Ash Wednesday - Year A

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Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.
O Lord, The house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in. It is ruinous, O repair it! It displeases Your sight. I confess it, I know. But who shall cleanse it, to whom shall I cry but to you? Cleanse me from my secret faults, O Lord, and spare Your servant from strange sins. Amen.
St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)


I am sure you have heard this before, but ...
Welcome to Fish Fry Season … the one time of the year you can actually gain weight by not eating meat.
My wife and I constantly comment on the amazing Fish Fries in the area: “How can something so tasty actually be considered a sacrifice?”
Where I’m from, this yearly fascination with Fish Fries is not really a thing. Most everyone in the Bible Belt is Baptist or non-denominational, so this tradition was rather foreign to me when I moved up here 10 years ago.
Even growing up in an Anglican church, my experience of Lent was going to church on Ash Wednesday and then finding something really simple to give up: like chocolate or coffee or trying to eat better. Sometimes I was able to do it, most of the time I wasn’t. But I didn’t really understand why we did it.
Our readings this evening make me think that, perhaps, I was going about it all wrong.
Tonight, I hope to strip away the blinders of an often misunderstood tradition and examine the heart of Pastor Elaine’s call to “self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.”

Lent is not about Fasting

If we were to ask ourselves, “what is Lent?” many of us would focus upon the fasting part: either giving up meat on Fridays, giving up sweets, eating healthier, or whatever you may come up with. It’s the most clearly visible - it has the most rules - and, frankly, gets the most press.
But, the season of Lent is not about fasting.
Popular Christian culture has a fairly low view of fasting. Yet, looking historically, fasting has never been an end unto itself, but rather a means to a completely different end.
Calvin says it like this:
Fasting is not approved by God, except for its end; it must be connected with something else, otherwise it is a vain thing.
John Calvin
The season of Lent is a period when we use the tool of fasting towards another goal: “self-examination and repentance.” Going back to Elaine’s encouragement there are four such tools: prayer, fasting, alms-giving; and reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

Focusing on just one

If we focus on just one of these, we miss the purpose of this season.
If we simply pray, we miss out on the help that fasting brings to our prayer, the joy of alms-giving, and the work of the Holy Spirit through the reading of the Scriptures.
If we only give alms (providing help to the needy), we do not engage with our loving Father in heaven, who wants to bring us into alignment with his will through prayer, fasting, and reading the Scriptures. We won’t find joy in giving without being directed and enabled by God.
If we only read the Scriptures, we miss out on the opportunity to commune with God in prayer, re-aligning our lives, in deed and action, to God’s purposes.
Finally, if we only fast, we suffer for no purpose. We cannot earn God’s favor. Donald S. Whitney calls this a “miserable, self-cent[e]red experience.”

All four are required

If our goal is to seek “self-examination and repentance,” all four tools (prayer, fasting, alms-giving, and reading of Scripture) must be involved.
In so doing:
We fast to prepare ourselves for prayer
We pray to submit ourselves to God’s will and to restore our relationship to Him
We read the Scriptures to discover God’s purposes and heart for humanity and His creation
We give alms as an expression of love to God, in the certain knowledge that we are being his hands and feet in a world that needs His love

Self-Examination and Repentance


As we engage with these four tools, we should find something remarkable happening.
Through fasting, we begin to remember that God alone is the source of all good things. “Give us this day our daily bread” takes on a whole new meaning when you are desperately wanting that very thing.
Through prayer, we humbly come to the almighty God, creator and provider of all good gifts, and see how inadequate we are to fulfill His will without His grace.
Through reading the Scriptures, we can re-enter into the story of Salvation. We see how God has carefully crafted history towards His ends, raising a people to be His representatives, who birthed the savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, to ultimately conquer sin and death, and bring forth a people equipped by the Holy Spirit (that’s us!) to face evil, destruction, and injustice head-on.
Through alms-giving, we realize our part in that great story, learning to see and participate tangibly in God’s redeeming work in the world.


And yet, as we look into the heart of God, we will no doubt sense the things in our own lives that fall short of God’s plans for us.
Most of the time we don’t ponder our own sin, either because it simply doesn’t come to mind or, more likely, because we don’t want to think about it.
For some, thinking about their sin is simply too painful, having come from shame-based cultures which said, “if you sin, then you must be less of a person” or “that God doesn’t love you any more if you sin.”
And yet, these are all lies of the Devil. God, through Christ, tells us something very different:
Sin is a misalignment between our wills and God’s will.
Before you think I am oversimplifying sin, let us see how insidious it actual is.
Charles Spurgeon said
Sin is a thief. It will rob your soul of its life. It will rob God of his glory.
Sin is a murderer. It stabbed our father Adam. It slew our purity.
Sin is a traitor. It rebels against the king of heaven and earth.
Charles Spurgeon
It is a barrier that seeks to separate a Holy God from humanity.
Sin enslaves us; it is a bondage from which we cannot escape on our own. We try to free ourselves and fail, try and fail, try and fail. This would repeat forever had it not been for God’s intervention.
And, yet, through Christ’s death and resurrection, sin has been defeated.
We have been adopted as sons and daughters ... into a new life. Through union with Christ, we have been given the means to face our sins and repent of them.
St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 15:56–57 (ESV)
The sting of death is sin .... But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
By belief in Christ and adoption through the Holy Spirit, we are guaranteed forgiveness of those sins. Not because we deserve it - only because of God’s love for us.
St. John writes in his Gospel:
John 3:16–17 ESV
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
To accept this gift we accept a new form of “enslavement.”
As Σπύρος Ζωδιάτης notes,
Our real freedom from sin and the bondage to sin is found in our enslavement, both body and soul, to Christ, the Lord of all.
Spiros Zodhiates (Σπύρος Ζωδιάτης)
The process of fasting, prayer, reading the Scriptures, and living out God’s will with things acts like giving alms is precisely how God addresses our enslavement to sin. By “enslaving” ourselves to Christ, we become free to live out God’s purpose in our lives.
If we desire to experience God’s love and follow in His will, we must be willing to suffer as Christ did, giving up all the desires of the flesh - this is how we “enslave” ourselves to Christ.

Am I doing it right?

And yet, you might ask, “how do I know if I’m doing it right?”

Fruits of fasting

Obviously, in our readings from Isaiah and Matthew, the people of God have forgotten this one simple principle:
Proper fasting results in our wills and actions being aligned with God’s will and actions.
There is a fruit, a result, that comes from fasting - and it is not simply that we are hungry.
In Isaiah, the people cry out:
Isaiah 58:3a (ESV)
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
God responds by rebuking the one who
Isaiah 58:5b-c (ESV)
... bow[s] down his head like a reed, and … spread[s] sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Israel may have fasted, they may have sought God’s intervention, yet they quarreled, served their own interests and oppressed their workers. Thus their bowing is like a willowy reed, blown aside easily by the wind. The sackcloth and ashes mean nothing when God’s love and will is so blatantly rejected.
God then tells them what the results of their fast should be:
Isaiah 58:6–7 ESV
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
John Chrysostom summarizes this beautifully:
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see a poor man, take pity on him.
If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.
Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.
Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?
John Chrysostom

False Rewards of Fasting

A little later in the same chapter as our Matthew reading, Jesus, likewise, warns us that fasting is not a reward in itself.
Matthew 6:16–21 ESV
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Fasting, by itself, gains you nothing in the eyes of God. Looking miserable and showing that you are fasting is of no consequence. It is only the good works that come from aligning oneself to God’s will that are considered “treasures stored in heaven.”


This is why fasting is simply a tool. It is a means to an end. And yet its effectiveness is also why the Church includes it in our Lenten meditations. As Andrew Murray noted,
Prayer is reaching out and after the unseen; fasting, letting go of all that is seen and temporal. Fasting helps express, deepens, confirms the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, even ourselves, to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.
Andrew Murray
Fasting, prayer, and contemplating the Scriptures all direct our attention toward God; toward His goodness and provision; toward seeking after His will and not our own.
Alms-giving, seeking to right injustices, facing our own sin and (with the help of the Spirit) rooting it out, giving food to the hungry, shelter to the poor, and clothing the naked: these are all the fruits of proper self-examination and repentance. These are the treasures we should “lay up in heaven.”
As we spend the next 40 days contemplating the suffering of our Savior, anticipating not only his death but His glorious resurrection, let us commit ourselves to a holy fast - not simply the denial of those things that distract us from God, but turning our minds and hearts to be fully enslaved to His will, seeking His mind in whatever circumstances face us.
I encourage you to consider a fast this season, and to place it in its proper perspective. Fasting is not the goal, it is simply a tool. Some of us (like myself) cannot commit to a complete fast, whether because of diabetes or some other health condition. Yet there are still things we can abstain from that will help focus our minds on our utter reliance on God.
Whatever you choose, make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons. If you fast, set aside that time for prayer or reading of the Scriptures. Focus your mind on God, His will, and His righteousness. Listen for how God is directing you to live out your Christian faith in real and tangible ways. When you discover sin in your life, set it before God to correct. If you have done some wrong, attempt to rectify it.
In doing so, you will experience the true purpose of the fast - realignment of your will to God’s will, seeking His Kingdom first, and finding joy in the midst of your circumstances.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, source of all wisdom and redeemer of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, we come to you, acknowledging that we have strayed away from your wisdom and truth, following our own paths rather than abiding by your will, pursuing the desires of our flesh and not the work of your Kingdom on earth; we humbly beseech you to hear the cry of our hearts as we yearn for knowledge of your love moving in and through us; guide us in this Lenten season to seek after you and to know you, to acknowledge our faults, to restore that which our sin has corrupted, and to show your justice and love to the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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