Sermon for Ash Wednesday – February 22, 2023
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are any number of images from the news that remind us that not all is right with the world. Perhaps you’ve seen the pictures from Turkey after earth’s tectonic plates violently pulled apart, leaving a miles-long gash in the planet. The latest numbers I’ve seen are that over 40,000 people were killed in that earthquake. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures from across Ukraine, where once vibrant cities are now burnt-out shells surrounded by mass graves. Perhaps you’ve heard about the train derailment in Ohio and have seen the pictures of that demonic-looking plume of toxic smoke which darkened the sky. Maybe you’ve seen pictures of the dead fish and the dead wildlife and the dead pets which had been poisoned by that cloud of chemicals. We are reminded on a regular basis, are we not, that not all is right with the world?
The prophet Joel describes a similar time in the life of Israel. He describes a plague of locusts so thick they darken the sky. He describes a crop failure so devastating that it is sure to lead to widespread famine and misery. He describes a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. “Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in the ages to come,” Joel writes.
Scholars are torn as to whether this “great and powerful army” is another reference to the locusts which are crawling all over chapter one, or if this is a reference to a literal invasion of the Assyrians happening on top of the infestation of locusts. But whether Israel is facing a natural disaster or a human-caused disaster or both, it is clear that not all is right with the world. And Joel goes on in chapter two, as we heard, to point to the fact that all is not right in the lives of God’s people either. He uses it as a picture of the fact that not all is right in our hearts.
Joel issues a call to repentance. “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming…”
It isn’t just the world that is out of whack, Joel is warning, it’s your hearts too! It’s your lives! So return to the Lord your God, Joel pleads. Return with all your heart, with fasting and with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion!” Joel says. “Sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” All people are to be part of this gathering – the aged, the children, even nursing infants and amorous newlyweds. All need to repent. All need to return. And they can, Joel says, WE can, because the LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
To return to the Lord with all our heart is not merely a sentimental thing. It is about more than emotions or feelings. In our culture the heart is often symbolic of this kind of stuff, but in the Hebrew lexicon, the heart is the seat of the will. It is symbolic of the entire person, including the mind. And so to return to the Lord with all our heart is not just to think sweet thoughts or feel sweet feelings about God, it is to bring our whole selves to God, our whole lives.
There have been certain spiritual disciples God’s people have used to help facilitate this. Joel specifically mentions fasting. Fasting is the voluntary giving up of food for a set period of time or during certain times of the day. It has also sometimes been practiced as the voluntary giving up of certain kinds of food. For centuries and in some Christian circles still today it means no meat, no fats like oil or butter, no dairy, and no sugar. Sometimes today it means giving up something other than food.
In our gospel reading Jesus mentions fasting too, and adds prayer and giving as well. Jesus assumes his people will be giving and praying and fasting from self-indulgence. He says, “whenever you give alms, whenever you pray, whenever you fast,” assuming that these are things his people will be involved in.
But Jesus goes on to issue a warning. He warns against turning these practices which help us return to the Lord with all our heart into something self-serving. They shouldn’t be done to improve our reputation. They shouldn’t be done in order to be seen by others, so that others will praise us. We should never make a display of our giving, our praying, our fasting, Jesus says.
You see, Jesus knows how deep the rot goes when it comes to the human heart. He knows that even the practices we might take up to return to the Lord with all our heart can be occasions for sin, serving our own self-centered interests.
This is important for us to hear as we begin the season of Lent. As we seek to return to the Lord with all our heart, we may well take up certain practices, certain disciplines. In fact, the liturgy for Ash Wednesday just assumes that we will.
But we dare not use these disciplines as a way to display our righteousness before others. We dare not trivialize it by turning it into a forty-day challenge to see what we’re capable of. We dare not turn it into a self-improvement project. These disciplines of fasting and giving and praying are intended to be ways we learn to bring our whole hearts, our whole selves, our whole lives to God.
We need to return to the Lord with all our hearts, because not all is right with our lives. The same brokenness evident in creation as entire tectonic plates pull apart exists in our own lives as we pull apart from one another, as families and communities and nations pull apart and the structures which make human life flourish come crashing down on top of us. The same hatred and lust for power and glory that leads to the shelling of cities exists in our own hearts as we lob devastating words or actions at the people around us, or even just harbor devastating thoughts in our hearts. The same toxicity filling the streams and poisoning the farmlands of northeast Ohio runs through our veins as we reject or ignore God, or turn him into our casual plaything or part-time hobby. It poisons our relationship with God and our relationships with others. It poisons our hearts.
The result of this is death. The result is our return to the dust from which God created us. “The wages of sin is death,” as St. Paul so bluntly puts it. We are marked with a solemn reminder of this today as we are marked with ash and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But the shape the ashes take on our foreheads remind us that death and dust do not have the last word for us. We are marked with ash in the shape of the cross as a reminder that Jesus already died this death for us! Jesus took our sin upon himself, dying this death for us so that even though we die, yet will we live! His cross is inscribed on our forehead as a reminder of the salvation he has won for us. As St. Paul says in our second reading for today, “He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Today is the day in the church year when we are confronted with the reality that not only is not all right with the world, but not all is right with us. Not all is right with our hearts, our lives. The same fallenness that cracks the world open and sets cities on fire and pollutes the sky and the earth exists in our hearts too. We are reminded that we need to return to the Lord our God with all our hearts, with our whole selves, our whole lives.
But we are also reminded that we CAN return to the Lord our God, because this God of ours is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
We CAN return to the Lord because he has already turned towards us in his dear Son, our savior Jesus Christ.
We CAN return to the Lord because Jesus has embodied the grace and mercy of God, bringing it to us as a free gift, received in faith, giving us forgiveness, life, and salvation.
And so even on this day of great solemnity, even on this day when we confess some hard truths about ourselves, this day when we are marked with ash, even so, even now, we rejoice that in Christ we have been reconciled to God. We rejoice that we have been marked with the cross of Christ forever, and so we can always return to him.
“See,” St. Paul writes, “now is the acceptable time; See, now is the day of salvation.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church