Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dirty Foreheads and Clean Hearts

Today in a Catholic world it is Ash Wednesday.  Before we begin, let us begin with just what Ash Wednesday even means.
"We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast." -- Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020)
That is what Ash Wednesday is supposed to mean.  What it means today is for Catholics to dutifully go to church and get some ashes then give up something for Lent.  There is usually nothing about repentance.  I am not picking on Catholics today, but using Ash Wednesday as one of a plethora of dead rituals that many Christians follow thinking that we somehow pleases God by doing them. 
So Samuel said: "Has the LORD [as great] delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, [And] to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion [is as] the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness [is as] iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from [being] king."  1 Samuel 15:22-23 NKJV
The point is that our traditions are meaningless without the heart to give them substance.  Many of those same Catholics walking around with ashes on their heads today are ones that go to church a couple of times a year, believe in many superstitions, care about their Zodiac sign, believe in gay marriage, support the pro-choice position, fornicate with regularity and feel there is nothing wrong with it, and never put any kind of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord ans Savior.  In other words, their souls are just as dead as the ashes smeared on their foreheads.  The ashes are supposed to be a sign of repentance, not just some empty symbol a priest rubs on their foreheads.  If there is no repentance, there is no point to the ashes.  If there is no change of heart, then why wear a symbol that your heart is somehow changed.  God is not impressed with the ashes on your forehead, but the condition of your heart. 

The same point can be made for the rest of us who are not Catholic.  Many go to church weak after weak but God holds little to no authority over their lives.  God is not impressed with church attendance, but about what you do with what you learn in church.  Many others call themselves Christians yet go to church twice a year (Christmas and Easter) and for the rest of the time they live just like everyone else.  God cares about obedience and having a true faith in Jesus Christ, not that you show up to church twice a year.  There are Christian who take a moment to say grace before they eat, but even that for many has become a vain tradition.  When was the last time everyone really quieted their hearts and felt true gratitude for the provision they were about to enjoy?  Usually, we barely shut our mouths long enough for someone to utter a quick blessing (after getting done with the "not-me's").  Saying grace for many has become just a vain tradition.  If what we claim to do for God is just something we "feel" we should do with no real meaning, then there is no point to doing it at all.  God is not looking for empty obedience to habits we follow like little thoughtless robots, but true obedience that springs from the heart.  Anything else is fake and we are only deceiving ourselves. 

Ash Wednesday is also the first day of Lent.  This is the time where Catholics in particular refrain from eating meat on Fridays and give something up.  It is supposed to commemorate Jesus's forty days and nights of fasting in the desert.  As for eating meat, fish apparently does not count as meat and I even knew someone who did not count chicken as meat.  I am not sure what the roasted muscle tissue of fish is, though that is generally what meat is.  As for chicken, I do not even know what the argument could be.  Does anyone, though, even take the time to consider why they do not eat terrestrial meat on Fridays during Lent or is it just something they obey like little robots because it is just what at some point in their lives they were told to do.  If there is no meaning, then there is no point.  Furthermore, if you are going to grumble about it then do not bother doing it.  If it is something you are truly doing for the Lord, then you should rejoice in it.  As for the idea of giving something up for Lent, it is great to abstain from something, but again does anyone really get the point?   It is supposed to be about real sacrifice, not about slight inconvenience.  I mean Jesus went forty days and forty nights in the desert without food or water.  Many Catholics go forty days and nights without chocolate.  Some of the real pious ones even give up Facebook.  I know that for many even giving up those things represent some bit of hardship, but how many actually reflect on the meaning of what they are doing.  I wonder how many reflect on our Lord's time in the desert during the forty days of Lent.  To be honest, why not give up something sinful and not just for forty days but for life?  There is no one with no sin in their lives, why not find one you are struggling with and give it up.  After forty days you will realize that you survived that long without whatever sin it was you were caught up in and will have a much better time of letting it go for good.  Just the act of giving up something you like for a short period of time really has no meaning in and of itself, it is the heart behind what you do that matters.

The same applies to other Christians as well.  There is such an emphasis these days on abundance, prosperity, blessings, riches, and honor and very little emphasis on sacrifice (unless it is a means to prosperity).  Jesus and the epistles all talk of personal sacrifice for the kingdom of God with the faith that we will be rewarded for that sacrifice in the kingdom to come.  It is not about how rich we can get (Jesus even tells us not to hoard earthly treasures), but how much we can give of what God has provided to us.  We make true the prophesy of raising up preachers for ourselves who will tickle our ears and that we would forsake sound doctrine.  We want to hold onto our sins, so we raise up extreme grace preachers who teach us to not to be concerned for our sins at all and even go so far as to imply that even talking about sin is itself a sin.  We want to be right and powerful and so we raise up teachers telling us that Jesus will give us the desires of our flesh.  They forget that the promises of God to give someone the desires of their heart applies to someone who has denied himself, taken up his cross, and is now following after Jesus.  Any time we do sacrifice, we wear that sacrifice on our sleeves hoping for the world's rewards for our "holiness."  A Christian should live sacrificially and what we sacrifice is our fleshly desires and our earthly treasures for the kingdom of God.  Our sacrifice is also done in secret because we do not do it for the world's rewards but for the eternal rewards in the kingdom to come.  Whatever we do must never be for show, but for God.  God is not looking for how impressive we can be to others, but, once again, our hearts. 

The point I am making is that we need to be genuine.  Do not represent yourself as a Christian (or Catholic for that matter) if you do not hold the core beliefs of that faith.  You can not just call yourself a Catholic if you make up your own moral standards and you can not call yourself a Christian if Jesus is not Lord of your life.  I suppose you can, but God does not care whether or not you call yourself a Christian, but whether or no you have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of your life.  Do not put ashes on your forehead if it is just an empty ritual.  God does not care if you soil your forehead, but He does care about a cleansed mind and a pure heart.  Do not put on a sign of repentance if your heart is as black as the mark on your head because you are only deceiving yourself.  If you celebrate Lent, then make it meaningful.  Give up what you give up and be quiet about it.  I do recommend giving up something sinful and not just for forty days but for good.  Most importantly, and this is especially for the Catholics, please understand that you are not saved by a mark on your forehead, not eating meat on Fridays during Lent, or even giving up some sin in your life for Lent.  You are saved by grace alone by putting your faith in Jesus alone as Lord and Savior of your life.  Your sins are blacker to God than the blackest of ashes, but the blood of Jesus can and will cleanse those sins should you only put your trust in Him alone as Lord and Savior.  It is not about any ritual you perform or work you do but about the work already done by Jesus Christ on the cross.  As you count down the forty days until we commemorate that sacrifice and subsequent resurrection, meditate on that.  He did the work for you on the cross for your salvation and He will do the work in you for your sanctification. 
Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies--I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting.
Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing [them].
When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.
Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. " Isaiah 1:13-18 NKJV

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