Bittersweet Symbols…

Ben Schoettel   -  


At the time I am writing this, we are in a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. Coincidentally, we are between messages “give us this day our daily bread” and “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Also coincidentally, the middle of this week has two very interesting dates of significance that overlap on the same day. This Wednesday is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Time for some 99% dark chocolate… all jokes aside, it makes for a great devotional moment.


The reason that Jesus shares the Lord’s Prayer is because his followers are desperate to find out how they can truly connect with God. They understand God as their source, and they know of their need for forgiveness (as seen in the prayer) but there is still a significant disconnect between the people and the full understanding of how they experience God’s love. As we see from the Lord’s prayer, and the entire Sermon on the Mount, salvation and provision come to the ones who surrender their hearts to God. But as Jesus mentions prior to the Lord’s Prayer, that surrender must be sincere. Jesus warns His followers to “not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” He also warns that our giving and acts of service need to be sincere as well.


No better day to talk about insincere words or acts of love than Valentine’s Day (okay… that is a little harsh even for me… but we need to at least acknowledge there is SOME hypocrisy and commercialization of love for this holiday, right?) It is days like Valentine’s Day where the pressure is on to express (or earn… sorry…) your love for your significant other by 1-upping everyone else and getting the most thoughtful (or expensive) gift you can find. But… does that puppy, chocolate, or Range Rover make you a loving person the rest of the year? Is your relationship, or the sincerity of your heart determined by what is unwrapped on this day? I hope not…


The people in the Bible had this same issue, only instead of candy and flowers, it was ashes and sackcloth. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the time of fasting leading up to Easter Sunday to remember and represent Jesus fasting in the wilderness on his ministry journey to the cross. Fasting (some including sackcloth and ash) represents a time of repentance of sins, mostly as a way of expressing the state of their heart. These means were employed when one found themselves in a state of distress and desperation for God’s intervention/salvation.


Jesus also mentions fasting in this Sermon, and He also mentions those hypocrites again… He says “when you fast do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” Basically, Jesus is saying that if you are seeking heart transformation, receive it from your obedience to God, not attention from an audience.


We see an even harsher warning in Isaiah 58, when the prophet reveals the insincerity of their fasting. God says this through the prophet: (condensed for time)


 “They seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right… “why have we fasted” they say, and “have you not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit your workers. Your fasting ends with fighting and strife, and striking each other… is it only for lying in sackcloth and ashes?… is not THIS the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter… Then your light will break forth like the dawn; and your healing will quickly appear…”


Does any of this mean there is something wrong with fun on Valentine’s Day, or that we shouldn’t participate in Ash Wednesday? No. Do it. What it means is that in a culture that will strangely enough make a self-focused spectacle of both events, we have an opportunity to show sincerity like Jesus. Our love and generosity will be much more impactful if it continues beyond a single giving of a card, and our light will shine much brighter if our humility and surrender lasts beyond the receiving of the ash.