Reflection for Ash Wednesday, 17 February 2021
By Revd George Mwaura
Joel 2: 12–18 & Mathew 6: 1–7
Merciful God, your Son battled with the powers of darkness, and grew closer to you in the desert. Help us as we hear your message of repentance and returning to you, to use these days of Lent to grow in wisdom and prayer that we may witness to your saving love.
Lent is a season of reflection. It comes from an Old English word meaning a lengthening. As the days of spring become longer, nature sings a song of renewed life, energy and growth. The emerald-tinted leaves, the gentle wafting breezes, the richer blue azure of the sky all harmonise their beauty in spring’s eternal symphony of life. During Lent Christians are called upon to reflect together on the final weeks of Christ’s ministry. We remember his betrayal, arrest and suffering upon the cross. So, Lent is a time for us as well to reflect on our own discipleship. It examines with the forensic skill of a pathologist our own motivations in serving the Messiah. Like a deep-sea fisherman plunging to the coral reef below, we, too, plunge below the surface and examine who we are and why we are here in God’s world. What motivates you in your Christian journey? Today good business leaders recognise the importance of motivation in cementing a business deal or enticing a customer to buy a product. As Church we too need to recognise the power of motivation.
Motivation is essential to a healthy living. A good relationship flounders unless both partners are committed to remaining faithful to and interested in one another. A successful championship season is impossible unless coach and players are committed to competition by being highly motivated. In the spiritual life, our motivation is important if we are to serve Jesus with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. In our scripture text we see Jesus examining with care our motives. He gazes into the hardened heart of the pharisaic gremlin lurking in all our souls. His sharp scalpel cuts to the hypocrisy we keep well hidden in our soul’s cluttered closet. How often do we catch ourselves doing a good deed with an ulterior motive, thinking such thoughts as: If I help the boss out by staying late, perhaps he will promote me and not Mr Do-good in the next office. If I tithe, perhaps God will favour me. Or, if I fiddle the figures on my income tax , HMG revenue officers might not notice.
Our self-deception can be a wonder to behold. Perhaps that is why the prophet Joel says in our passage that we must return to God. And not just return but return to the way we were originally with God. Return is about a change in direction, and a reorientation to the world. It is a word of hope and a word of covenant, trusting that returning to God will bring about restoration for God’s people. Joel suggests that Jerusalem has forgotten who God is and calls upon God’s people to rediscover the identity of the one true God. Quoting Exodus 34, he reminds the people of God’s true divine nature and God’s return policy. And what is the policy? That God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing us.
English poet George Herbert was a skilled amateur musician. He played in an orchestra of like-minded amateurs. One afternoon he was on his way to meet with his friends for music-making. On the road he encountered a man whose cart had become stuck in a ditch. Herbert stopped and helped the man. Due to his good deed the poet arrived at his friend’s house later than expected. One of the musicians sneered, ‘Looks like you’ve missed all the music., Herbert replied, ‘Yes, but I will have songs at midnight.’ Herbert had the satisfaction of doing the Christ-like thing. His motivation in helping another was pure and loving.
Peter Marshall, the famed Scottish preacher of a generation ago, said in his sermon: Faith is belief plus what you do with that belief. We cannot grow in faith if our motives are as dirty as our gardening gloves. Lent, which begins today, is a season of hope, but also a time to grow in God’s graciously given faith. A time to face facts and our hypocrisy. A time to repent and seek to be more honest in our service to the Saviour. If we examine our lives carefully on this Ash Wednesday, we will clearly see that: we have fallen short of our profession of faith by hypocrisy, self-delusion and pride, and that we have used people as things and things as people. And so, Ash Wednesday and this season of Lent give us hope as we examine our motives and renew our commitment to selfless service in Christ’s name.
Christ is our compass on the Lenten road which begins today. With him as our guide we pick up our crosses and follow him. A friend told me she had read of the death of a beloved minister through Covid and was incredibly sad. And then she added. ‘I cannot recall any of his sermons, but I vividly remember the Christ-like way he served our community. And it’s because of his example that I am a practising Christian today.’ Christ is our compass, our guide, our redeemer, and our friend. When we look at our past actions, we see the bottom line in our service to others, our forgiveness by Christ and our love to a hurting world. As we journey through Lent together, we are invited by God to let the renewing breezes of Lent flood our souls.
If we examine our motivation in the Christian life and seek to be more honest, loving and servant like Christ, we will do good, return to God, and give charity to those who need it, for in our giving we are providing life. And should the inner voice of the deceiver ask us: ‘For how long must I continue giving?’, we will in return hear the gentle whisper of the Spirit saying to us, ‘Just stop when the Lord stops giving to you.’ I pray you will be Spirit-led as you examine your life this Lent season and beyond.