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Knock It Down

Knock It Down
Becoming New Again on Ash Wednesday

Every year that passes we go thru Christmas and then come back around to Easter, and then lather, rinse, repeat.  For Christians, this entire season is our New Year’s Day.  Our frailty resonates in winter with the infant in the manger.  Our hearts are stirred, like the twinkling of stars, by the love of God to Mary, the shepherds, the wisemen.  Our wills are crossed by the Sermon on the Mount.  Our resolutions are forged in the empty belly of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.  And, like the budding of cherry blossoms in spring, our consummation is revealed by the resurrection and ascension of our Lord.  It’s like that whole song (that no one knows all the words to) “Auld Lang Syne” is stretched out over four months.  We sing together with our neighbors and brothers and wonder at the joy this new beginning will bring.  We cry with one voice to let it explode into our lives and change us.  Make us better people!  If the simple fact of an old year passing moves us to anticipation, joy, expectation, and stringent self-evaluation, then how much more the coming of a king!

People (and I think I know people because I am part of that club) tend to move through life very unsure of themselves.  We make lots of errors in judgment and allow ourselves to be overcome by laziness.  It’s something we all know about ourselves.  And change doesn’t come easily.  More than likely, most of us will still be repeating the same mistakes we made as kids even when we are nearing the end of our lives.  Is it even possible to change? 

I think so.  But certainly not by ourselves.  C.S. Lewis, in his book A Grief Observed says this: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”  He was speaking about the tragic loss of his wife, Joy Davidman, but it could not be more poignant.  God knows that the house we’ve built is indeed a house of cards.  It is we who think otherwise.  Every year’s end we celebrate with anticipation the birth of a Savior.  We celebrate hope for all nations!  And then the old year passes, the new begins, and we forge through the empty belly of winter.  The glimmer of hope has faded, and we become numb yet again, all too comfortable with our own despair at not being the people we hoped we could be.  But to our great surprise, the longing for hope revealed hasn’t died; it has simply gone dormant.  “How long, O Lord, must we wait?  Must we wait in vain?”  Just as the dark night of the soul seems like it will never end, our gracious God reminds us that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return” and POOF, there goes the house of cards!

What a horrible and helpless feeling!  We have no choice but to acknowledge the latent duplicity within us all.  But just as winter will give way to spring, we were never designed to stay in such a hopeless state.  It’s as if God built all of creation simply to show us that though there is chaos, there is also hope.  Though there are crippling blizzards, there is also Christmas.  Though there are tornados, dogwood blossoms still push through the brittle trees that hold them.  So this dark night, the one that brings us face to face with our very own house of cards, has been given to us as a gift.  It prepares us for the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lion of Judah, who cannot be held, even by death itself!

The church throughout history has sought to shed light on the brokenness of men.  It’s important because without the admission that we are helpless to fix ourselves, there can be no gospel progress.  If we don’t need help, then Jesus’ sacrifice is useless.  But in fact we do need help.  It is central to the narrative of Scripture.  Lent is the period leading up to Easter, and the start of Lent is Ash Wednesday.  These days are not magic in and of themselves, but they are simply devices designed to guide us through this liturgical season.  Just as the 40 days when Jesus fasted in the wilderness was a preparation for his ministry, so also is Lent a preparation for us to receive the power of the resurrection.

On Ash Wednesday we place ashes on people.  This may seem weird.  And it is odd.  What it represents is this: mourning.  Just as Lewis mourned the loss of his wife, we mourn the death that resides in us—our sin­—the very force that we employ to build our house of cards.  Ancient Hebrews used to mourn publicly with “sackcloth and ashes.”  The ashes we use are a nod to this old custom as well as a reminder that we are the very same clay, enlivened by the Almighty.  With this mourning, we acknowledge that we cannot change ourselves.  In fact, we say publicly that we are right back where we were, shortly after the start of a new year, living the same disillusioned frustration that we knew last year.  And yet we proclaim that King Jesus is our help in need.  He is our only agent of change.

This year we will celebrate Ash Wednesday at Southwood.  The service will be on Wednesday, February 10.  Join us as we mournfully, yet hopefully, proclaim our sin and our frailty to each other and to God.  Let it mark a changing of gears, where we shift from a half-hearted independence to a wholly satisfying embrace of our own insufficiency!  And may we carry its truth with us as we prepare to have our card houses completely obliterated by the resurrection of Jesus!  The new year is not new again until the risen Lord makes it so!