A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 2015 at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama.
The invitation to observe a holy Lent is an invitation to sacrifice and self-denial. It is an invitation to give something up. This has been the common practice of Christians around the world century after century. Many of us have in recent days asked the question: What will I give up for Lent this year? And many have selected something and resolved to fast from it, to do without it for these forty days. For some it may be a particular sort of food or drink. For others it may have to do with the way they use their time. But whatever it is, the common theme is sacrifice. We give it up. As we enter this Lenten season, however, I want to suggest that giving something up is not enough. We must take something up as well. To put it succinctly: Don’t just give up, take up.
The Means and the End
Here’s what I mean. When we give something up for Lent, we are committing ourselves to the spiritual discipline of fasting. But the purpose of fasting is not simply the act of giving up. The purpose of giving one thing up is to make room for something else. So, we might choose to fast from a meal in order to use that time for extra prayer. We might give up some luxury in order to give more resources to missions or to ministry with the poor perhaps. In each case, we deny ourselves in one way in order to grow in another way. The discipline of giving something up is a means that leads to a different end. We give up so that we can take up.
The Danger of Lent
But therein lies the danger. All too often we perilously allow the means to become the end. We give up chocolate or soft drinks or something and focus so much on the giving up that we neglect to take up. We neglect to devote our energy and resources and attention to growing in grace and faith and holiness. When that happens we have allowed the means to become the end, and we miss the point, and we miss the benefit of the Lenten sacrifice. Don’t just give up, take up.
What do we take up?
This, of course, invites the question: what should we take up? We should not be surprised that one answer to our question can be found in the liturgy. The law of prayer is the law of faith, after all. When we receive the ashes on our forehead, we hear the minister call upon us to “repent and believe the gospel.” What do we take up during Lent? We first take up repentance. Whatever you elect to fast from during these forty days, take time to allow the Spirit of God to convict you of indwelling sin, and repent. Turn from it. Forsake it. Give it up! Sacrifice whatever you want during this season, but be sure, whatever you do, take up repentance.
And take up faith. Not only are we exhorted to repent, the liturgy instructs us to believe the gospel. How well we would do to take the extra time we have from giving something up and use that time to meditate on and give thanks to God for the beauty of the gospel, the good news that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, that he was raised for us, that he lives and intercedes for us, and works within us by his Holy Spirit to make us new, and to make us holy.
And take up holiness. By all means, take up holiness. Allow this season of giving up and clearing out to function as a means to the end of making room for holiness in your life. Let me be clear. I do not mean some sort of legalistic checking off of items on a list. I mean being set apart for what Christ wants to do in you and through you. I mean having a heart overflowing with love for God and for neighbor. Allow God to do what he wants to do, namely to fill you with his Spirit so that you consistently embody his character, with all its extravagance, with all its magnificence, with all its beauty, with all its joy.
Finally, take up the cross. If Ash Wednesday is about anything, it is about that. We receive on our bodies a smudge of ash in the shape of the cross as a declaration that we are followers of the crucified Christ, the one who denied himself and took up his cross. And he calls to us and says, “If any want to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So don’t just give up, take up. And remember, as you take upon your body the sign of the cross, that all of life is to be lived in the shape of that cross. In this way, Ash Wednesday informs the whole year and our whole lives. This is what it means to be people of the cross. It is to carry the cross on our bodies as a continual declaration that we are a people set apart for Christ and his kingdom.
So, during this Lenten season, give something up. But don’t just give something up. Take something up. Take up repentance. Take up faith. Take up holy love. And take up the cross. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.