[Adapted from the message at last night's Ash Wednesday service, jointly held by The District Church, Church of the Advent, and National Baptist Memorial Church. Listen to the sermon here.]
At Lent, we take time to remember the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. At Lent, we prepare ourselves for Easter, the time when we celebrate the most important event in history—Jesus’ death and resurrection. At Lent, we are brought back to and reminded of the truth that forms the foundation of our faith; and that is this:
We can’t, but God can.
On Ash Wednesday, we have ashes placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, and as that happens, these words (or something like them) are spoken over you, from Genesis 3:19:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Those words, which God spoke to Adam, are reminders of our mortality, our finitude, our limits. Those words encapsulate that truth that we can’t, but God can.
I have loved ones who are struggling with health issues, friends who are stuck in jobs that swing from great one day to abysmal the next, or are just difficult; I know people who are wrestling with addictions to alcohol and pornography, folks who are fighting to keep marriages together or raise their kids well, or who are feeling the weight of the aging process in aching joints and sore muscles, faulty memories and slower processing power. I wish I could take their burdens on myself and make everything well, but I can’t. I can’t even do that for the things that I have to face.
And that’s true at the most basic, fundamental level of the soul as well. As I’ve written before:
the presupposition of the Christian faith is that we can’t; the prerequisite for trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord is the acknowledgement that we need a Savior and Lord, and we need a Savior and Lord because we can’t. We can’t save ourselves, we can’t rescue ourselves, we can’t pull ourselves out of our own sins, heal our own sicknesses, free ourselves from our own addictions, repair all of the damage we cause other people or all of the havoc that’s been wreaked on our lives. We can’t.
There are a few practices that Christians throughout history and all over the world have done during the season of Lent; three of the key ones are fasting, praying, and giving to the poor. In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “When you fast, when you pray, when you give to the poor,” not “if”—he assumes that we will do these things. These practices, just like the season of Lent, bring us back to that truth—bring us back to both sides of that truth: we can’t, but God can. So hopefully these practices aren’t restricted to six weeks during the year.
Think about giving to the poor. Giving to the poor reminds us that we can’t but God can. Giving to the poor speaks incisively into the mess of voices that tell us that our money and our resources are our own: It’s yours to do with as you please. Giving to the poor is the action that says, “No, we are but stewards, called to discharge our responsibilities with the resources that God has blessed us with.” Even more than that, giving to the poor reminds us that money does not own us, but that we belong to God, that we are engaged in his mission of bringing freedom from materialism for ourselves and investing in the work of justice and compassion for others. But even more than that, giving to the poor reminds us that our Lord, for our sakes, became poor. And not just poor in comparison to being God—actually, literally, socioeconomically poor. So giving to the poor reminds us that Christ is in every face we see, in every person we encounter. That’s why we give to the poor.
Think about praying. Prayer reminds that we can’t but God can. What other activity is there that looks like it accomplishes so little, and yet can bear so much fruit? What other activity is there in which we seem to be doing nothing but talking to air—and not even that if we’re just listening to God—and yet proclaims the truth that our God can? William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-20th century, was challenged by his critics, who said that answered prayer was just coincidence. He replied, “When I pray, coincidences happen; and when I don’t, they don’t.” Prayer is where God gets us to stop talking and instead to listen to what he might have to say; prayer is where we bring our agendas to the Almighty and he gives us his better one instead; prayer is where our words—our wise, persuasive, compelling smooth talk—meet the reality of a good and loving God, and we are reminded that in so many things, in so many things, we can’t but God can. Fuller Seminary president Mark Labberton says,
In Washington, D.C., it is said that power is measured by access. Prayer is about access to the God who reigns over all.
That’s why we pray.
Think about fasting. Some of us are fasting social media because we need a detox—how many folks are giving up Facebook for Lent? Others of us like to tie it in with a health kick, or some sort of dieting goal: I’m going to give up chocolate because I need to lose some weight; I’m going to fast candy because I don’t want to get more cavities; I’m going to cut back on this or that because I ate too much on Fat Tuesday and now I need to make up for it! And while that’s a nice sort of killing two birds with one stone, I’d humbly submit that if we miss the larger point of why we do these things, we miss out on the point of Lent. My friend Eugene Cho, who pastors a church in Seattle, wonders if God sometimes looks at us and says,
Umm, I didn’t ask you to give up coffee. I asked you to give up your life to me.
The point of fasting can be to give up luxuries, to remind us that we don’t need the things that the world tells us we can’t do without; it can also about giving up some so-called necessities, to remind us that we don’t need the things we tell ourselves we can’t do without. But ultimately, the point of fasting is to remind us that there is only one thing we can’t do without—and that’s God. Jesus didn’t eat for forty days and the gospels tell us that at the end of that time, he was physically weak but spiritually strong. He was physically weak because he had given up food for forty days, but he was spiritually strong because he had given up his life to his Father.
That’s what matters: whether we are spiritually strong, whether we have been fortified in our spirits by time with God, whether we have given our lives over to the Father. See, you can be physically weak or mentally weak or even emotionally weak, but if you’re spiritually strong because you’ve given your life to God, you’ll be okay.
You may be feeling physically great, mentally sharp, emotionally okay, but spiritually weak. And when you’re spiritually weak, you’ve forgotten the truth that we can’t. We live in a country whose primary narrative is the American Dream, the notion that if you work hard enough, if you try hard enough, you’ll succeed; and if you aren’t succeeding yet, just work harder, just try harder! You may be facing some troubles: pressures at work, challenges at home, financial issues, relationship difficulties, addictions and destructive habits. If we’re spiritually weak, we will try to will our way to a better future. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we can’t—and if we’re not honest with ourselves, sooner or later, our experience will tell us the same thing. We can’t …
But God can. Jesus was spiritually strong, even after forty days of fasting, because he had been reminded that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He had been reminded that in his own strength he could do nothing, but in the strength of God he could withstand the devil himself. He had been reminded that God can, and so what better way to face the challenges—and the joys—of life and death and resurrection than to give himself over to this God.
One last thing I want to say: I’m fairly certain those forty days in the wilderness weren’t a walk in the park for Jesus; probably not much at all like a Holy Land vacation. And yet it was in those times of being without, of being tested, of being stripped of the so-called necessities of life—it was in those times that God was strengthening him by the power of the Holy Spirit and preparing him for a work and a ministry that would forever change the world.
You may be going through a season of wilderness—or you may be about to begin one—a time when it feels like all around you is desert, a period where you feel like things that were central to your life are being stripped away. Maybe, if you’re willing, the God who can will bring new life by the power of his Spirit; maybe, if you spend time with him, the God who can will make you spiritually strong; maybe, if you give your life over to him, the God who can will turn your life right side up.
As we go through this season of Lent, as we remember Jesus in the wilderness, as we prepare ourselves for the great celebration that awaits us in a few weeks’ time, as we engage in those practices of praying and fasting and giving to the poor and whatever else you may choose to do during the coming weeks, may we be reminded that we are but dust, and to dust we will return; but also that the God who created the universe, the God through whom all things are possible, wants us—invites us—to live life with him. May we be reminded of that foundational truth of our faith:
We can’t, but God can.