepare for big events in our lives, like weddings or commencements, Lent is a time to prepare our hearts in anticipation of remembering Christ’s passion and resurrection.
Lent is a solemn season in the Church Calendar. Ash Wednesday begins this forty-day season that is to be characterized by penitence, fasting, and self-examination. In other words, Lent is a call to prayer and repentance, with fasting as a very practical way of devoting oneself to a deliberate connection with God.
The heart of the Lenten message is that we must return to the Lord. When there was a need for the Israelites to return to the Lord, the people were called to a prayer service (i.e. Joel 2). The prayers they offered were confessions to God, petitions for God’s grace and favor, and affirmations of confidence in God. Fasting, weeping, and mourning communicate the seriousness and sincerity of the people’s repentance. It is our hearts that need rending, and not our clothes.
Imagine you are out for a hike on a beautiful spring day and you come to a creek. You notice that someone has dumped trash into the stream—not a pretty sight. Judging by some of the empty soda cans, the trash has been there awhile. And there is an ugly film on top of the water. You cannot just leave the scene as you found it, because it would bother your conscience. So you stoop down and begin gathering the trash. It actually takes several hours before you can begin to see a difference; it’s amazing how much junk is there. You sit back, rest for a moment, and realize you’ll have to keep returning each day until the site is truly clean. But when you come back the next day, it’s as if your work has been undone. In fact there’s more trash than before. Somehow the garbage bred overnight. You think about the unlikelihood of someone coming to this very spot to dump their garbage in the few hours while you were away, and you realize that something smells fishy—so to speak. So you begin to follow the creek upstream. Sure enough, you come to a garbage dump that has been there for years. It’s emptying into the passing creek. Your cleaning job only opened up a gap for more stuff to settle. You could go and clean every day. But if you want your creek to be clean, that means going directly to the source and dealing with what’s there.
Our hearts are the source from which our lives flow. Unfortunately, we spend great amounts of time, money, and energy—even in the church—doing trash removal “downstream.” But real transformation begins when we travel upstream to the source of our heart. Our real struggles and sins take place where no one sees: in the heart.
We must enter this season of Lent and cry out to God to spare his people and not give others a reason to scorn us for our lack of humility and attention to the Lord. Let us, then, worship and fall down, and weep before the Lord our Maker. Let us mourn over sin, and anticipate God’s anger by confessing those things which displease him. Let us equally anticipate God’s grace, because he is compassionate and relents from sending calamity. Let us take responsibility for fully, and not partially, confessing sin to God. Let us find our hope in God because he is the only One who can deliver us from every trouble, especially the judgment to come. Who knows? Perhaps the Lord will choose to leave us blessing and will break open the doors of his goodness.
For those attending an Ash Wednesday service, let the imposition of ashes upon your forehead signify that you are repenting from trusting in things other than Christ; that you will cease attempting to rely, on the one hand, your own ingenuity, and, on the other, a simple formalism of only going through the motions of Christianity. Let the sign of the cross upon you mark your heart, and not just your head. May the Lord have mercy upon us, bless us beyond what we can ask or think, and give us peace.