Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a new season – the season of Lent. Lent usually begins in February, and as such the season of Lent usually lines up well – at least at first—with the weather. When the weather is cold, harsh and grim it seems very fitting to talk about sins and their effect.
Lent may fit well with the season’s weather, but it may or may not fit so well with our seasons of life. We all go through different “seasons” of life, don’t we? For some of us these are joyful days. For others they are marked more by sadness. Likewise, different people’s feelings seem dominated by either success or uncertainty, good health or bad health, new beginnings or old routines. Our thoughts and feelings tend to be shaped by the season of life we are in.
All that being said, whether the season of Lent lines up well with the weather or our situation in life is not really that important. What is important is that we learn the lessons of Lent, because we will all need them at some point.
This year for Lent we are examining the Lord’s Prayer. Understand, there is nothing specifically “Lentish” about the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is used throughout the year. It’s a prayer for all seasons. Lent simply calls us to focus harder – and the Lord’s Prayer is worth extra examination. After all, it is the prayer Jesus taught us.
One of the traditional emphases of Lent is the lifting up of good habits. Praying the Lord’s Prayer every day can be a great habit. Most of us already know the prayer by heart. And if we don’t, praying it every day will soon lead to memorization. So I encourage you to commit yourselves to this habit during Lent this year. Many of you pray it every day already. If so, perhaps increase the number of times you pray it. You can pray this prayer many times during the day.
Of course, we don’t want this to be just a habit. We want our prayer to be heartfelt. So during this season of Lent we will take time to study the prayer—to really dig into it so as to understand it and apply it.
One of the ways Christians have always studied the Lord’s Prayer is by focusing on specific parts of the prayer, breaking it down into petitions. A petition is something we are asking. “Our Father who art in heaven” is the introduction to the prayer. The first petition is the first thing we ask: “Hallowed by thy name.” Tonight, since it is Ash Wednesday, we will skip ahead to the fifth petition: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Before we start thinking about forgiveness, let’s first begin by thinking about ashes. Ashes symbolize our mortality and our need to repent. When death entered the world as a consequence of our sin, God explained to Adam: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” So also, the scriptures record how people often put on sackcloth and ashes as an expression of their sorrow over sin and their commitment to repentance. Tonight, following an ancient tradition of the church, you had the opportunity to put ashes on your face—literally to help you face your sins.
As we face our sins, we note that Jesus teaches us to pray. And note too that Jesus teaches us to pray about our own sins and the sins of others that have affected us. You see, both are a problem for us. Sometimes we’re the one engulfed in guilt by what we have done. At other times we find ourselves bearing an enormous scar – and enormous grudge – because of what someone has done to us.
Sin is all around us. It impacts all of our relationships. It poisons our dreams and good intentions. It weighs us down and brings us to the brink of despair.
How blessed we are, in the midst of our sin, to be invited by God to pray. And what a powerful petition Jesus gives us to pray. This petition speaks to us deeply—in those times when we’ve brought deep and lasting pain to someone by what we’ve done, or when we’ve been stung by the severe words and behavior of others; when we’ve made a desperately wrong, selfish decision that puts us on a path of destruction, or when we’ve been the victim of someone else’s greed; when we’ve broken a relationship with someone we love, or when we’ve been betrayed by someone we thought loved us; when our tongue has been a weapon of unbridled anger, or when our good name has been slandered by false testimony. The Lord’s Prayer gives us a powerful petition to pray throughout any of these seasons.
Needing forgiveness and needing to forgive—both are a daily part of life, and both are essential to us as we seek to live in good health and in peaceful community with others. It is no coincidence that the one petition to which our Lord Jesus adds comment is this one. Right after the prayer is finished he says: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
These words of commentary may highlight the petition, but they also cut like a knife. They hurt, because we know how hard it can be to forgive others. These words challenge our pride. They expose our fears. They touch our wounds. And yet they are words of love even more than they are commands of the Law. We need to forgive—for our own good, and for the good of all.
These words of Jesus also cause us concern because they seem to imply that God’s love is conditional, based on the degree to which we are able to forgive others. God’s forgiving love, however, does not come by our initiative. God’s forgiving love comes from His heart of mercy. As John once said: “We love because He first loved us.” So also we forgive because we are first forgiven. Jesus did not wait until we forgave others before going to the cross. He went to the cross willingly for our sake, to overcome our sins—even our sins of stubbornness. And note, too, what Jesus said on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” God is gracious—always willing to extend himself in mercy.
Still, God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others do go together. If a person says, “I’ll never forgive you for what you’ve done,” that person does not seem open to the healing power of God’s grace. They seem more concerned with their own vengeful pride than following God’s will. We all know that people sometimes say things in anger. Such words can be forgiven. But the vengeful hurt that will not allow God to act is a problem. Such people should not think they can have things both ways. As one commentary notes: “An unforgiving spirit in us shuts the door in God’s face, even though God’s compassion still surrounds the house.” And remember what Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.”
Thinking about all this should lead us back to prayer. The heart that prays is seeking God’s mercy. The heart that prays shows it is open to God’s grace. Prayer moves us. It can move us to forgive even the most hurtful of sins.
During this season of Lent we will spend much of our time and effort in encouraging you to pray. We will do so in the sermons, in Bible Classes and through the devotional books we have made available. “Teach us to pray,” was not only the cry of the first disciples but a cry for all of us. Thankfully, Jesus has taught us powerfully in his own prayer. The greatest teaching we at the church can offer is to simply spend time and effort with this prayer of Jesus.
Speaking of time and effort, while all these means of encouragement at the church can be very helpful, above all I encourage you to pray the Lord’s Prayer in this simple way: to pause after each petition, take some time to listen, and then offer names, needs and desires based on that petition. So for instance, we pray: “and forgive us our trespasses…(pausing here for a time of silence, and then saying) such as… (and list those sins we have committed that came to mind, then)…as we forgive those who trespass against us… (silence)…such as… (our list).” Great blessings come when we stop after each petition and let our minds and hearts wander a bit, so we can think about what we are asking, what we need to ask, and how God does indeed answer these requests of ours.
Jesus teaches us to pray. Today we have highlighted our need to pray for forgiveness, and the ability to extend it. Let me leave you with one last invitation and promise from our Lord: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8 ESV)