We look at Jesus and ask, “Can I sit at your right or left hand in the Kingdom?”
A meme was going around this week having a little fun at the weird juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. It was a red and pink Valentine’s Day card covered in pretty hearts that said, “We are going to die.” Yes, we are. That’s what Ash Wednesday is all about, to remind us of our own mortality, our own fallen and broken nature, that we are going to die someday and we cannot truly live without the salvation of a righteous relationship with Christ Jesus. Ash Wednesday is not something we Church of Christers typically observe. But this year we began the traditional season of Lent with more than 900 of our brothers and sisters from our three partner churches, by hosting the 4Midland Ash Wednesday service at GCR.
And it was glorious.
We combined the worship teams and choirs from all four churches and sang nearly a dozen songs together. We confessed our sins and listened to our Lord’s words of forgiveness and assurance. We prayed. We sat in silence. And then we sang some more. Pastors and shepherds from all four churches applied ashes from ten stations down front. And I think we sang the whole time.
It was glorious.
We Baptists and CofCers have very little experience with Ash Wednesday–we’re still mostly just sticking our toes in the water at this point and feeling this thing out. Darin Wood opened the evening by holding up the order of service and announcing to the Baptists in the room, “This is a liturgy.” Even the Methodists and Presbyterians seemed a little uneasy receiving ashes in a CofC worship center with no stained glass or kneeling benches. Thank goodness for Steve Brooks who provided the ashes for our service–I wouldn’t even know where to begin! But there was love. So much love. The unity and love was thick in there last night. The smiles and the warmth. The hugs and hospitality. It was evident on every face and felt in every interaction. There was a sweet spirit in the room before, during, and after the event.
I was honored to share the ash-imposing duties (ash imposer? ash applier? there’s got to be a better term for that, but if Steve Schorr doesn’t even know what to call it, maybe there’s not) with our GCR Youth Minister J.E. Bundy and our Children’s Minister Kristin Rampton. However, I realized about four minutes into the ashes part that I was standing too close to Kristin. One of the great joys of applying ashes–there are many!–is in the interactions I have with little kids. Last night I would notice small children in the line, our GCR children, and smile at the thought of blessing them with the ashes and the words of Scripture. But they were all going to Kristin!
I am thankful for Deeann Camp who came down the aisle to me with their two-week-old daughter Clara. Two-weeks-old! It was her first time in church since having the baby, the first time the baby had been to church, the first time I had seen her. How humbling it is, how provocative and eye-opening, to apply a tiny little cross to that itty-bitty brand-new forehead and look that infant baby in the eyes and tell her that someday she will return to the dust from which she is made. I’m guessing that was a powerful moment for Deeann. I hope it was. It was for me.
Methodist ashes, a Baptist-style choir, Church of Christ songs, and Presbyterian prayers.
And it was glorious.
I am so grateful to God to be at a church that sees all Christians as God’s children and our brothers and sisters in Christ and is actively breaking down the walls between denominations. I am so thankful to be the preacher at a church like this. I am grateful to the Lord for the wonderful team of ministers and elders at GCR who believe so much in the Gospel work of unity and labor so hard to pull it off. I am thankful for my friendships with Steve Schorr, Darin Wood, and Steve Brooks. I am thankful for the vision we share of a more united Body of Christ. We took this picture just to prove that not every single time we get together is for cheeseburgers.
God bless our four churches during this important season of Lent. God bless our brothers and sisters in Christ at First Methodist, First Baptist, and First Presbyterian. And may our worship and service partnership together be an undeniable witness to the power of Christ’s love to tear down every barrier between us and God and between us and one another.
We are hosting the 4Midland Ash Wednesday service at GCR tonight. At 6;30 this evening, nearly a thousand Christians from First Baptist, First Methodist, First Presbyterian, and GCR CofC will come together in our newly remodeled worship center to begin the ancient Christian practice of Lent. Ash Wednesday is a bit out of our comfort zone for Church of Christers, but we’ve asked our congregation for more than two years now to participate in this solemn worship assembly with other Christians and just see what God will do.
This is how we live the great Story. This is how Christians, for centuries, have always prepared for Holy Week and Easter, for the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. This 40-day period of prayer and fasting moves our bodies and our hearts into closer communion with Christ and with one another. And it begins with Ash Wednesday.
The ashes placed on our foreheads remind us that we are human and broken, that we are going to die, and we need Jesus to live. That’s why, when they are applying the ashes, pastors will sometimes say, “From dust you were created and to dust you shall return.” Imposed on us in the form of a cross, the ashes also remind us of our sin, our need for redemption, and the truth of forgiveness and restoration in Christ. That’s why pastors will sometimes say, “Repent and believe the Good News!”
We cannot appreciate God’s infinite mercy if we do not realize we need mercy. We cannot understand salvation apart from a recognition of our need to be saved. If our sin is not removed from us, we are forever separated from God. Ashes remind us of this need.
Wearing ashes on our foreheads also acknowledges the sacrifice of Christ Jesus, who substituted his own death for the “burnt offerings” made by the priests to atone for the sins of God’s people.
Four different churches representing four different denominations coming together to participate in these ancient Christians practices is also a powerful witness to our community. We demonstrate the truth that Jesus died on the cross and was raised to eternal life in order to tear down all the barriers between us and God and between us and one another. When we come together in each other’s buildings, when we combine our worship teams and choirs, when we join hands in prayer and recite the ancient creeds, we are declaring that we belong to a Kingdom that is eternally bigger than our churches and that our King really is the Prince of Peace.
If you’re in the Midland area, I invite you to join us at GCR Church tonight at 6:30. If you’re not in West Texas, I urge you to find an Ash Wednesday service somewhere to attend this afternoon or this evening. Give yourself to it. Immerse yourself in the songs and prayers. Participate in the confession and repentance. Soak into your soul the blessed words of assurance. Allow a minister to look you in the eyes while applying a cross made of ashes to your forehead. Let him or her intercede for the Lord on your behalf. Hear the words, “From dust you were created and to dust you shall return.” Hear the words, “Repent and believe the Good News!” Let those words change you. Let the worship move you closer to the Lord. Give the whole thing to God and just see what he might do.
The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you!”
And the apostles answered, “Master, would it not be better to just run an ad in the Jerusalem Journal?”
Philip, too, replied, “Lord, a mass mailout with eye-catching color and graphics would better reach our target audience at a much lower cost.”
The one called Judas insisted, “Why go door-to-door when we can reach the whole world? Let us create an interactive website with videos and free downloads of music and sermons. With the right content and images, we shall convert all the earth!”
Hearing this, Simon Peter asked, “Why not just force everyone into the Kingdom of God? I have a sword. James and John are prepared to call fire down from heaven. We’ll annihilate and incinerate all who refuse to conform to the ways of the Son of Man.”
“Truly, truly,” Matthew said, “I have much influence with the Roman authorities. Let us lobby and petition the government. Let us demand new laws and fight to change existing ones. Let us debate and protest and threaten boycotts so that all the nation will obey the Lord.”
“Oi, vey,” Jesus said. And he withdrew to a mountain by himself to pray.
For too long, too many Christian churches and whole Christian movements and denominations–Christians like us–have framed the existence and purpose of the Church with being in a fight. That’s our dominant metaphor: we’re in a culture war. We’re always fighting something or fighting against someone or a group of someones. We’re always being attacked, we’re always under siege, always in danger of losing something or having something taken away. It’s been our running theme. We’ve got to fight. We’ve got to fight. If we don’t fight, who will?
Our Lord Jesus looked Pilate right in the eye and said, “My Kingdom is not of this world; if it were, my servants would fight.”
What if we finally gave up that whole idea? What if we laid down our defense mechanisms? What if we framed our relationship to the world and to our neighbors and to our enemies in ways that lined up better with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ? What if we laid down our power and our rights and our weapons so we could love others, even if it costs us? Especially if it costs us!
What if we really believed that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness? I know, laying down our weapons and rights in order to love sounds like a recipe for making the Church weak. But, in fact, Nothing. Could. Make. Us. Stronger.
If we just had a little faith. Just a tiny amount.
The situation is that our lives and this country and the whole world is even more troubled than anybody thought. And the people around us know right now, more than they’ve ever realized in your lifetime, that the answers cannot be found in government or science or technology. The answers will never be found in politics or parties or protests or platforms. It won’t work. It’s never worked! They’re looking for the way, the truth, and the life right now more than they ever have. And you’ve got it all in Jesus Christ!
Why would we offer anything other than that?
Just an idea.
When Boaz starts taking an interest in Ruth, the meddling mother-in-law hatches a brilliant plan. She recognizes the reality of their conditions and she moves to seize the opportunity in front of them. Naomi instructs her widowed daughter-in-law to “wash and perfume yourself, and put on your simla” (Ruth 3:3). My NIV translates the Hebrew word simla as “…put on your best clothes.” But the word simla just means a regular robe. Your normal everyday clothes. Simla is just a generic robe by both men and women. It’s not a special dress. It’s not a special anything. And that’s the point.
Remember, Ruth is a recent widow. Her husband died like four or five months ago. And Ruth has probably been wearing special grieving clothes. She’d been wearing something that designated her as a grieving widow and Naomi’s telling her to change into an outfit that would send a different message.
The exact same wording is used in 2 Samuel 12 when David is grieving over the illness of his newborn son. For seven days, David was in a state of mourning, fasting, and praying for his son. When the child died, the Bible says David got up, washed, put on his lotions, and his simla, his normal everyday attire (2 Samuel 12:20). He’s signaling that his grieving is over now. I’m back to business.
That’s what Ruth is doing here. She’s changing into another set of clothes that say she’s available for marriage. She’s not grieving anymore. She’s not focusing on what she’s lost. She’s moving forward. She’s prepared and ready to seize the opportunity in front of her.
As children of God and followers of Jesus, we need to put on the right clothes that signal to the whole world that we are ready and prepared to seize the opportunities around us.
“As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” ~Colossians 3:12-14
The people around you are seeking what’s really important. They’re searching for something trustworthy and true. The people you’re running into every day are disappointed, disillusioned, and divided. But they’re open to something different. They want something or someone that’s real and solid and dependable. They want an answer to everything that’s gone wrong, they’re looking for a solution to everything that’s broken. That way, that truth, that life is our Lord Jesus Christ and the time is right now to make him known to a desperate world.
Clothe yourselves with Christ!
Your life, your words, your actions, your attitude can be living proof to everyone around you that good overcomes evil. You can show people by how you behave that love is greater than hate, that unity is more fun than division, that forgiveness always beats revenge, and that peace is far more effective than violence.
“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” ~1 Peter 2:9
Not just the things you engage in and the ways you act, but also the things you refuse to associate with and the things you say “no” to are a powerful witness to the only One who can truly fix what’s wrong.
“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God.” ~1 Peter 2:12
Peter didn’t come up with that. He’s quoting our Lord from the opening lines of his Sermon on the Mount.
“Let your light shine before all people that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” ~Matthew 5:16
Think about it. What if you and I remained calm when the other people around us are anxious and frantic and demanding? Everything is turned up so loud right now. What would it mean to others if you were quiet and calm?
What if you and I spoke with humility and grace? Instead of saying things and forwarding things and reposting things that insult and disparage whole groups of other people so the people like me know exactly where I stand, what if we only said thing that were encouraging to others and the only thing that came out of our mouths was intended to build those other people up? I believe that kind of language would really stick out as special.
What if you and I tried to love everybody? What if you and I were known for how kind and graciously we treated others, even when we disagree? Especially when we disagree! I really think that would get noticed. And what if we committed to that right now instead of later?
“[All the commandments] are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ …Do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here… Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ!” ~Romans 13:11-14
Put on the clothes that signal to the world you take very seriously your vows to the Lord. Wear the simla that communicates a deep commitment to the ways and means of our King.