Today I passed by a church that had the following announcement on the sign outside the building: “Imposition of Ashes – 7:00 pm”. Throughout the Bible, ashes are connected with grief, sorrow over sin and repentance. When Job was in great sorrow concerning all the losses in his life, he sat in ashes. When the prophet Jonah preached the word of judgment to the city of Nineveh, the king himself repented in sackcloth and ashes. But what really caught my attention about the sign was this word – imposition.
Imposition – an excessive or uncalled-for requirement or burden.
In that one word the spiritual condition of our nation is summarized. We don’t want to be imposed upon by God to think anything about ourselves is wrong or needs to be changed. The ashes that are to be an outward expression of the inward repentance of the heart, like so many other things, have become nothing more than a religious ritual with no real spiritual significance to most who participate in it.
Repentance, the turning of a heart toward the Lord Jesus and away from sin, is a beautiful thing. The apostle Peter actually describes it as a blessing:
To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.” Acts 3:26
Paul says in Romans 2:4 that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. Why? Because from our repentance comes times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19). What a welcome thing this is to those who have experienced it!
Repentance is no burden, but a proper and necessary response to the dealings of God with our life. It is through our repentance that we agree with God about the weakness of our flesh, our ever falling short of His glory, and our continual need for His strength and cleansing. In repentance my heart can rejoice that I serve a God who is unwilling to leave me the way that I am, who is committed to conforming me to the image of Christ, and who is always working to remove those things from my life that hinder this goal.
I won’t be getting any ashes on my forehead tomorrow. Instead I choose to live daily in the fiery presence of a God who changes me from glory to glory.
One of the very first portrayals I saw of John the Baptist was in the 1970’s mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth”. The character was played by Michael York, whose hair was always askance and eyes wild. His voice was loud, his countenance a bit sullen and he was somewhat of a frightening character. This has always seemed to fit well with his words, which were like flaming darts aimed at the hearts of the people. John had some strong words, especially for the religious people. Knowing what we do now about the heart condition of those Pharisees, when we read about John’s strong words to those old religious hypocrites we want to cheer because there is something in us that gets some type of perverse pleasure in seeing those people embarrassed and exposed for what they really are in front of everybody. But John’s goal was not public humiliation, but repentance.
In Luke 3:7-15 John gives a flaming rebuke to the crowd and when the people respond, he doesn’t continue to pile on the condemnation. His mission was to prepare the way and when a heart had been made tender and brought to repentance, he knew his mission had been accomplished in that one. As their hearts were pierced by his words they would come to him asking “what should we do?” And John helps them by giving them instruction on how they can obey and please God. The fiery preacher turned to gentle teacher.
Even John’s rebuke to Herod was not to defame the man, but to lead him to repentance. There is no evidence that John ever publicly issued this rebuke to Herod in front of a multitude of people. Each account of this in the gospels said that John “said to Herod”. He wasn’t trying to dazzle the crowds with his speaking ability or draw their admiration by his recklessly courageous speaking. His heart yearned for these people to be ready for their Messiah. It was a longing that burned in him and through him.
A life on fire genuinely wants to help people get right with God. Whether with a harsh rebuke or tender instruction, whatever it takes, this one longs to be a minister of reconciliation.
Now I lay me down to die
At Your altar, here I cry
As Your holy word is spoken
All undone, my heart is broken
Sensing now Your holy gaze
Searching all my thoughts and ways
Unable to give my defense
As You expose each vile offense
Painfully, now it is clear
The sins that I once held so dear
Each one a thorn that pierced Your brow
How hideous they appear now
And crushed beneath the guilt, I hear
A sound so sweetly in my ear
“There is One who yet abides
Christ, Who for your sins has died”
Looking up, through tears I see
The Saviour, on the cross for me
Bowing then with all contrition
Bringing to Him my petition
“Though my heart is black with sin
I hear I may be born again
If I repent and then confess
I may receive Your righteousness
With all my heart I long for this
I pray I might receive this gift.”
Heaven hears, new life begins
Completely new and clean within
Another heart now set ablaze
Another voice to sing His praise
Hearts transformed and lives made new
A work that only Christ can do
And so the kingdom does advance
One by one, with repentance