17th February 2021- Ash Wednesday

Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7)

I believe that every religious person needs at least one spiritual advisor.  A spiritual advisor gives you spiritual advice, especially when you need it most.  They are not like financial advisors, where you might have to set up an appointment.  You can reach them when you need them.  They can be a friend, a teacher, a mentor, a colleague, or even sometimes a family member.  He or she is anyone who helps lead you back to God when you are straying.  And everyone has moments when they stray. 

The elders are spiritual advisors in our church, if you do not have someone who you feel comfortable talking to about these things.  Whoever it is, though, I encourage you to make an effort to find one, and when you have one, make that effort to keep the relationship between both of you strong.  For Proverbs reminds us, “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice” (Prov. 12:15).  Do not go your own way without first asking if God is present along that way.  When you are troubled during your way, contact your spiritual advisor and ask them to walk with you as you seek to find God in your circumstance.  I have four mentors who I connect with regularly, and with each connection, I walk away feeling closer to God.  My spiritual advisor is also found in the authors of the books I read. 

Our church began our 12 week book study on John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping a couple weeks ago, and we have been savoring the spiritual nuggets found within those pages.  For example, a quote from Dallas Willard: “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day.  You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life” (Ortberg, 20).  He tells us how there are so many roadblocks to a healthy spiritual life, as rocks get in the way of a rushing river.  Hurry is one of them.  Superficiality, not studying our soul deeply enough, as well as clutteredness, which draws our attention away from our spiritual lives, are others (Ortberg, 58-59).  But he also tells us that our spiritual lives should be our “ultimate concern” (Ortberg, 27).  It is this life which draws us closer to God; it is not the world.  It does not matter what the world thinks of us, or how much we do in the world, except for our task of helping other souls.  And to help other souls come closer to God, we need to help our own. 

To be a growing Christian, we need to do three things.  First, we need to read the Bible.  Deuteronomy tells the ruler of the throne to keep a written copy of the law with him, and it says: “he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment” (Deut. 17:19-20).  Timothy also promoted the study of Scripture: he wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).  It would follow, then, that the Scripture can and needs to be another one of our spiritual advisors.  Second, we need to have an active prayer life.  Romans tell us to “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, [and] be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12).  James tells us to pray for one another with the assurance that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).  Paul also told the Philippians that if they remain constant in prayer, it will mean something, for they will be relieved of worry and they will be able to stand firmly in the ways of the Lord.  He wrote, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).  We wish to stand firm with our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.  So often, we find ourselves in other ways and then seek to right our path, and come back to God.  It follows that God is a spiritual advisor, and we come to Him through prayer.  Third, we need to be connected to a Christian community.  This is where we find our other advisors, in our authors, our friends, our pastors, and our congregation.  In Hebrews 10, we read, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  Proverbs 27 tells us that “iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” (Prov. 27:17). 

We can spend time in each of these themes, but the overall point of each of these is that we must learn to grow.  We cannot settle for who we are now.  Jesus told us to be perfect, as the Heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48).  We are each called to have the vision in our minds to be closer and closer to the image of the Father, to continue to strive toward perfection, until the day that we finally reach it, when we are with the Father in the heavenly kingdom.  If we do not keep that goal in our minds, it will be easy to accept that we are good enough, that we have no more work to do, and we will cease to use the rest of our lives for God’s glory. 

The Scriptures we have read today are examples of the people returning to God.  Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, and Lent has symbolically been a journey of drawing near to God.  Many people like to give up something for Lent, but the reason people first started giving up something was so that they could draw nearer to God.  You gave up something that took your attention away from God.  Maybe ice cream and soda take the attention away from God for some people, if they feel they are being gluttonous.  Though, the intent is to find things that are filling our time and taking away time spent with God, so that we can instead use that time to draw nearer to God.  When you find this time to read the Bible, pray, and make fellow believers an everyday part of your life, you will only benefit from a closer relationship with God.  This does not just happen on Sundays.  We have the opportunity to do these three things on every day of the week. 

This Lent, I challenge you to reflect with King David as he wrote Psalm 51.  He knew that he could have done some things better.  He knew that he had made mistakes.  But he also knew that the Lord still loved him, and that he could renew his efforts to draw closer to God.  He prayed, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:1-3).  The first theme that we will look at this Lent is how we realize our transgressions.  Where have we fallen short in our efforts to grow as a Christian?  I can tell you about mine, and how little I read the Bible during seminary school unless it had been actually assigned to me.  I can tell you about how I hardly made time for mentors, or for friends, because I felt like I was too busy and that I was wasting time if I did not spend it getting work done.  There are many things that, despite our best efforts and intentions, take our attention away from God.  And we will make those mistakes again.  Yet, we can still redirect our personal lives and our work lives to model the life that Christ would have us live.  The prophet Micah asked a question that we can ask ourselves: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). 

Second, we ask God to renew our inner being.  It sounds like Ortberg again, telling us that our spiritual lives should be our “ultimate concern” (Ortberg, 27).  David prayed to God to teach him wisdom and to purge him (Psalm 51:6-7).  These are two separate prayers; one is the dangerous prayer to ask God to remove all evil within us that takes our attention away from God, and the other is to ask God to fill the empty space that results with wisdom, so that we might have a “clean heart,” and a “new and right spirit” (Psalm 51:10).  I believe that there are many good things about each of our spirits which we can rejoice for.  Yet, if we do not continually return to our various spiritual advisors, the things that distract us from God can build up, perhaps at a rate that we do not even notice.  We need to keep recognizing our transgressions – or, our debts – and ask God to forgive them, so that our souls remain healthy.  We fill ourselves with good things so that we can be drawn closer to God. 

Third, we take what we have been filled with, and create for the Christian people a “willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12).  This is our final Lenten theme, following the example that Jesus gave on the way to Jerusalem and the cross.  It is all done with the desire that David showed: “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (Psalm 51:13).  We are called to teach others through whatever means that God calls us to, each in different ways.  It may be that we are a simple model of Christ’s likeness, that we are visibly striving for God’s ways, and others see that.  Or, it may be something else.  Yet, we are each called to give our lives to God willingly, so that we do our part to prepare a place for God’s kingdom to reign on this earth.  Yes, we may be broken, as Christ was broken.  Yet that is exactly what is acceptable to God (Psalm 51:17).  In Christ’s brokenness, many followers were gained. 

Therefore, I challenge you to walk with us this Lent, keeping one or many spiritual advisors close by you on this journey.  There is no need to tell of how well we are doing these things to all the world, for that is the opposite of walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8, Matt. 6:1).  Simply, walk with God, knowing that we need God’s help, in prayer, God’s help, in the word, and God’s help, through the help of another.  May you find, when we celebrate again the joy of a risen Lord, that your heart is a little bit brighter and your soul is a little bit lighter.  Closer, my God.  God, may you feel closer to us as we seek you.

Scripture Readings: 

Psalm 51:1-17 
51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 
51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 
51:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 
51:4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 
51:5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 
51:6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 
51:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 
51:8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 
51:9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 
51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 
51:11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
51:12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 
51:13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 
51:14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 
51:15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 
51:16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 
51:17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 
6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 
6:2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 
6:3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 
6:4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 
6:5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 
6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 

6:16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 
6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 
6:18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 
6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 
6:20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 
6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

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