By Bishop Mark J. Webb
Sometimes we get so busy living, that we forget the purpose for our lives. Then there are moments in life when we realize our current state, and we begin to search for something more with a strong desire for change.
In Matthew 19 we read of the encounter between Jesus and a wealthy young man. The young man approached Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” That young man had a desire to be in a relationship with his God and to know fully the promises offered by Him. This desire led him on a search. A search he thought was about what he had to do. The Lord would quickly reveal the search was about something more.
Jesus responded with a question that literally shook the foundation of that young man’s search. “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good – if you wish to enter into eternal life, keep the commandments.”
The search was still on, but now with a new direction. The young man knew the commandments. He was willing to keep them if that was what it took to have his desire for God fulfilled. “Which Ones?” he replied. Tell me what I must do. Tell me what commandments I must keep and perform. I’ll do it!
We know the response of Jesus. “You shall not commit murder, or adultery, you shall not steal or bear false witness. You shall honor your father and mother and love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man had kept all that Jesus had spoken about. He was a good person with high morals. But could that be it? Could his search for eternal life and right relationship with God be met simply through doing the right things and obeying the law?
It is interesting that after Jesus talks about the commandments and after the young man acknowledges keeping them, he still has a question: “What am I still lacking?” In Matthew’s record of this conversation, Jesus did not say he was lacking anything. The young man in his search somehow knew there was something else. He desired a change. He was searching for a change. But when the opportunity for change came, he was not ready or prepared for its reality. We are told that after Jesus told him what he yet needed, the young man went away with a heavy heart. He was unable to continue his search for a deeper relationship with God and the assurance of God’s promises. What did Jesus say to that young man?
Jesus said, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me!
Ash Wednesday and the whole of the Lenten season gives us a great opportunity to examine our desire towards God. To refocus and refine that desire we were created with and for. A desire to know the grace, truth, and nature of God more completely. A desire to experience the fullness of life in Christ.
Too often we come just like that young man who came to Jesus. We want to know what good thing we can or must do? Jesus says keep the commandments. We say we’ve done that, what else? Jesus says, sell your possessions, give to the poor and follow me. Jesus is asking us to offer everything we have. In the response that Jesus made to the young man and to us Jesus reminds us of the greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is a time for us to remember that our desire for God takes us to that place where we lay down everything that is about us so that we can receive and extend everything that is Jesus Christ.
When I was a kid, it seemed it was only the Roman Catholics that walked around with the black smudges on their foreheads. Thankfully, the receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday has made it into the wider church, including ours, and it’s a powerful symbol of our desire and God’s promise.
I have used the following over the years but cannot name the source where I first read it:
“The receiving of ashes begins with a capital I placed upon our foreheads. It represents who we are – our strengths and our weaknesses. It represents the good things we do, the ways in which we keep God’s commandments. It also represents the not so good things we do and the times we fail to keep God’s commandments. The capital I represents that God has created and is calling each of us, individually into a relationship with Him; it also represents that standing alone, because of sin, we are separated from God.
The receiving of ashes doesn’t end with a capital I, but rather ends with a horizontal stroke that wipes out and covers up the I. The stroke reminds us of the loving arms of Christ stretched out on the cross so we can be welcomed home, receive the promises offered and know the fullness of God in the way we truly desire.”
Jesus called that young man who was searching for a lifestyle of repentance, denial and laying down of self, so that Christ could become all in all in his life. That same call is given to us.
Our desire to be closer to God is impossible through the things we can do. The I is not enough. Because of God’s gift of Jesus, the I is covered, the cross becomes a reality in our lives, and the impossible becomes very possible. Too often in our desire for God, in our desire to grow in our relationship with God, we become too dependent upon the I. The rich young man found that the promises of God would not be realized through what he could do, but rather by giving everything he had to Jesus and allowing Jesus to do what He desired and promised in his life.
This Ash Wednesday, allow your desire for God to take you to the place of total surrender. Lent is a time of reflection and self-denial; it is a time to give something up. Respectfully, I don’t think God is impressed by our temporary refrain from chocolate, or the other things we deem as Lenten sacrifices; He’s concerned with what’s going on in our hearts. That’s what the prophet Joel was speaking about when he said: “Don’t tear your clothing in your grief; instead tear your hearts.” Our desire for God will be fully realized and satisfied when we respond to God’s desire for us to fully surrender everything to Him.
When I served as a pastor in the local church, I used these words in the imposition of ashes: “Repent and believe that you are loved and covered by the grace of God.” During this season of Lent, let us be people of repentance, people who turn fully toward God because He turned toward us first. Let us be people who offer our lives to the whole work and promise of God’s pursuing, convincing, justifying, and sanctifying grace. If we will be people who approach our God with torn hearts, He will heal us and make us new. We will be people transformed by God, living in such a way that reflects the identity and holiness of God. It will be then that God will use us in ways we cannot imagine so that others may meet their deepest desire and know the love and life only found in Jesus.
Every year, I read “An Invitation to a Holy Lent” from the Book of Common Prayer. I invite you to join me in reading those words. More importantly, I invite you to join me in living the words, allowing God to meet our deepest desire.
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.”
Bishop Mark J. Webb is an episcopal leader in the Global Methodist Church.