Ashes - Ash Wednesday 2023
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I’m Not Ready – 02.22.2023
[Psalm 51 - NLT]
I’ve been a full time Pastor for almost nine years. I say a lot of stuff that people doubt. Things that people struggle to believe. Like somewhere out there is a thing that we call God. God is real. Another one that people struggle to believe is that God cares about you and I. I say God is real. I say God loves you. I say a couple thousand years ago there was this guy named Jesus who hung on a cross and died, and then three days later he rose from the dead. And a lot of people struggle with those beliefs. But do you know what no one has ever disagreed with me about? The brokenness of the world. I have never had to convince someone that the world is broken. I have never had to convince someone of the existence of sin and evil. There are some people in my life who I love very much and I cannot seem to convince them that there is a God and that God is good – but if I talk about the darkness, no argument there. And how could they argue, right? We might disagree on if this thing is sinful or that position or whatever – but it takes exactly two seconds on the news to come to the conclusion that humanity really should not be left alone and unsupervised. Tonight is Ash Wednesday. This is the beginning of the season of Lent. Our job here tonight is to prepare our hearts for Easter. And so what we’re going to do is we’re going to read through Psalm 51 and talk about what it means to get ready for Jesus in our life.
It starts, [read v.1-5]. I recognize my rebellion, it haunts me day and night. Do you know where we get the Ashes for tonight? Tradition calls for us to burn the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, and I was curious so I did some research on burning the ashes – Do you know what I found? Do you know why we burn the palm branches from Palm Sunday to use for Ash Wednesday? You remember the story of Palm Sunday, right? Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, riding on the back of a simple donkey – but the people! The people are so excited about Jesus, they take their cloaks and spread them on the ground, and they wave palm branches cheering for Jesus, the Son of God, the glorious savior of us all. It’s a big deal, the palm branches. But five days later, the very same people who were cheering and waving palm branches for Jesus, those same people were part of the crowd calling for Jesus’ death. They turned on him, betrayed him. As soon as it was no longer “cool” to praise Jesus, they switched sides! Their praises were nothing but ash. When you take the symbol of their celebration and bring through the fire, there’s almost nothing left. A tiny pile of dust. Did you know that some people call Palm Sunday – Irony Sunday, because when you know the whole story, the cheers of Palm Sunday seem sort of hallow.
Verse 4, [read it]. Growing up, I always heard about how the ash as a symbol for our sins. How God refines us and burns away our sin, he destroys our sin and it becomes like ash. But this year my eyes were opened to a new level of symbolism. The ash doesn’t just represent our sins, the moments we do bad things – the ash represents us. Who we are, what we are. We are dust without God. God created us from dust, and without God that’s all we become. The palm branches represent our praises, turned to ash. Let me ask you something. Imagine you lived in Jerusalem during Jesus’ life. You live your whole life in the city, and one day you hear about this guy Jesus – he’s travelling the countryside healing people, and doing miracles, teaching people incredible things, and the stories you hear about what he’s been doing are just absolutely incredible – some people are even calling him the Son of God. And he’s coming to Jerusalem! And then one day he’s here! Jesus, the actual Son of God, is riding on a donkey, just a couple feet from you – it’s like a parade when he enters the city, people everywhere cheering. And you’re so excited – you’re cheering and waving your arms, got your palm branch as a souvenir. Now, here’s the real question – Do you think, if everyone around you was against Jesus, do you think you would have joined in the cry – crucify him! Do you think you would have yelled out against Jesus, just a few days after you were cheering for him? Of course not, right? We’re Christians – we love Jesus! We’re good people, who sometimes make mistakes – right? We’re like that guy, you know…. Um, what was the name of the disciple that didn’t abandon Jesus? Wait…
This is really hard for me to explain, but the more I have learned in the last few years about how incredible and divine and perfect and glorious God is, the more I have realized how not like that I am. I used to think that I was a good person who sometimes made mistakes – and that’s why I needed forgiveness, for my slip-ups, for my little not-really-a-big-deal “sins” if you really want to use the dramatic word. We don’t really like to talk about “sin” - it’s such a strong word. I used to think of God as like the ultimate self-help guide. He was here to help me be better than the already awesome person that I already am. But the longer I have looked at the face of God, and prayed and grown closer to God – the more I realized how attached I am to the darkness. And then I have these moments of clarity – when I’m being really honest with myself and I look in the mirror of my soul, into the deepest, darkest corners I hope nobody else finds out about – and I realize I probably would have abandoned Jesus that night too. On my best day, I am nothing more than ash. On my best day, I am in the crowd betraying Jesus – fighting against him. My heart rebels against God’s law, my mind rejects his authority – I want to be in control. I don’t want to let God tell me what to do. I’m not ready to give my life to God, and maybe a part of me doesn’t want to be ready. V.5 says, [read it]. From the very beginning I have been trying to earn my way into heaven, I have been trying to climb the ladder, and prove to God that I deserve his love. And every single time I fail, I fall short. I’m like Peter who says with his lips, “I’ll never deny you”, and then he denies Jesus like two seconds later, over and over.”
Now, I want to be clear about something – I don’t really like talking like that. Talking about how broken we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” is not really my style of teaching. I’d much rather focus on the happy part of the story. But see, we can’t really appreciate and understand the good news of what is coming, the good news of Easter, the gift of grace until we realize our starting point. God is not a self-help book. God is our glorious savior. You’re not almost perfect, and God pushes you over the edge. We don’t start as good people who sometimes make mistakes. We start as dust. We start from a position of running away from God. Our hearts are living in rebellion against God, we want to be in control, we are sinners, and God will be proved right in what he says against us. But then we get to the good news in verse 7. [read v.7-14]. The more garbage we have in our lives, the more beautiful those words are. If you basically think you’re perfect already, with just a few minor tweaks – then these verses don’t even make sense. You constantly wonder – what’s the big deal with religion? But if you have seen the real brokenness of this world – the depths of human depravity and…evil that you can find in our world. If you start from a place of dust and ash, a place of rebellion in your heart against God – a place in the crowd calling against Jesus. These words are the greatest thing you’ve ever heard. Verse 8 again [read it].
Verse 16 continues, [read 16-19]. Sacrifice at this time was their version of doing good deeds, it was their version of going to church and volunteering and giving money to the poor or whatever. And God says, I don’t want it. I don’t care about that. Don’t just go through the motions – I don’t want your good deeds or your church attendance or your little giving something up – I don’t want all of that, God says, what I want is you. All of who you are. That’s why we do good deeds and go to church and give things up for lent – not to make ourselves better, but to get ready for God. Verse 17 tells us, the sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. I don’t mind getting up here and pointing out the raw truth of the fact that we are not as good as we think we are. I don’t mind saying that we are all rebellious sinners with broken hearts. I don’t mind saying that because we worship a God who specializes in broken hearts. That’s exactly the type of person that God wants! God desires broken hearts. I don’t mind pointing out the horrible truth that we are all just dust and ash, because we worship a God who breathes life into dust and creates new life. It says, “you will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” So we come to God, not as good people hoping to be better – but as broken and repentant people, desperately seeking salvation from a perfect God.
We are nothing but dust and ashes, but God breathes life into dust and ashes. We are broken people with rebellious hearts, but God specializes in broken hearts. I’m not ready for God – but God gets us ready, God prepares us for what’s coming. Do you see how much we need God? It’s like a match made in heaven – literally. So as we begin this season of Lent, preparing ourselves for what God is about to do, I’ll leave you with this – don’t use God as a self-help book to become a better person. Instead, take some time this Lent - prepare your heart. Get ready for God. Whatever that means for you, whatever it takes in your life to make space and time and room for God in your life. Come to God just as you are – nothing more than dust and ash, and let God breathe new life and hope into our broken hearts. Amen