In a popular sense, how do people often think of Lent? And by popular sense, I mean those who probably haven’t actually taken part it in it. But nonetheless, Lent is seen as…
“Forty days to feel guilty” (Bishop John Guernsey)
But what if we saw Lent as surest, most well-worn path to lasting joy in Christ and steadfast praise to God? That’s what Psalm 103 places before us this Ash Wednesday.
In this Psalm of David, he speaks to himself about the Lord’s benefits. The Psalms often remind us that must preach the faith to ourselves. The psalm begins and ends the same way: “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” And then it gets specific. He forgives. He heals. He saves. He crowns. He satisfies. As Dave Breisch pointed out at Midday Prayer last week, these are all in the present tense. He continues to do these things for all who trust in him.
Psalm 103 illumines the difference between preaching the Gospel to ourselves and “meditation” in the popular sense. We are not to empty our mind, but to fill it. And we are not, as Tim Keller puts it, to just listen to our soul. Rather, we are to speak to our soul: This is true – receive it, believe it, count as your own. Live in accord with it. If we want to hear bad advice, we listen to our soul. If we want to hear good news, we have it from God and can speak it to ourselves.
Rock Bottom Reality
The rock bottom reality proclaimed in this Psalm is the forgiveness and mercy of God, and with it, our need of such.
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy also toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he set our sins from us.” (vs. 10-12)
Now, the pre-cursor to the kind of Christian joy we’re talking about is acknowledging is our need to receive that forgiveness and mercy. Here’s where Lent speaks into our cultural moment: we are, in so many different ways, being told that we need no such thing. Indeed, that is evil to suggest so. We are fine as we are, grace is all about unconditional acceptance of the person as-is, and to say anything to the contrary is deemed, by some, hate speech.
The worst effect of such thought is that it cuts sinners off from the lovingkindness of God. “As a father pities his own children, so is the Lord merciful to those who fear him. For he knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.”
But like a surgeon’s scalpel, Lent lays bare our need. It seeks to open us to the mercy of God that we might be healed. Here, in this service, in this time, this joyful season, we can say, “I am not okay, I am in need. I repent. I turn from my sin and turn to Christ. Take me home.”
This Psalm tells us that God, as our Father, sees us the depths our need and yet has love for us higher than the heavens. We are sinful, but God is able cast away our sin to immeasurable distances: as far as east is from the west. Begrudgingly and enviously, I have to point that Henry Patrick Reardon insightfully states the obvious here: the immense spatial descriptions of God’s love here in this Psalm (vs. 11-12) form and take concrete shape in the Cross of our Lord: “The four dimensions of the Cross, its length and breadth, its height and depth, are the dimensions of God’s mercy.” (Christ in the Psalms, pg. 204)
Concerning Ash Wednesday (2019 BCP)
I just want to end by reading to us the description of Ash Wednesday from the Book of Common Prayer:
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent: a time of penitence, fasting, and prayer, in preparation for the great feast of the resurrection.
The season of Lent began in the early days of the Church as a time of preparation for those seeking to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The forty days refer to our Lord’s time of fasting in the wilderness; and since Sundays are never fast days, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten Fast.
Throughout the Old Testament, ashes are used as a sign of sorrow and repentance, and Christians have traditionally used ashes to indicate sorrow for our own sin, and as a reminder that the wages of sin is death (ROMANS 6:23). Like Adam and Eve, we have disobeyed and rebelled against God, and are under the same judgment, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (GENESIS 3:19).
But as we are marked with ashes in the same manner that we were signed with the Cross in Baptism, we are also reminded of the life we share in Jesus Christ, the second Adam (ROMANS 5:17, 6:4). It is in this sure hope that we begin the journey of these forty days, that by hearing and answering our Savior’s call to repent, we may enter fully into the joyful celebration of his resurrection.
Brothers and sisters, may Lent be a joy for you. Amen.