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Ash Wednesday and 80s Movies

Ash Wednesday is every '80s movie training or preparation montage you've ever seen. It's recognizing the need for training, practice, exercise, whatever word you want to use, and doing it.

Corby Stephens
Corby Stephens
12 min read
Ash Wednesday and 80s Movies
Photo by Thays Orrico / Unsplash

Table of Contents

The following text is the raw, unedited transcript from a sermon given on Ash Wednesday, February 14th, 2024 at Iona Community Anglican Church in Vancouver, WA. You can also listen to the audio. Better yet, subscribe to the podcast! 😄

What Ash Wednesday Is Not

Man, they ask the silliest person in the room to preach Ash Wednesday. Bear with me. Well, let's switch it around. What Ash Wednesday is not. How about that? It's not a pity party. It's not isolated only to woe is me alone, although there is an element of that. It's also not a piety party. You like that? Piety party. Pity party? Piety party. Like Jesus was talking about with the the hypocrites and so forth. It is a season of preparation. It's a yearly rhythm we practice because sometimes we forget. You ever forget? I forget a lot. But why is it needed? I thought as I was looking at some of the passages that sometimes we just need to strip things back down to their basics and why Why do we need to prepare? What's the point? Well, it starts with the question of what is sin? I feel really weird having a microphone in my pocket. I'm sorry, this is my inner monolog coming out. What? Because I feel weird like this, too.

What Is Sin?

What is sin? Well, you're probably familiar with the story of Adam and Eve, the account from Genesis. Adam was made from the dust of the earth. God breathed life into him. He then made Eve out of him, and then they were tempted by Satan in a particular way that I think we sometimes miss. When Satan said, You will know good and evil like God. He was telling the truth. But what does it mean to know good and evil? It means the best definition, my favorite one, is when someone says to themselves, I'm boss. When we say, I decide, That. I decide for myself. I know better. To know good and evil is to decide for yourself what is good and evil. When whose job was that? That was God's job. God decides what is good and evil. So when Adam and Eve sinned, they decided for themselves, Well, God said this, but I'm going to decide that this is actually what's right and wrong. So sin is not just an action. It's down to the thought. It's even down to the impulse. When Jesus talks about adultery and murder, he says, If you even look at somebody with lust in your heart, you're already guilty of adultery. If you even look at somebody with hatred in your heart, you're already guilty of murder.

Maybe you haven't even laid a finger on the person or said anything, or maybe you've given him the hairy eyeball, but that's about it. But just that impulse, that's sin. That's what sin is. The choice to sin is what separates us from God. It's really what it is. It introduces the division between us and God. That's how we find ourselves in the predicament we are in, separate from God. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable saying it's not what God wanted because doesn't God always get what he wants? But that opens up a whole other theological can of worms that we want to keep the worms in the can tonight. But you know what I mean. It all works out in the end. In case you haven't read the end of the book, it all works out. It's okay. It's going to be okay. The consequence is sin, separation from God.

What Is The Flesh?

This sin nature, this part of us that says, I'm boss, I decide, has a fun word for it in the New Testament in Greek, which is sarks. I say, our ex, sarks. I don't know why. I just find that word fascinating. Because the sarks, sucks. Can you say sucks in church? I just did. It's okay. It's that part of us, it's not the physical body, it's not this flesh. It's that part of our nature that wants to gratify itself at the expense of others. I mean, there's nothing wrong with the one that I obviously enjoy ice cream. That's self-gratification. But when it's at the expense of others, that's when it's not the good kind. This flesh, this part of us, can even be at the expense of ourselves. It can be self-destructive. Maybe you know somebody who's lived like that. It lives out. I'm boss. Interestingly, you can say that the flesh loves self in the same way, this is going to sound scary, in the same way that God loves us. What? That's crazy talk. I know. Let me explain. Jesus himself says in John 3:19, and Not 16 yet, but 3:19, he says, And this is the judgment that light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. We love our darkness rather than light. Our flesh loves the darkness rather than the light. And that's the same word for love that Jesus uses three verses earlier when he says, For God in this way loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

So this love gives itself over completely to something else or to self. If you've ever known an addict, they give themselves over completely to their addiction, to the point of self-destruction, don't they? That's the flesh. The flesh loves itself the way God demonstrates his love for us by being completely given over.

What Is The Fight?

Now, if you're a follower of Jesus, then you know that there is a fight happening here, and it's between the flesh and what is frequently referred to as spirit, the flesh versus the spirit. I don't know all the ins and outs of, I don't think anybody does. I think if anybody claims they know absolutely how a minute element of theology works, I don't know that they actually do. Sometimes we have this overwhelming need to really slice and dice and get things down into little boxes that we can absorb. But I digress. The spirit in us is our spirit before we become followers of Jesus and the Holy spirit commingled, you might say, our spirit redeemed by his spirit. You may have noticed that in our services we frequently say, I'm going to still be a muscle memory for you guys, the Lord be with you.

With your spirit. What does that mean? It means that when I say the Lord be with you and you say, and with your spirit, what we're saying is that, what you're saying, at least back to me, is that the Holy spirit that's in you is with the Holy spirit that's in me. It's together. We're one. We're all in one Holy spirit, one baptism. We say this in the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. There's this one spirit. So individually, as we're still here on Earth in our Earth suits before going to be with God, we have this struggle between the flesh and the spirit. In fact, Paul puts it this way in Galatians 5, But I say, walk by the spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh. For these are opposed to each other to keep you from doing the things that you want to do. Mic drop. I won't drop the mic, but boom. There it is. This flesh versus spirit, this part of us that wants to live out, I'm boss, versus this other part that's not even all us, it's actually God in us that wants to live out Jesus's boss.

There is this fight. Paul uses words like to combat this. He uses phrases like beating my body into submission, like this self-discipline, like somebody's boxing, but it's myself. We read things about being dead to the flesh and alive in Christ. Jesus says that we're supposed to deny ourselves. John the Baptist says, paraphrasing, he says, I must decrease, but he must increase. There's this trade-off. Other places, humble yourself, and he will lift you up. There's this trade-off. If you think about it like a cup, a cup is always full. It's just a question of what. If you have a water cup and it's empty of water, what is it actually full of? Air. You pour water in, now it's full of water because the air is out. It's always full of something. That's what this walk in the spirit versus the flesh is like. What are we full of? There will be seasons where we're more full of one than the other, unfortunately, but that's That's the reality. The flesh wants to condemn you. The flesh wants to say, You are bad at this, whatever the this is. That's the condemning. It's a flip of what conviction is.

The spirit wants to convict us and say, You can do this with my help. There's the same this in front of us. The flesh says, You can't do that. You're no good. The spirit says, You can do this with me. With my help. That's the trade-off. That's the same thing. When Paul says in our passage tonight, when he says, He made him who knew no sin, there's lots of he. You got to be like, Which he is what? He, God made him, Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin for us. He flipped what was in the cup because we couldn't do it ourselves. He replaced what we couldn't do, what we couldn't become on our own with his own son. That's the gospel. That's the good news. I can't do this by myself. Of course, I can't do this by myself. I will never be good enough because I always I have sinned, and I can't erase my own sin. I can't pay for my own sin. That's what Jesus did. We have sin, we have this flesh, we have this fight happening. What do we do about this? How What's the process here?

What Is Repentance?

Well, what is repentance? This is a season of penitence, which I would describe as operating in a mode of repentance, regularly, consistently on purpose. Repentance is not wallowing in misery, shame, or guilt. It's just not. The word repent means it means to change the way you think, but it doesn't just stop there. Because the result of changing the way we think should be changing the way we act. It's not just deciding, I used to think this was wrong, and now I think it's right, or I used to think that was right, but actually it's wrong. There's a change of action. There's a change of living out this thing. This is what it means to repent, to change the way you think so as to change the way you act. It's pretty simple, though it's really hard to do. The concept is simple, but it's not always easy to do. Joel said, speaking from God, Return to me with all your heart. Does the phrase all your heart make you want to start saying more words after that that are familiar? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.

The greatest commandment, the chief commandment. It's the most important... It's not the first commandment you ever give them, but it's the first at the top of the list. The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, which is what we say every week. Jesus, he doesn't add something to it, but he adds something to it. When you read the gospel, there's a fourth The first thing he says, with all your strength. That's not in Deuteronomy. Jesus is not adding to this list from God. Jesus is a rabbi. He's a Bible teacher. He's making a comment. In other words, he's saying, with all your with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your oomph, with all your everything. That's literally means with all your very. But that doesn't make any sense in English. So oomph makes more sense. It just does. With all of your strength, return to me with all your... Return to me with everything, even the gross stuff, even the stuff you don't like about yourself, even the stuff people have criticized you about. Return to me with all of that. Sometimes I think, maybe I have to ask, do we focus too much on the acknowledgement and the agreement of sin?

Like, yes, sin. I'm a sinner. I have sinned. I continue to sin. Sinner. Chief of sinners. Paul doesn't know what he's talking about. Do we focus too much on that and not enough on the, Okay, I am. How do I change the way I think about things so as to change the way I act so that they're more in line with what God wants, with his ways to follow what Jesus is doing? Change complete repentance, or maybe repentance in action is visible in changed actions, not just self-pity, not just, Yep, I blew it. I screwed up. There's action. The result of that, which I I think is very cool. Repentance results in reconciliation, not just with God, but also with others. Relationship. When we repent of something, when we own up to our own stuff and start to change the way we think, to It means the way we act, we not only are reconciled to God, but it also affects our relationships with others, as it should, because we're all image bearers of God. Repentance results in reconciliation. So all of this stuff. Asht Wednesday is not a pity party. It's not a piety party.

We have this sin, we have this flesh, and if you're following Jesus, you have the spirit, or there's the struggle going on. So what is Asht Wednesday about?

What Ash Wednesday Is

And again, I was meditating on... You're getting a weird insight into my brain. I was meditating on the prayer at the beginning and the wonderful introduction at the front of the handout describing Asht Wednesday. And And Ash Wednesday is like every '80s movie training montage you have ever seen. It's every Karate Kid movie where he's practicing wax on, wax off. It's every Luke Skywalker practicing his lightscape. It's fixing up the car for the big race. It's training for the fight and drinking the raw eggs. It's denying yourself the food and the drink and doing all of that stuff to get to the thing that you want get to. That's what Half Wednesday is. It's an '80s training montage. It's recognizing the need for training, practice, exercise, whatever word you want to use. Even doing that is an acknowledgement of your own weakness. It's like, Yep, I am weak. I have this thing that I want to get to. I better change what I'm doing. I better change the way I think to change the way I act.

As you even go through that process, you start practicing, you start training, you start exercising this spiritual muscle, will reveal even more weakness, but it also can give you more determination to get to the end. Do we focus too much on the acknowledgement? Maybe we do. Instead, Ash Wednesday reminds us to focus on the preparation. Jesus's words about not making this process visible to others seems ironic in light of what we're about to do is push this big black cross on our foreheads. Wait a minute, didn't Jesus just say not to... Culturally, it's totally different. We're not just figuring our... Which I think is hilarious. Jesus, he probably was like, Just making you in your face. I'm so hungry. I'm so tired. Can't be? He probably made some really funny face. It's not that. Because today, I didn't know what ash Wednesday was, probably until sometime in my 40s. I rarely even saw people with ashes on their head. That's how uncommon, at least it is for my growing up. And now when people see it, it's probably more of an opportunity for like, What is that? Oh, these are ashes. You might have the courage and the spirit to inspire you to tell people about Jesus.

It presents an opportunity. In a few moments, we're going to hear the phrase, Remember that you are dust. Remember that you are at where you are at right now, but you don't have to stay there. In fact, you're not supposed to stay there. You're supposed to prepare for what's coming up. So revive a habit of prayer, revive a habit of Bible reading if you need to, revive a habit of fasting from something as a personal challenge, whatever that is for you. But don't just, I'm I'm not going to do this thing. I'm not going to do this thing. As you're not doing that thing, you are then refocusing that energy towards the Lord. So if you're fasting from a food and it's lunchtime, and I'm not going to eat lunch for the next several days or weeks or whatever it is, then it's during lunchtime, you get to pray, you get to read, you get to do something that steers you back to God, whatever that looks like. Showing charity and love and action is another element of this. Apart from God, we are ashes, we are dust. But in God, walking in the spirit, we are made into something better.

God took dust and made Adam Adam fell. God takes us, our ashes and our dust, and throws in Jesus and the Holy spirit, and makes something better. And this season is the preparation for for that. Would you pray with me? Lord, thank you as always for your word. Thank you for your Holy spirit. Thank you for Jesus. Thank you for this season to be reminded that we don't got this on our own. We can't got this on our own. We need to rely on you. We need to remember who and what we are in this season to prepare for the supper of the resurrection, to prepare to celebrate the new life that we have in you. If anyone's in Christ, they're a new creation, new dust. Old things have passed away. All things have been made brand new. So Lord, help us to prepare for that. Help us to focus on that in this season to remind us of these things. We love you and we praise thank you in Jesus' name. Everyone said, Amen.



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