Sermon for Ash Wednesday/Lent

This sermon was originally prepared for Ash Wednesday 2020. I adapted it to preach tonight at the Nampa Ministerial Association’s Ecumenical Lent Service. The service was cancelled because the LDS have cancelled all services and meetings due to concern over COVID-19.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

1 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 is near— 2 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 ages to come.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?’ ”

Today’s scripture lesson comes from one of the shortest books of the Bible. Taken from the second of its three chapters, the prophet Joel speaks of the blessing that is possible for Israel, if only they would repent. Considering the blessings that come with repentance, we might think that the people would eagerly, without hesitation, run to God’s open invitation for penitence. Despite its potential for blessing, the Israelites of old resist repentance with every ounce of their being.

Why? Why are people so reluctant to repent when they know that blessings are waiting? Well, repentance necessitates recognition and admission of guilt, of having done wrong, of being sorry for the hurt one caused another. Individually or collectively, people would rather live in denial than have a contrite spirit, admit they are mistaken, and say “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

Joel is among the biblical prophets who repeatedly, to no avail, encouraged Israel to turn to God and leave its faults and failures, its sins, behind. We are not confident about the context that this particular prophet lived during. What we can be sure of is that he writes to warn Israel that communal sin has consequences.

I think this year I was drawn to the communal aspect of Joel’s words because I have been immersed in author Timothy Egan’s most recent work. Idaho residents might be most familiar with his book The Big Burn about the Wallace, Idaho forest fire.

But in A Pilgrimage to Eternity, Egan embarks on a thousand-mile pilgrimage through the theological cradle of Christianity. He sets out in Canterbury on the Via Francigena, once the major medieval trail leading the devout to Rome, hiking through England, France, Switzerland and finally Italy.

What struck me in the book is the retelling of systemic sins in the name of Christianity. Egan has reminded me of them all: Christians killing non-Christians in the name of religion, Christians killing Christians in the name of religion, slavery, colonization, the destruction of indigenous cultures, upholding patriarchy leading to the harm of countless women, anti-Semitism, and the abuse of hundreds by Catholic priests and the cover-up that followed.

These sins are not limited to the European continent, as Egan makes clear. Nor are they limited to centuries past. I will never forget the way my heart broke when I watched the news about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. The participants claimed to follow the same Jesus we do. How is that possible and, more importantly, what is our responsibility and what can actually be done?

The Lutheran family I belong to has a long tradition of repenting for the collective sins of our ancestors. The Lutheran Church has made specific public apologies for Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism. More recently, in this country, we have apologized for being complacent in the doctrine of discovery, a belief system which displaced thousands of Native Americans across the United States.

There is justifiable criticism for apologies that are not followed by concrete actions, but when action follows, formal and public repentance can be a powerful step towards reconciliation with our neighbors and with God. It is always a good time to repentant, but I am thankful for a liturgical season that calls us to take the practice of repentance particularly seriously for a period of time.

So let us return to our scripture passage. Joel uses the image of an invading army of locusts to get the attention of a nation whose short-term perspective made it oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead. To get the full impact of this imagery, one needs to hear Joel’s words in Chapter 1:

“What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4).

The image is clear—all is lost and there is no hope for restoration. The situation is so hopeless that even the animals groan and cry out to God. The description of the “day of the Lord” is not what Israel expects or wants to hear. Founded by Abraham, to whom God promised blessing so he could be a blessing to others, Joel’s description of the “day of the Lord” would be impossible for Israel to imagine, let alone accept. This description of total loss was unfathomable.

In Chapter 2:12-17, Joel returns to the call to repentance issued earlier.  Unlike in Chapter 1, this time around the sense of hopelessness is replaced by a glimmer of hope in God, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13b). There is, however, a catch. Reprieve is a contingent blessing. It depends on how Israel responds to God’s call to return. Joel makes it plain that a change of heart and a commitment to follow God is the requirement for the reprieve. With a cry of desperation that one more appeal could make a difference, God pleads, “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

With a strong sense of urgency, Joel calls on Israel to, in the words of an old gospel song, Give God a Try. There’s no guarantee, but “Who knows whether God will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind” (2:14a, b).

Joel calls for the entire community to gather, suckling infants, children, and aged alike, to fast, weep, and plead for God’s mercy. This appeal to God is accompanied by a reminder to God that Israel is God’s heritage. The reminder seems foolish since Israel has not followed God’s commandments and can only hope that God will respond with an undeserved kindness—a kindness based on God’s grace and character.

In this season of Lent, is not Israel’s plea our plea as well? Should we not also fast and cry out to God? Should we not recognize that any reprieve God gives is neither earned entitlement nor priceless privilege? Instead, God’s forgiveness is a manifestation of God’s grace, of God’s love and care for humanity.

I appreciate the way the passage from Joel ties to the rich symbol with which Lent begins–ashes. We place ashes on our forehead amidst a world that embraces glory.  In these times, frailty, remorse, repentance, sin and failure are almost universally unacknowledged, though everyone experiences or is aware of disillusionment or despair.  If despair and sin are acknowledged, then there is an assumption that there is a quick fix and that we are able to clean the mess up ourselves.  Is there a place for our ashes in our world today?

Ashes are a rich symbol rooted in ancient customs and practices.  Ashes suggest humiliation, repentance and our total dependence upon God for life.  Ashes are not glorious.  Ashes also suggest cleansing and renewal.  They were once used as a cleansing agent in the absence of soap.  Water both stifles and refreshes, drowns and makes alive; so, the ashes also tell of both death and renewal.

Life and renewal come from Jesus Christ.  The season of Lent was designed by our forebears to give us ample time to consider all that Christ did for us in his entire life of suffering, as that culminated in his death on the cross and his resurrection.  We cannot possibly appreciate the immense triumph of Easter if we don’t recognize what preceded it.

When we are reminded that we are finite, we cling to the word, to Jesus.  In a world that leaves no room for despair and weakness and death, we need Lent.  Lent and its fulfillment of God’s forgiveness are great gifts to us.  They are also great gifts the Church can offer the world around it.  My prayer this day is that throughout the season of Lent, we would be reminded of the immensity of Jesus’ love, evidenced in the Passion, and that we, with our repentant hearts, might share God’s grace with the world both near and far.


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