Ash Wednesday 2017: “The Reason for Lent”

Jordan Horowitz handing over his trophy.

The following manuscript is adapted from last night’s Ash Wednesday sermon. For the complete sermon, listen to the audio file below.

Even if you didn’t watch the Academy Awards, you likely heard about the terrible mix-up that occurred last Sunday night when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty—otherwise known as “Bonnie and Clyde”—announced the year’s Best Picture Oscar. They announced the wrong movie: They said that La La Land won best picture, when in reality the movie Moonlight won the award.

Whoops! The producers of La La Land were nearly finished with their acceptance speeches before they found out what happened. My son Townshend was watching the show with me, and he said, “You know who the happiest man in America is right now? Steve Harvey!” And I’m sure he was right. In 2015, Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe Pageant, but the Academy Awards are a much bigger deal than Miss Universe.

But… It was almost worth the mix-up in order to see how at least one of the producers of La La Land responded. And for that reason, Jordan Horowitz is a hero to me. Shortly after giving his acceptance speech—while he was holding the Oscar in his hand—he went to the microphone and said, “There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you won best picture. This is not a joke.” And then, as the producers of Moonlight were taking the stage, he said, “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” And he handed over his trophy. And to his great credit, he didn’t even seem disappointed. He seemed perfectly O.K. with it.

And I thought, “This is a fitting symbol for this season of Lent, which begins today.” Lent is about learning to give trophies that don’t belong to us to their rightful owner. Lent is about learning to step away from the spotlight that’s shining on us so that it can shine on the One who deserves the spotlight. Lent is about learning to be O.K. with the idea that we’re not entitled to a single iota of glory for ourselves; rather, the glory belongs entirely to God alone.

Lent is about learning to say with John the Baptist, “[Christ] must become greater; I must become less.”

To say the least, Lent is not about us. 

Did you hear that? Lent is not about us. And I know from experience how easily Lent can become about us. For example, we often talk about “giving something up” for Lent. We say things like, “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent.” “I’m giving up Facebook.” “I’m giving up coffee.” One thing’s for sure in my house: No one is giving up Girl Scout cookies, because last night the girl who lives next door delivered about half a ton of Thin Mints, Trefoils, and Savanna Smiles to our house!

But I’m sure many of you will “give something up” for Lent. Some of you will even try full-blown fasting. I preached about that a few weeks ago. As I said then, fasting, which means going without food and any drink other than water for a period of time, is a biblical practice. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, to prepare himself for all the spiritual battles he would soon be fighting and winning, Jesus fasted. For forty days—which is the reason that Lent is forty days, not counting Sundays.

Please don’t fast for forty days! But you may try fasting by skipping lunch once or twice a week. Or try skipping two meals, which is a 24-hour fast. For instance, after supper one night, begin your fast. And then break your fast the following evening at suppertime.

But please hear me say this: Don’t “give up” anything for Lent and don’t fast at all if doing so becomes a way of feeding your ego; patting yourself on the back for being able to do without something that you enjoy. “Look at all this will power I have! I’m really something! Somebody please tell me how awesome I am!” Or we try to give up something we enjoy, or we try to fast, and we fail. And then we wallow in our guilt: “Woe is me! I’m such a failure as a Christian!” So whether we succeed or fail, it’s still all about us.

And I know from experience, when it comes to fasting—or giving up dessert or chocolate or soft drinks—there is the ever present temptation to step on the scale and say, “Hey, look at me! I’ve lost a few pounds! The season of Lent is awesome!”

And once again we’ve turned this perfectly good thing into an opportunity to glorify ourselves. It’s as if we’re holding tightly to our little trophies, and we’re unwilling to give them to the One who deserves them.

I’m completely serious when I say, “Please don’t give up anything for Lent, please don’t fast, please don’t do anything,” if doing so becomes an opportunity to feed your ego or to fuel your pride. Lent is not about glorifying yourself; it’s about glorifying God.

Look at it this way: Even “giving something up” or fasting isn’t about doing without something. It’s about gaining something—which is, more of God. Do you desire more of God—and less of yourself?

Do you really? If so, then you might try giving something up or fasting. Just don’t think by doing so God is going to be impressed with your devotion! Why? Because if you’ve received Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, God already couldn’t be more impressed with you! You can add nothing to the righteousness that Jesus Christ has given to you—clothed you with—imputed to you—as a free gift.

No… The reason we observe Lent is the reason we do everything else in life: To glorify God. To adore God. To treasure God above everything and everyone else.

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us this. Notice the structure of it: There are six petitions: We pray for God to hallow his name, to bring his kingdom, for his will to be done on earth as in heaven. The first three are all God-centered petitions. Then we focus more on ourselves: that God would give us what we need to survive; that he would forgive our sins; and that he would enable us to overcome the temptations that the devil sends our way.

So there’s three and three: three petitions are about God and three are about us. Right? 

Not really.

Why do I say that? Because the first petition, “hallowed be your name”—which is another way of saying, “God, enable all of us to love and adore you, to praise you, to glorify you, to long for you as our life’s greatest treasure”—is the goal of everything else we ask for in this prayer.

We don’t ask for our daily bread because we need it for ourselves. We need daily bread—along with everything else that sustains our physical lives—because it enables us to “hallow God’s name.” We need to be freed from the guilt of our sins enables us to “hallow God’s name.” We need God to protect us from temptation because sin impedes our ability to “hallow God’s name.”

Likewise, we pray for God’s kingdom to come because when it does, that will “hallow God’s name.” And we pray for God’s will to be done on earth because when it is, God’s name will be hallowed!

What does this mean? It means that, ultimately, God gives us every moment of every day to do one thing: to “hallow his name.” It means that in every moment of every day, we have the opportunity to glorify God.

How are we doing at it?

Speaking personally, I am an abject failure at it! Living my life in order to glorify God rather than myself doesn’t come naturally to me.

This is reflected in the fact that I spend little time praying the first half of the Lord’s Prayer. Mostly, my prayers get bogged down in the second half: “Father, give me these things. Do this for me. Help me with this situation.”

During this Season of Lent, let’s repent. Let’s step down from the stage; let’s step out of the spotlight; let’s hand our trophies over to the One who really deserves them.

2 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday 2017: “The Reason for Lent””

  1. Your tweet of your church sign message is disrespectful and and non-Christian to our president, how disgusting. Pastor Izzy.

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