2017) Ash Wednesday in July (part one of two)

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From my Ash Wednesday sermon, March 6, 2019:

     A family was planning to go to the lake on Sunday for a picnic and to go swimming.  The father said, “We will get up early and leave first thing in the morning.”  His little girl replied, “But Daddy, I know you don’t ever go to church, but the rest of us always go to church first on Sunday, before we do anything else.”  To this the father replied gently, “Yes, I know Sweetie, but we can worship God at the beach, just as well as we can at church.”  The little girl thought about that for a moment, and then said, “Maybe so, Daddy, but we probably won’t, will we?”

     You are probably familiar with that father’s type of spirituality.  It might even be part of your own.  Many people will say, “I don’t go to church very much or pray or read the Bible, but I feel the presence of God when I am out in nature– in my garden, or on a walk in the woods, or looking at the Grand Canyon.”  They will tell you that is how they connect with God.  And to a certain point, I would agree– one can feel the presence of God when experiencing the wonders of creation.  I have felt it myself, many times.  The Bible itself expresses this type of spirituality in Psalm 19 which says: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

     But faith has to be more than ‘feeling’ the presence of God, and you won’t learn everything you need to know about God by simply enjoying nature.  Cancer is a part of nature, and if you get it and ask, “Why me God, and what now?” you won’t find much help or hope in the great outdoors.  The message out there from nature is everything dies, the universe itself will one day run out of energy and grow cold and dark, and then it will be “Lights out, good-bye everybody,’ and that’s it.  God offers so much more, of course, but the whole story is not revealed in nature.  Only a part of it can be seen there.  God has given us this wonderful world and, He has given us his Word to tell us the rest of the story, and we need both.

     Along these same lines are the fishermen who say cheerfully, “I would rather be in my boat, thinking about God, than in church, thinking about fishing.”  But when I hear that, I am reminded of the little girl in the story and wonder, ‘Is that really how it works for them, out there, on the boat, thinking about God all the while?’  Perhaps for some, sometimes.  But even then, just thinking your own thoughts about God all day, doesn’t tell you much about who God is, what He has to tell you, and what will happen when your fishing days are done.  Our own thoughts, if that is all we have to go on, will often lead us down all sorts of wrong paths.

     And yes, I have heard the old saying, “Just sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.”  But when the fiery evangelist Billy Sunday first said that, he certainly did not mean, ‘Therefore don’t go to church, it doesn’t do you any good anyway.’  What he meant was, go to church, but don’t just sit there.  Rather, pay attention, and take very seriously what goes on there.  That is what he meant.

     One of the messages of Ash Wednesday is to ‘take very seriously’ what goes on here.  Listen to God’s Word, take this time to worship and thank the God who has given you your life, and remember that your life, so easily taken for granted, will one day end.   And then what?  Then, says Genesis 3:19, it is “to the dust you shall return.”  And on Ash Wednesday you not only hear that message, you get it smeared onto your face.  Those ashes, now on your forehead, illustrate the future condition us all.  (Job 30:19b says, “…I am reduced to dust and ashes.”)  This is a message worth taking to heart and remembering.  Psalm 39:4 says, “Lord, show me my life’s end, and the number of my days, so that I may realize how quickly my life will pass.”  Ash Wednesday brings that reminder.

   Actually, a walk in the woods or thoughts in your fishing boat will also tell you that much about life and the world.  The dead fish washed up on the shore, or the decaying animal carcass along the walking path, also tell you of life’s end and how all things return to the dust.  But what you won’t learn out there is what Jesus says to you (John 11:25), “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live.”  That message you will get nowhere else, and that Word and promise of Jesus Christ is the only key to any lasting hope in this otherwise hopeless world.

     “Believe in me,” says Jesus, and then “even though you will die, yet, you will live again.”  Believing, trusting, having faith—that is what the Bible is always talking about as the key to life now, and, life forever.  Those words appear in the Bible in almost a thousand verses, and so we need to ask, “How does that work?”  What does it mean to believe, and have that kind of saving faith, and how can I get it?

     The tenth chapter of the book of Romans deals with this question.  Verse nine is one of those ‘Gospel in a nutshell’ verses that says simply, “If you declare with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  There you have it—believe it and say it, and you will be saved.  Verse 13 goes on to say, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and then Paul goes on to ask what I just asked: “But how does that work?”

     So in the next verse Paul begins by asking another question: “How can they call on the one they have not believed in, and how can they believe in one of whom they have not heard?”  Then he acknowledges in verse 16 that not everyone believes.  And then in the very next verse, verse 17, he gives the answer: “Faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ.”  Faith comes by hearing.  That is how it works.  (continued…)