This last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. As I discussed last week, the season of Lent requires preparation. We must be in the proper mindset if we are to gain from the season what it is trying to give us. After all, that is one of the primary purposes of the liturgy: to teach. We don’t simply know what it means to be a disciple of Christ. We must be taught. Just as children learn by seeing or hearing and then by doing, God tells us what He expects of us and then He gives the opportunity right there, under His caring and watchful eye, to put it into practice.
In this case, Ash Wednesday teaches us about fear. We hear the words of the pastor as he marks our foreheads, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The words recall God’s declaration in Genesis 3. We were created from dust and now, because of sin, that is where we return. Now, because of sin, we fear death and we fear the arbiter and judge who declares us deserving of death, specifically, God. We fear that judgment and all that it entails. We look at Isaiah standing before the throne of God crying out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips!” and we know he is speaking for all of us.
What we do with that fear makes a big difference. The way we, and the rest of the world, display that fear is to run from the source and cause of that fear in an effort to stay safe. We seek escape from death. We hide from God, in the hopes His judgment will never find us. In short, we do not trust Him and do not think He has our best interest at heart.
That’s why it strikes us as odd to hear King Solomon say, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” We hear Luther also telling us, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” This is what Lent and Ash Wednesday seek to teach us. We should fear God, yes, but that fear goes hand-in-hand with love and trust. Ash Wednesday is when we publicly acknowledge we do deserve death, but we also acknowledge the loving promise of grace offered to us through Christ. We acknowledge we cannot come before the judgment seat expecting to stand on our merits, for we have none. We deserve death, but He has promised us life in Christ.
As Christians, our fear of God takes on a new character. It turns from terror to respect. God is no longer someone to run from, but He is always someone to be listened to and taken seriously. Ash Wednesday is where we again reflect on our status before God and what it is we each deserve. Without this holy fear, this respect for God, we soon fall back on sinful fear that both disdains His promise and runs away from Him. We are called to reflect on that promise as Christ continues on to the cross and becomes the recipient of that guilty verdict in our stead and we finally see why we should follow Luther’s advice and fear, love, and trust in God above all things.