Father, we thank you for the privilege of gathering in your name tonight. I asked now that your word would accomplish that for which you sent it in each of our lives. Strengthen us, prune us all for Your glory. in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Well, tonight, we gather to observe the beginning of this season we call Lent, a season in which we ask the Holy Spirit to search us and know us and see if there’s anything unclean within us, that we might be reminded of our own brokenness, that we might be reminded of our own need for forgiveness, and ultimately that we might be reminded of our need for a savior.
The Purpose Of Lent
But if we’re not careful, we can actually miss the entire point of the season. If we’re not careful, Lent becomes about us, a season in which we highlight our works. If we’re not careful, we actually begin to believe that our discipline somehow makes us more acceptable in the sight of our God. If we’re not careful, we can actually convince ourselves that our ability to give up chocolate or caffeine for a few weeks actually reflects how righteous we can be. You see, if we’re not careful, Lent can actually be a season of trying to prove how strong we are on our own, rather than this season reminding us of our absolute and total dependence on God.
The words we heard read from Isaiah 58 are incredibly important for us, because the first few verses of chapter 58 show us just how fruitless our attempts at self-righteousness actually are.
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Isaiah is saying that even our fasts are done for our own pleasure, for our own satisfaction. Rather than leading to unity and maturity in the body, they actually lead to division and fighting among the body.
So contrast those efforts of the flesh that are self-righteous efforts with what God would actually have us pursue in this season.
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Those words remind us of the posture we’re called to have on a night like this. The first portion of that verse reminds us of the compassionate heart that the Lord calls us to have toward our neighbors, that we share bread with the hungry, that we bring the homeless, the poor into our own homes, and that we clothe those who are in need of clothing.
While those instructions should challenge us, I might suggest our greatest challenge comes at the second half of that same verse. The fast God chooses for us involves not hiding yourself from acknowledging your own flesh. If we’re being brutally honest, it’s far less terrifying to share a meal with a homeless man than it is to fully acknowledge the brokenness and depravity of our own flesh.
Acknowledging Our Own Flesh
There was a basketball player by the name of Chris Heron in 1993, he was voted the National High School Player of the Year, he had an incredible, promising career ahead of him. Unfortunately, Chris got caught up in a life of drugs and alcohol during his college career. In the first few years that he played professionally in the NBA, Heron failed several drug tests.
He was an addict and he couldn’t do anything about it.
In 2008 Heron overdose on heroin. He crashed his car into a utility pole and was dead for 30 seconds until being brought back to life and revived. On the scene of that accident, that taste of death was Heron’s wake up call. Upon his release from the hospital, he entered a drug rehab program and he has been drug free ever since. As a part of his testimony, he tells of a habit that he had for six years during the time that he was an addict. For six years, he shaved and he brushed his teeth in the shower every day. Why? Because he wasn’t able to look himself in the mirror. It wasn’t until his 11th month of sobriety that again, for the first time, he brushed his teeth while looking in the mirror.
For six years, Chris Heron attempted to hide from his own flesh. It’s an incredible story and a powerful image to keep in mind. But what I believe to be most powerful about that story is that I believe we all have a little bit of Chris Heron in us.
Our guilt, our shame, our sin causes us to want to ignore our flesh. Sometimes the last thing we want to do is look in the mirror. But it’s not just us. This attempt to ignore or cover up our flesh goes back to the very beginning, when Adam and Eve sinned. When their eyes were opened to the reality of their own sin and flesh, their first reaction was to hide, to cover themselves by sewing together fig leaves.
In the 11th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples encounter a fig tree that’s full of leaves but contains no fruit. The leaves of the fig tree offered an appearance that was different than its true substance. The fig leaves on the tree Jesus encountered serve to disguise its lack of fruit, just like the fig leaves Adam and Eve wear attempted to cover their own flesh.
The Flag Of Truth
Lent is the season in which we acknowledge and confess not only our fig leaves, but the sin and brokenness we have attempted to cover up. I don’t know what fig leaves you are using in your life to cover your true self. But what I do know is that it can be painful when we acknowledge the reality our flesh. C.S. Lewis once wrote that pain “removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of the rebel soul.”
Ash Wednesday reminds us that Lewis’s words aren’t for someone else; he’s writing about each one of us in our flesh. We all have this fortress of a rebel soul. None of us enjoy the pain of acknowledging the reality of our brokenness. However, when God convicts us, when he removes the veil from our eyes, he’s not doing so to punish us. He’s doing so to draw us closer to himself. When God removes the veil, it is the work of the Holy Spirit that is loosening the bondage we live in. And in so doing, he invites us to receive that flag of truth that he desires to plant in the midst of our rebel soul.
Lent reminds us that the flag of truth isn’t rooted in our attempts at self-righteousness, or what we accomplish. After Adam’s attempt to hide from God, God spoke this humbling truth over him which is still a reality for us today.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
May this season remind us that our righteousness as Christians does not come from what we do, or even from what we have abstained from. Instead, our true righteousness is found in Christ through what he has done on our behalf. The flag of truth and the good news of the gospel is that despite our flesh, despite our sin, despite our fig leaves, God loves us. He invites us to come to him over and over again. And he has demonstrated his love for us once and for all time in the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus.
Light And Life In Christ
The flag of truth is that despite the death and darkness of our sin, in Christ there is light and life, and that’s the good news that Isaiah ends with.
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
When we are in Christ, it is his righteousness that goes before us, and it is His glory that protects us. I’ll leave you with one final image. In a few weeks, we’ll celebrate Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the final time. Following his celebrated entrance Jesus went to the temple, and while he was there at the temple, he cleansed the place of worship, and he turned over the tables of the money changers.
This sequence is actually a good one for us to keep in mind in the midst of Lent. You see, we all want to be part of the Palm Sunday celebration. We all want to align with Jesus, we all want to celebrate his kingship. We want to praise Him, we want to identify with him. We love that part of the story.
What we don’t often enjoy and what we often try to avoid is the ongoing work of Jesus when he starts turning over the table in our own lives. Our flesh is quick to resist God’s cleansing, and we’re quite good at covering our sins with temporary fig leaves. But this Lent may we, both as individuals and as a church, not hide our flesh. Instead, may this be a season of standing before God, acknowledging that we are exposed before him, acknowledging who we really are, which is a people in desperate need of saving. Thanks be to God, that we have a God who knew of our need for a savior long before we ever did, and he provided him for us in the person of Jesus Christ. Amen.