Ash Wednesday anyone?

Today brings us Ash Wednesday — which is 40 days prior to Easter (not counting Sundays). It’s generally simply a Roman Catholic observance, and few other groups treat it as a holy day. I wonder how many RCC adherents understand what they are doing on such “holy days” and if they realize such behaviors create no saving merit before God. The Bible clearly points explains salvation comes to men by grace alone through faith alone — not by works, lest any should boast (see Eph. 2:8-9).

While I do NOT advocate any outward observance of Ash Wednesday, I do wonder what there is to learn from the day.

First some further explanation…. On Ash Wednesday, many folks go to a special service and receive the mark of the cross on their forehead, made with ashes. The ashes come from the burning of the Palm Sunday palms leaves. The mark is left there for the day.

Why do this? Most simply say “it’s the beginning of Lent” — the 40 days before Easter. Others know that (since the middle ages) the service and the ashes are about confession and repentance for sins. Typically, penitential psalms are read (ie, Psalm 51), and individuals are called to fast during the day, as they confess their sins before God.

Why use ashes? In the Bible, when one was truly repentant before God, they would dress in sackcloth and toss ashes on their head as symbols of spiritual sorrow, grief and repentance — ever since Job repented “in dust and ashes” (42:6), and as described in the preaching of Jesus (Matt. 11:21). Usually, such Scriptures are cited as the ashes are applied: “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” So ashes should remind men of their mortality (you are going to die), and the consequences of their sin.

What might we learn here?

First, know that these Ash Wednesday rituals are NOT prescribed for us in the Bible, and were not practiced in the early church. They are (by and large) the rituals of religious folk, who are trying to earn their way to heaven. Like most rituals, they can (and have) become traditions without much inward meaning, and usually just fuel superstition (the use of “special ashes”). I recommend you steer clear of such things! [If you see someone with ashes on their head, I hope you engage them in conversation, and discuss their understanding of what they’re doing and why!].

Yet… while we should avoid the ritual, we ought to ponder the original purposes behind it. God’s Word does command us to repent and take account of the wages of sin (death). Kingdom entrance as well as Christian living depends on your turning from sin (repentance), to the Savior, in faith. True Christians do their repenting daily: Take up your cross and follow Christ! (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23). We should “face our mortality” every day the Lord gives us life and breath (cf: Lam. 3).

I would see some spiritual profit in our finding occasions for extended introspection, confession and contrition. Perhaps we could (and should?) do some of this as Good Friday and Easter approach…

pdb

Thoughts on Death

05_23_12---Graveyard_webThe recent deaths of American celebrities (Farrah Fawcett‎, Michael Jackson, and even TV pitch-man, Billy Mays) have brought many to think (albeit briefly) about death. Oh, that the Lord would awaken many dying souls to their condition, and then graciously bring them to life by the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Some the best words from Charles H. Spurgeon (the “Prince of preachers” from a past century), come from his sermons on death, heaven and hell. On September 26, 1886 he preached from JOB 30:23, “For I know that you will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all living.”

Below are some excerpts for your consideration — the final two will be especially precious words to Christians….

Should it not be the business of this life to prepare for the next life, and, in that respect, to prepare to die? But how can a man be prepared for that which he never thinks of? Do you mean to take a leap in the dark? If so, you are in an unhappy condition, and I beseech you as you love your own soul to escape from such peril by the help of God’s Holy Spirit.

Oh! you that are youngest, you that are fullest of health and strength, I lovingly invite you not to put away this subject from you. Remember, the youngest may be taken away. …. Let others know that they are not too strong to die. The stoutest trees of the forest are often the first to fall beneath the destroyer’s axe.

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Cast your eye over every land, glance from the pole to the equator, and along to the other pole, and see if this be not the universal law, that man must be dissolved in death. “It is appointed unto men once to die.” … Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, must be the last word for us among the sons of men.

That poet was half inspired who said, “All men count all men mortal but themselves.” Is it not so with us? We do not really expect to die. We reckon that we shall live a very considerable time yet. Even those who are very aged still think that as a few others have lived to an extreme old age, so may they.

Those who die daily will die easily. Those who make themselves familiar with the tomb will find it transfigured into a bed: the charnel will become a couch. The man who rejoices in the covenant of grace is cheered by the fact that even death itself is comprehended among the things which belong to the believer. I would to God we had learned this lesson. We should not then put death aside amongst the umber, nor set it upon the shelf among the things which we never intend to use. Let us live as dying men among dying men, and then we shall truly live. This will not make us unhappy; for surely no heir of heaven will fret because he is not doomed to live here for ever. It were a sad sentence if we were bound over to dwell in this poor world for ever…. Who desires to go up and down among the sons of men for twice a thousand years? … To grow ripe and to be carried home like shocks of corn in their season, is not this a fit and fair thing? To labor through a blessed day, and then at nightfall to go home and to receive the wages of grace — is there anything dark and dismal about that? God forgive you that you ever thought so! If you are the Lord’s own child, I invite you to look this home-going in the face until you change your thought and see no more in it of gloom and dread, but a very heaven of hope and glory.

We are immortal till our work is done. Be ye therefore quiet in the day of evil; rest you peaceful in the day of destruction: all things are ordered by wisdom and precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. No forces in the world are outside of his control. God suffers no foes to trespass on the domain of Providence. All things are ordained of God, and specially are our deaths under the peculiar oversight of our exalted Lord and Savior. He liveth and was dead, and beareth the keys of death at his girdle. He himself shall guide us through death’s iron gate. Surely what the Lord wills and what he himself works cannot be otherwise than acceptable to his chosen! Let us rejoice that in life and death we are in the Lord’s hands.

Amen!
pdb

A call to die…

bonhoefferOn April 9, 1945, sixty-four years ago today, a German Christian, pastor and author named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging by the Nazis. He took a stand against the evil in his land in those days, and it cost him his life.

Bonhoffer is perhaps best known for his book THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP (which is still widely read today). There he teaches us about the dangers of “cheap grace” and the true cost of being a follower of Jesus. Here is an excerpt…

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death — we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time — death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.
(The Cost of Discipleship, p. 99)

May we, too, count the cost, and follow Christ.
pdb

Dust to Dust to Glory


Do you remember the Sago, West Virginia Mining disaster in January, that cost 12 men their lives? It was an especially awful event because of the false report of survivors, followed some hours later by the harsh reality of all but one lost.

It is now being reported that one of the miners who perished, Jackie Weaver, had an interesting practice each day he entered the mine — including that day he did not walk out. Mr Weaver would write a simple two word sentence in the coal dust each and every day….

Why in the coal dust? Well, it certainly was the commodity at hand at a coal mine. But perhaps the fact that dust is so fleeting and temporal, was part of his message — a message to himself and to others. Perhaps it was a message to put this very hard work into perspective, or perhaps it was a reminder of the temporal nature of human life.

He would do it every day we’re told. Repetition for emphasis? Repetition as a personal re-affirmation of his own beliefs? Repetition because others had yet to get his message? Probably all these reasons I suspect.

When I first read about Mr Weaver’s two word daily scribbling in the dust, my eyes welled up with emotion. As a pastor/theologian I saw the connection to one of the great and indisputable truths of the Bible: ashes to ashes, dust to dust — human beings’ bodies do not last forever, but die and decay.

Mr Weaver died that early January day after he wrote these two words one last time: Jesus saves.

If today was your final day (it could be, you know), what are you believing?

That event took 12 men back “to dust” — and at least one, I believe, to glory.

Pastor David