February 26, 2020, Ash Wednesday
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10
For the prophet Joel, it seems, things were pretty bad. “Sound the alarm!” “The day of the Lord is coming!” And unless you really think the world is ending in November, we don’t really share Joel’s passion. Of course, our nation hasn’t been invaded by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, or a swarm of locusts that turns the day to darkness. But we should not be so complacent as to think that we don’t need God.
After all, there is plenty in the world today to be worried about. Will there ever be peace in the Middle-East? Will the Corona virus wipe us all out? Will climate change cause ever-increasingly powerful storms? Maybe things aren’t as bad for us as they were for Joel, but we could stand to take some time to return to God, to reflect on our spiritual life, and to examine how we relate to the world.
What is Lent really about, anyway? “The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial—for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.” Prayer serves to direct our attention to God. Penitence is “the condition of being sorrowful and remorseful for sins one has committed.” Almsgiving is charity, giving to those in need and thus showing love for our neighbor. And self-denial is the giving-something-up which is meant to redirect our thoughts and energy from bodily or earthly things to spiritual or divine things. Lent was originally the time when candidates prepared for baptism, which took place during the Easter vigil, the Saturday night before Easter Sunday morning. It was an intense period of fasting and prayer.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. (Sundays are not counted as part of Lent since every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection.) The forty days symbolize the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. The act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head to signify repentance before God. You may recall that Job, after arguing his case before God and being humbled, repented in sack-cloth and ashes. The ashes are also a reminder of our mortality, as we read in Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
To repent means to “turn again,” to turn, or re-turn to God. Do you ever feel like you have been turned away from God, headed off in pursuit of something less than your best self? I feel that way at times, and I get dizzy trying to turn the right way. Sometimes I don’t want to turn, because I feel guilty for turning away in the first place. But I do keep turning; because I know what Joel is telling us is true. God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” It’s usually not easy to repent, to try to make up for what I have done wrong, but at least I don’t have to wear a sack and sit in a pile of ashes when I do it.
It is good to have a time when we focus on what we have done wrong. It is a good thing to recognize that we all make mistakes, that we have all hurt others, and that we could all stand to pray more, do more to help others, and make do with less. “Now is the acceptable time,” says Paul, “now is the day of salvation!” Now is the time for a few small repairs.
Maybe what we should focus on is our stuff. We have too much stuff, and a lot of it is unnecessary and unused. Some of our stuff was so important for us to have just a short time ago, and now it’s not stuff anymore, it’s trash. It can take a lot of time and money to deal with all of our stuff too. We have to store our stuff, clean our stuff, buy, sell, and dispose of our stuff. Maybe Lent is the time to really take a look at our stuff and decide: which stuff is necessary, which stuff is good (meaning that it brings greater joy, freedom, love, health, and connection to God and those around us), and which stuff is bad (meaning it takes away from those things). And maybe it’s time to give away some of our stuff to people who could benefit from it more than us.
Maybe we should focus on food. Fasting is a traditional practice in lent. Going without sweets, eating less, or even eating things that are better for us can really change how we feel, how we look, and how much we enjoy the food that we do have. We have to be careful to not over-do it, especially people who have an eating disorder. Maybe it’s where and with whom we eat that needs some study. Sharing a meal builds connections between us, and is a way of nourishing one another with more than just the food. I could stand to eat alone less often.
Maybe our focus should be on our time and how we spend it. Maybe we need to work on our relationships and practicing forgiveness. Maybe we should let go of the things that are dragging us down. Whatever we focus on, Christ invites us to be reconciled to God, accept the grace of God, and be free from the obstacle of sin that blocks our way.
The Apostle Paul, living his life as a servant of God, spreading the gospel and starting churches, did not have it easy. And it seems foolish to follow a path that leads to “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.” And yet that is the path that Paul invites us to walk. To live as a Christian, to really live life as Jesus would have us live, can be a dangerous thing. It is not a choice to make lightly. You might want to reflect for a while on whether you really want to follow Jesus. I suggest that you think about it for, say, forty days.
Now Paul managed to endure all that suffering and still rejoice, still feel like he possessed everything. How did he do it? He had the weapons of righteousness with which to defend himself. He had “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” He had faith in the God who saved the world. He had all that he needed because he knew the risen Christ. In the words that he wrote to the Philippians: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” I pray that we will all come to know Christ as Paul did. Amen.
 Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
 Philippians 3:8-9. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.