Moving Toward Easter

Lenten Message 1

As we journeyed through this day in the normal patterns of our lives, we may have seen men and women with ashes in the form of a cross on their foreheads. It is a visible reminder on this Ash Wednesday that “dust [we] are, and to dust [we] shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

For many, today begins a period of fasting and self-denial. It is a good reminder that the only way to please God is not by what we do—or refrain from doing—but by accepting His gracious offer of forgiveness made possible through Christ’s shed blood on the cross.

Invocation

Lord, thank You for giving me what I never deserved—grace! And for Your mercy in not giving me what I do deserve. No wonder we call it “amazing grace”! In Jesus’ name, amen.

 Salvation is God’s work, not our work.

“For by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8a). Our salvation begins with Jesus—not with us. It is not His response to any good works we may do or evil works from which we’ve refrained. Salvation is provided for us wholly because of His grace, His unmerited favor toward you and me.

The Father did not send His only Son to die for our sins because we kept begging and pleading for Him to do so. It was by His grace alone.

 Salvation is God’s work in God’s way, not our way.

It is “through faith . . . not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8b). I want to remind everyone of those words on this Ash Wednesday—“Through faith . . . not of yourselves . . . not of works!” No amount of doing good deeds or abstaining from certain pleasures can earn God’s favor. Salvation is wholly by grace, through our faith in Christ alone . . . God’s gift to us.

No matter what you do or don’t do, or what you give or give up, your salvation is not spelled D-O but D-O-N-E! Today remember that Christ paid a huge price to redeem you. It is already done! Your part is to receive this gift by faith.

But that does not mean you do nothing with this gift you have received. What is required of you is simple but important. You are to practice the discipline of repentance.

Repentance has become one of the forgotten words in our English vocabulary. Yet it was the message of all the prophets. It was the message John the Baptist preached in the Jordan Valley. It was the message of Jesus as He commenced His ministry, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). It was the message that birthed the church at Pentecost and the message of all the apostles. The Lenten season begins with a call to repent for each of us.

 But what really is behind this word? Repentance is not remorse, being sorry for our sin. The rich young ruler went away “sorrowful” but didn’t repent (Matthew 19:16–22). It is not simply regret, wishing that some moment could be lived over again. Pilate washed his hands, regretting his evil deed, but he didn’t repent (Matthew 27:24). Repentance is not reform, that is, trying to turn over a new leaf. Judas reformed by returning the silver coins of betrayal but didn’t repent (Matthew 27:3).

 Repentance emerges from a Greek word meaning “to change one’s mind,” which results in a change of will, which in turn results in a change of action. While repentance begins with a change of mind, real proof will be found in our change of attitude and action.

Let me share with you how.

Begin today to change your mind about your sin. It is not some vice to be laughed off. Sin is so serious it necessitated the cross. Also change your mind about yourself. You cannot please God through self-righteousness. Finally, change your mind about your Savior. Jesus is not just some teacher or prophet, but He is God, who clothed Himself in human flesh and gave Himself for you.

Those simple changes of mind will change you in ways you cannot imagine.

The essence of biblical repentance is beautifully embedded in the old and often-repeated story of the prodigal son. The young man found himself not only broke—having left his family home and spent his inheritance—but broken. While feeding swine in a pigpen, he longed for the husks they were eating, and he “came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

This first step in the repentance process, this change of mind, brought about the second step, a change in his will, his volition. In the next verse he exclaimed, “I will arise and go to my father.” Once his mind and will were changed, his actions were sure to follow. Thus, we read, “He arose and came to his father” (v. 20).

Repentance is a change of mind. That is it! And how do we know that we have truly changed our minds? Our volition will be changed as well, and our changed actions—resulting in a new life direction—will follow as naturally as water running downhill.

Repentance and faith are inseparable, born at the same time. They are two sides of the same coin. Repentance alone will not get you to heaven, but you can’t get there without it. No wonder Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

Ask God when you pray to bring to the surface of your heart and mind that thing that displeases Him and for which you need to repent. Then change your mind about it, and your will and actions will follow.

I love the way the apostle Paul framed the subject of repentance: “The goodness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Once, when their daughters were small, a couple rented a vacation home deep in the Smoky Mountains. That first night in that strange place was, as author and educator James Weldon Johnson put it, “blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp”!

The father was awakened in the middle of the night by the cries of their little seven-year-old at the top of the stairs. He bounded up the stairs to find her disoriented and scared in the darkness. He took her by the hand and led her down the stairs into the security of their bed, where she soundly slept the rest of the night away.

And so it is that our dear Lord finds us in the night, often disoriented by the issues of life. He takes us by the hand, and, as the Bible says, His own goodness “leads [us] to repentance.”

When all is said and done, what difference will it make if we drive luxury cars, eat vitamin-enriched foods, live in palatial homes, and are buried in mahogany caskets if we rise up in judgment to meet a God we do not know? Let His goodness take you by the hand today. He will eventually lead you to repentance.

The Bible says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Who is this “Word”? It is God Himself, stepping out of heaven, clothing Himself in human flesh, and physically invading human history.

John leaves no doubt concerning this identity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, emphasis added).

Jesus came down to where we are so that we could one day go to where He is! He came not clinging to the brightness of His glory, not shunning us for our sinful condition, but humbling Himself and taking on a garment of flesh. By doing so He can say to you and me, no matter our emotional condition, temptations, or pain, “I understand.”

He “dwelt among us, . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus is full of grace. Because of His sacrifice, we don’t get what we deserve, and that is called grace. And He is full of truth. It is only when His grace leads us to know the truth that we are truly free.

But that is not all. “We beheld His glory” (John 1:14). Paul said it like this: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). As much as you doubt it, He has shown His glory in and through you more than once.

When you think about it, we had a really good start. Life began in a perfect paradise. The climate was never too warm and never too cold. We had no heartaches, no worries. We felt no aches or pains. We were doing wonderfully well—until we disobeyed and ate the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the garden.

The first evidence of this demise came when Adam and Eve saw “that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). They had been naked all along, but not until sin came did they take their eyes off God and put them on themselves. This is always what sin does. Before, God had been the center of their attention and devotion. Sin entered the picture, and their focus became centered squarely upon themselves.

Their first impulse? Grab some fig leaves and cover their nakedness. But God in His grace intervened because all the human mechanisms we use to try and cover our sin never suffice. He took an innocent little animal, killed it, and covered Adam and Eve with its skin. When that animal breathed its last breath, it became the first to know the expensive toll that sin takes on one’s life.

God placed our first parents in a perfect paradise. We fell. God drove us out. And you and I have been trying to get back into His presence ever since. The account begins with paradise lost in Genesis and ends with paradise regained in Revelation. Right now, we are exiles from Eden. But we are making our way back home through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Let me close with this verse:

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 JOHN 3:18

You would think one of the things we could all get behind is Jesus’ message of love. Everywhere He went, Jesus told people to love others more than they love themselves. He said if someone asks you for money, give it to them and give generously. He said to do right by those who don’t treat you well in return. He lived the message even more passionately than He taught it, engaging every person in front of Him or behind Him like they were His one and only priority.

His message wasn’t confusing or hard to understand. But it’s surprising how divisive it can be to live out Jesus’ message of love. People blast you, saying love actually means rejecting people when they don’t act a certain way—they call it “tough love.” Or they bring out their Greek and Hebrew words, saying love means keeping people at arm’s length until they change their behaviors. Somehow, we can turn even Jesus’ message of love into a dividing line to determine who’s in and who’s out.

Jesus was criticized because of who He brought close, not those He sent away. He was scandalous because of who He let in, not those He cast out. Keep it simple. Instead of telling people what Jesus meant, love everyone the way He did.

You might be misunderstood when you love like Jesus, but you’re in good company. Jesus was misunderstood. The people in power killed Him. What makes you think you won’t take a hit? He was ridiculed because He chose to live like every person, no matter who they were or what they had done, belonged in His family. Do the same.

Don’t get bogged down by arguments about what it means to follow Jesus. Lose all the fancy words. Just love everyone the way He did.

Benediction

Lord, I can’t excuse my sin by claiming everyone else is doing it, nor can I minimize it by asserting it is not as bad as someone else’s. I confess: I have sinned against You, and I am wholly dependent on Your grace and mercy.  Lord, I am amazed at Your love for me. You are a good God, and I put my hand in Yours today. Lead me in the way I should go. Lord, I come to You now admitting I can do nothing in and of myself to cleanse my sin. I trust today in Your shed blood to cover me and cleanse me. Hosanna!

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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