Ash Wednesday, 2015 (preached 2/18/15)
first reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
second reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
gospel reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians give us the theme of this Ash Wednesday, and for the season of Lent.
So how do we begin?
The prophet Joel tells us, “Blow the trumpet sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people…” and the words we will use in our gospel acclamation until Easter – “Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”
We have a solemn assembly this evening. God’s people are gathered. And this gathering begins our journey of reconciliation, of returning.
In tonight’s exhortation, which we will hear in a few minutes, we are summoned to the special disciplines of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love.
These are ways we return and are reconciled anew.
Political careers and personal relationships have been ruined because of the stubborn refusal to say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
There is the popular phrase, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I don’t know who came up with that, but it’s a LIE, plain and simple. The truth is, love means having to say you’re sorry – A LOT.
We’re imperfect human beings, you and I, and we inevitably do or say things that hurt others. And it’s hard to admit when we’ve made mistakes, and when we love, cover-ups and denials only compound the hurt – they never help.
When we love and we’ve hurt, we repent and ask our beloved for forgiveness. And if we do this in our earthly relationships, how much more do we need to do this with God?
We also don’t talk about fasting much, unless of course it’s a diet that we think will help us be more beautiful or fit or healthy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what spiritual fasting is.
Fasting is about denying oneself without the expectation of worldly benefit, and it’s NOT just about food.
Fasting is about sacrifice, giving up just a little piece of ourselves so we might experience just a tiny fraction of what Jesus gave up for us.
We have become too accustomed I think, to getting what we want when we want it – spending money we don’t have on things we don’t really need.
Fasting teaches us that it IS possible to go without, to wait, to have patience – whether it’s fasting from meals, or a specific food, and even better, fasting from unhealthy behaviors that teach us to have more respect for our bodies or for others.
Prayer is something we DO talk about, but I wonder sometimes if we’re just giving it lip service.
How do we talk to God? I would guess that we are pretty good at asking God for stuff, even if it’s important stuff, like our health, or to take care of our loved ones.
But it’s easy to neglect praying for the needs of “others” – and by others I mean those we don’t know and will never know. The hungry, those without adequate shelter (especially in this frigid weather), those of our brothers and sisters whose lives are being threatened for their faith…
And it’s easy to neglect prayers of thanks, especially if we’ve been feeling burdened. It’s also easy to make prayer a ONE-SIDED conversation, not listening for how God is trying to speak to us. Communication is important in maintaining and strengthening our human relationships.
We need to tell the special people in our lives on a regular basis that we are thankful for them; ask for what we need from them; respond when they need something from us; and listen when they speak. It’s possible to have relationships without these things, but not deep meaningful relationships. And so it is in our relationship with God.
We get nervous sometimes in Lutheran circles when talking about works of love because we don’t want people to confuse them with works that get us brownie points in heaven.
But that doesn’t mean that works aren’t important to faith. Good works, works of love, are ways we give thanks to God for our salvation, not ways we earn it.
One of the ways we show our love for God is to love our neighbors – both friends and enemies – in word and deed. Jesus gave over his whole life for you and me, surely we can give a bit of ourselves to help our neighbors.
These four disciplines of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love – help us to reconcile and return to the Lord our God.
It is a time to re-fresh, restore, and re-focus on our relationship to the One who gave us life and loves each one of us here.
For while Lent is a solemn time, the whole point of the solemnity is to draw ever nearer to God – to experience more our NEED for God, and the depth of God’s love for us.
Lent helps us make sure our journey to the cross of Good Friday is not without reflection on our sin which necessitated Jesus’ sacrifice, but also on his LOVE and forgiveness, which was his sole purpose.
Our journey to the cross of Good Friday is also a reflection on how we RESPOND to his great eternal sacrifice.
How do we say thank you for a gift we can never reciprocate? For a love we can never return in kind?
***I don’t address the imposition of ashes in this sermon. If you’re needing a more “ash” related message, feel free to look at my sermon from last year by clicking here.