Here we are on Ash Wednesday, with ashes on our foreheads. But the Lord tells us through the holy prophet Joel, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Following the same sort of thought, the Lord Jesus tells us, “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. … But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place.”
The idea is that we are not to make sure that other people see that we are sorrowful. The danger in the time of Jesus as well as Joel was that people would be making a show of their act of repentance. Were they simply going through the motions, perhaps to appear pious to other men?
Joel was writing to people who were experiencing difficult times. Locusts were devouring the land, leaving little or nothing behind. Joel told the people that this was a judgment from God. They should therefore repent of their sins so that He would restore them.
Some people would undoubtedly think, “If I just go through the motions, God will see my repentance and be pleased.” Others might not actually plan this deliberately, yet find themselves going through the motions anyway.
The more Pharisaical individuals make fake repentance into a science. Good times or bad, they can be found showing how sincere they are by the great sorrows they show. Just look at how their hair is in disarray and their clothing torn and their faces covered in ashes! Surely they are pious and spiritual men! But inside, there is no sincerity. They love to be seen as good men by others.
Now, I do not think that anyone here is a full-fledged, intentional Pharisee. I do not think anyone is deliberately trying to show off their piety in front of others to look good. We are not trying to purposefully deceive God or men by our empty show of repentance. But even if we do not do it intentionally, there is still a Pharisee flesh inside us that loves to be admired. We enjoy the praise of others, even if we are not actively seeking it out. So we should watch out for those kinds of tendencies in ourselves.
Was Christ, or Joel, telling us that we should not make any outward sign of repentance? No, not really. Joel said, in chapter one, “Gird yourselves and lament, you priests; wail, you who minister before the altar; come, lie all night in sackcloth, you who minister to my God.”
Also Jonah tells how the people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them, and cried mightily to God. Far from being displeased or angered by their outward signs of repentance, God turned away from the destruction He planned against them.
Even Christ, who seems at first glance to forbid any visible signs of repentance, is talking about showing signs in order to be seen by men. As He describes the Pharisees, “they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.”
We should, at the very least, be cautious about letting others see our signs of repentance. If we wear ashes in this building for a brief time before God in worship, that is one thing. If we parade our ashes before the world all day long, we should examine our hearts to see if we want to be seen by others.
The main thing is that we should make sure that our repentance is not found in our garments or whether there are ashes on our foreheads. Instead, our repentance should consist in whether we are truly sorrowful over our sins. Do we recognize the depth of our trespasses? Are we truly ashamed of our misdeeds? Do we see that they are a heavy and serious burden of guilt, rather than a few minor mistakes or a small blemish here and there?
Rend your hearts, says Joel. Feel your soul torn in pain. This requires a few things.
First, you should notice that you sin. If you blithely skip through life without recognizing the sins that you commit much daily, then how will you feel sorrow over them.
Second, make sure that you know that your sins are horrifying and unclean in God’s sight. We should not shrug them off as if to say, “Eh, to err is human. God doesn’t really care.”
Third, take time to deliberately repent. If you always put it off till later, then you will never get around to it. And if you never get around to it, then do you really have sorrow over your sins?
To see how serious our sins are in God’s sight, turn your eyes to the Cross of Christ. In the shape of the cross, ashes are placed upon foreheads. This is to remind us that our sins did not require God to lightly slap His Son on the wrist. No, they required a most grave and awful sacrifice. The pure and innocent Son of God, whose every drop of Blood is of infinite worth, had to suffer terribly and die. That was the only price that could be enough for the horrible guilt of our sins.
In this sacrifice and death, we see the pity of the Lord for us His people. He shows us the depth of His love, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. We see all this at the Cross. We see this in the scarlet streams down the precious Lamb’s body.
Therefore we can come before God with broken spirits and hearts torn with sorrow. He will forgive, since He has paid the price for our guilt. We do not have to fool God into thinking that we deserve forgiveness. There is no deserving forgiveness, or else it is not forgiveness at all. No, we can lay our hearts abjectly before Him, confessing our uncleanness and helplessness, and we know that He will turn His anger away from us. His Son, hanging on the Cross, is the assurance that it is so.
So rend your hearts. Examine and see what is in you. Notice your words and deeds. Feel the sorrow appropriate to your guilt, which is very great sorrow indeed. But then receive His forgiveness, won at a tremendous price. As greatly as you may lay your heart in the dust, He will satisfy you all the more with His grace.
In His Name, who is grace and mercy. Amen.
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