“FROM DUST YOU'VE COME TO DUST YOU SHALL RETURN"
Jonah 3:5-10; Matthew 11:21; John 3:16
DEVOTIONAL THOUGHT (Written by Major Mike Hawley, Territorial Secretary for Evangelism)
The modern world uses microwaves, electric ovens, and gas stoves when we cook, and ashes are rarely the desired outcome. But ashes were at one time commonplace. The word ashes are used 49 times in the Old Testament and 4 times in the New Testament. To sprinkle with ashes or sit in ashes didn’t mean they ruined supper or had to call the fire department. It was then a token of grief, mourning, or penitence.
Jesus referenced sackcloth and ashes in Matthew 11:21 KJV
“Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
Today we celebrate Ash Wednesday, where millions of people worldwide will go into dimly lit rooms, stand in line waiting for a priest or pastor to wipe oily ashes on their forehead and say, “From dust you’ve come to dust, you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday launches that 40-day period between Lent and Easter (not including Sundays). It is a special time of holiness when Christians remember the sacrifice of Christ and explore their own continuing process of sanctification, becoming more Christ-like. During Lent, some people choose to give up a bad habit or take on a positive new practice. It’s one way of honoring and modeling the clear significance of 40 days and nights in the Bible, specifically the time Jesus spent fasting and enduring temptation in the desert.
The primary biblical expression of people who really were sorry about disappointing God was dressing in sackcloth and sitting in or putting ashes over themselves.
One powerful and clear example is found in the OT, where we find a man named Jonah. This well-known story was about much more than an ocean-based Uber system that transported an unwilling prophet from the middle of the ocean to the shore of Nineveh. The capital city of Assyria may no longer be a tourist destination, but at that time, it did have some impressive features. Nineveh was the oldest and most-populous city of the ancient Assyrian empire, situated on the east bank of the Tigris River by the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. An elaborate system of 18 canals brought water from the hills, and the estimated population of 120,000 adults could enter through the 100-foot-high walls through any of the 15 elaborate gates.
God had a message to give to the people of this city and selected Jonah to deliver it. It was a warning that there were going to be consequences for their behavior by God Himself.
Jonah had said in 40 days, you’re going to get it, and look at what they did. They didn’t question whether they deserved it. They didn’t rationalize their behavior and tried to excuse themselves from their guilt. The Bible tells us they believed in God.
They expressed outwardly what was going on in their hearts inwardly by putting on sackcloth and ashes. Everyone. From the top to the bottom of their society and culture. No questions asked. The king led the way. When he heard the message, he took off his royal robes, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes- all signs of repentance and sorrow. Furthermore, he insisted that his people do the same- fast, call urgently on God, give up their evil ways and violence, and perhaps, maybe then- he hoped, they all hoped, God would not bring down the punishment that Jonah was forecasting would come.
Sin, repentance, mortality, death...these are not what ordinary people delight in discussing.
Sin the truth that there IS right and wrong and that we make very bad mistakes and are less than perfect.
Confession and repentance are the ideas of sharing your most shameful failures with someone else.
Death, the fear of the unknown, the question mark at our end what will we face? There's no escaping it or changing it, no matter HOW advanced our technology or medicine gets. No matter how rich or powerful or intelligent we become in this life, we are ALL created beings, we ALL have a beginning, and we will ALL have an end.
The Ninevites who were spared judgment should be a motivation for all people to seek God’s mercy and choose the path of humility and repentance.
Ash Wednesday is the day we remind ourselves of these things. Not to depress ourselves, but to remind ourselves that God is God and WE ARE NOT, that His ways ARE HIGHER THAN OUR WAYS, and that we as created beings are completely indebted to the grace and mercy of our God and ONLY have salvation through the cross and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Today is a good day to put aside pride, empty ourselves of everything great that we think we are, and focus on God.
The Bible is very clear: we are finite beings who have a beginning and an end. We will one day answer to God and God alone. We MUST align ourselves with HIS reality, with HIS way, and with HIS requirements. Today is a day we can actively remind ourselves of that.
We MUST not hide from the reality of death and the consequences of sin. We MUST remind ourselves and others that the ONLY way to deal with sin and the ONLY way to overcome its consequences is by humbling ourselves before the mighty hand of God, by confessing our sins, by repenting from our offensive ways to God and by receiving His mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
Nobody told the King of Nineveh what to do when he heard the warning issued through Jonah. Nobody said to him do this- wear sackcloth and ashes, repent, cry out for forgiveness and mercy, stop indulging yourself, and if God sees that you are responding this way, He won’t bring this judgment upon you.
The king believed the word he heard, and he responded exactly the way he should have to save himself and his people.
The Bible tells us in Jonah Chapter 3 vs. 10, "Then God saw their works that they turned from their evil way, and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it."
As we acknowledge this start to the 40-day run towards the crucifixion and resurrection of the only begotten Son of God, maybe it’s a good time to consider our own standing with Him. Would fasting, choosing to do without something deliberately, benefit you spiritually? How about repentance? Is there a behavioral U-turn that is needed? Not just a sorry you got caught but a determination with the help offered by God’s powerful, ever-present living Holy Spirit that change is necessary and possible. Maybe you won’t be putting ashes on your forehead or fasting this Lenten season, but it would probably be helpful if, these 40 days, you would give thought to the journey Jesus took to make salvation for all people possible.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. (JOHN 3:16)
OUR CORPORATE PRAYER
Our Father, who art in heaven, have mercy on us. We confess our sins to you. We know we have fallen short of Your glory, and without Your mercy and grace, we would be dust. We repent now. Lord, as we enter into this Lenten season, be near to us. May Your Holy Spirit bring conviction where it is needed, and may we engage in true repentance and turn completely from our sins. In Jesus' name, amen.
OUR WORLDWIDE PRAYER MEETING FOR FEBRUARY 23, 2023, ~ TANZANIA TERRITORY
REACHING OUT TO OTHERS
As we focus our thoughts as a body of believers on the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, this week, be intentional with sharing the love of Christ with all you come in contact with.
"Nevertheless, the liturgy of these days is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God. The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior."
- Thomas Merton