Ash Wednesday

“Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
Matthew 11:21

When it comes to repentance, there are two kinds of cities and two kinds of citizens. Bethsaida and Korazin, like Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum, were believing communities. These cities, nestled in the heartland of Jewish Galilee, were filled with people who knew their Bibles. They had read the prophecies; they knew the wonders of the past. Folks in Bethsaida and Korazin were expecant people, pinning their hopes on the coming of the Jewish Messiah.

But their scriptural insight and spiritual bona fides inversely corresponded to their willingness to repent. In the face of Jesus’ teachings – and despite a catalogue of signs and miracles manifesting all around them – their hearts remained unmoved.

Bethsaida and Korazin looked on, arms folded, contentedly detached. It’s not like Jesus’ invitation to get real about their sins and turn back to God was offensive or anything; it was just irrelevant. After all, Bethsaida and Korazin weren’t that bad; other people needed forgiveness more than they. The whole sackcloth and ashes thing? That was for really sinful people.

The other kind of city – and the other kinds of citizens – was represented by Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon weren’t Galilean towns. They were Gentile communities. Spiritual outsiders. They didn’t know that Ol’ King David needed repentance or that Daniel covered himself with sackcloth. They hadn’t read about how cousin Mordecai sat at the gate in ashes.

But, Jesus says, they knew when God was close. They could read the signs. They could make sense of the power of Jesus. And had they seen fish multiplied, lame people walking, and storms hushed, they would have fallen straight on their faces.

See, Tyre-and-Sidon people get that a God powerful enough to transform the world is also a God holy enough to expect repentance. God cannot be muscular and yet apathetic about sin. God cannot be both mighty and dismissive. A God great enough to adore is great enough to be obeyed.

People in Tyre and Sidon, Jesus says, would have taken up the dust and sackcloth, the ancient marks of sadness and repentance.

Sackcloth, the crudest and most uncomfortable of garments, reminded our spiritual ancestors that they ought never get comfortable with their sin. Ashes…ashes to ashes…were marks of mortality, reminding them that they would someday stand before judgement. From the dust they came and to the dust they would return.

What the citizens of Bethsaida and Korazin didn’t appreciate was that the greater one’s awareness of God’s glory, the more acute one’s sense of culpability must become. The more mature one’s appreciation of God’s grandeur and holiness, the more one mourns her guilt and contingency.

Jesus calls down woes on Bethsaida and Korazin – not as curses or as condemnations, but as deeply empathetic pleas for them to come to their senses. He pities them, he pleads with them.  The Galilean villages don’t realize their fate because they won’t appreciate their sin. And because they won’t appreciate their sin, they can’t set their hearts on the need for salvation.

On Ash Wednesday, let’s do some introspection. In which town do we reside? Are we over and above the need for remorse and repentance, or are we fully and transparently sorry for our sin?

On the journey of repentance, there are two kinds of city and two kinds of sorrow. In 2 Corithians 7, the Apostle Paul says this:

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.  See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. 

Repentance means having godly sorrow, not worldly sorrow.

As any parent of young children can tell you, there are two kinds of repentance. On the one hand, there’s the indignant or vacuous kind of “I’m sorry” spoken simply to escape punishment. This is worldly sorrow. Worldly sorrow tries to paper over grave problems, to inexpensively diffuse tension when intricate surgery is required. This is mouthing the syllables while inwardly hanging onto a justifying narrative.

That’s not authentic repentance, our Bibles say. And rather than really deal with the problem, it leads only to regret. Why? Because it leaves work undone. And the little seed of self-justification, the tenuous rationale that we assume – maybe even the sense of victimization at play? – grows into a vine that chokes us out.

As we begin the season of Lent, we need more than worldly sorrow. We need godly sorrow.

This is a sort of sorrow that pierces to my center. It takes effect when I’m overshadowed by the truth that my ambitions are the centrifuge of my problems. It sets in when I see how dark my stain, how long my rap sheet, how weak my excuses. It requires me to acknowledge that my wake is littered with brokenness. This is the pit, the shame, the terror, the death…that Paul says ultimately leads to life.

The Heidelberg Catechism puts it like this:

What is the dying of the old nature?

It is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it.

With these ashes upon us, chaffing beneath the sackcloth, something begins to change. Paul describes it: Godly sorrow produces earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.

This is the New Testament, but the Old Testament idea of repentance is the same…repentance means turning around, setting a new course. Listen to the promise! New things are happening in the ashes. Beautiful things are born in the dust.

Paul describes a whole new reality that grows out of repentance. When temptation comes back, as it will, the long-dormant alarms start to flash and sound. When you look back on your past, you wish anew to have done something otherwise. You are eager to apologize to people that you have hurt. You are gravely concerned for those in need. You plead with the citizens Korazin and Bethsaida to see what you’ve seen.

When the ashes penetrate and your sorrow gets real, you start to crave justice and to hate injustice. To hate racism and bullying and gossiping. You set out to sabotage all opponents of the kingdom.

In the end, godly sorrow, nauseates you in order that you might crave the Medicine. Not the anesthetic of self-justification but the cure of the cross. You look to Jesus, the man from Galilee, rejected of Bethsaida, Savior of Tyre.

Godly sorrow leads to repentance, repentance leads to the ashes, and the ashes lead to life. May this day and this season plant something new in the dust of our sincere laments.

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