The Pas Ash Wednesday
14 February 2018
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 103:8-18 pg 842
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
O God, you delight not in pomp and show, but in a humble and contrite heart. Overturn our love of worldly possessions and fix our hearts more firmly on you, so that, having nothing, we may yet possess everything, a treasure stored up for us in heaven. Amen.
When I was looking at the readings from Joel for tonight, I was struck by the word and the images that Joel provides that contrast with those of our popular or collective imagination when we think of “the day of the Lord’s coming” (Joel 2:1b)
What we envision is light, brightness, joy in the air and an overwhelming feeling of wellbeing.
But this isn’t how Joel describes “the day of the Lord’s coming.” (Joel 2:1b) Rather he says:
“2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come.” (Joel 2:2)
Instead, Joel describes the darkness before the dawn, he describes an army arrayed before battle is engaged, and these are generally not the images that inspire our hearts toward God’s love and grace for all of humanity.
But at the same time, these are events that presage great and momentous events. Battle implies victory. Dawn comes before the rising of the sun, before the dawning of a new day, filled with new opportunities.
So, then we can see that we’re looking at a reading of contrasts of darkness and light; of death and life; of sin and grace; of condemnation and salvation.
And as surely as night follows day, we know that you can’t have one without the other. We know that this, then, is just that – presaging, foreshadowing, foretelling the day of the Lord’s coming.
Its another chance, given to us by the Lord to return to way and habits that are cast aside when the going gets tough.
Because immediately following this great and dramatic image of dawn, of forces arrayed for battle we find Joel’s words, God’s words, urging us to return to the forgiveness and grace of God, to the ways we were taught, to the love of God.
“13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:13)
And we are here, tonight in the darkness before the dawn, at the edge of a battlefield with the forces arrayed against each other.
Here we are, with Christ on the mountaintop, as he was transfigured and set his face toward Jerusalem.
We are here, as we heed the words of Joel, as we, too, set our faces toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, toward Easter and the joy of the resurrection.
Here we stand, between the contrasts that we see in the text from Joel, tonight. We stand between and are able to look both behind and before us. We are able to see our sins and errors, and still turn our faces to the salvation of the cross before us.
It’s interesting, if we think about it, we really can’t get from darkness to dawn without physically moving from one phase of day to the other, and we are able to accept this.
We know that we cannot go from a state of illness to wellness without working through the illness and accepting the benefits of wellness, often with the memory of the illness, possibly even the scars as a result.
We know that once forces are arrayed against one another, then war will follow, and we know that although there will be a victor, there will be casualties on both sides.
Yet we expect that when we face issues of salvation, of grace, of sin and error, we think we can just paint ourselves with God’s forgiveness, and all is well.
But what if God’s forgiveness is more like stripping paint off of a wall, or a chair, or a dresser. There is layer upon layer, upon layer of paint that has the ability to just cover up the problems, the nicks, the damage of the past.
We think that if we just cover it up without ever making an effort to repair the damages that the paint hides a multitude of sins.
But when we go to the effort to strip away those layers of paint, to repair the surfaces that we encounter, then we have an object, a chair, a dresser, a wall that is so much more beautiful than we could have ever imagined.
Our lives of faith are in this same state of paint over paint over damage over paint.
We look at ourselves in the mirror and we’re used to seeing the many layers that hide who we are inside to the point where we don’t even see the errors, the sins, the flaws that we have hidden.
But when we strip those layers away, with God’s loving help, with Jesus teachings, when we reveal the beauty of who we are at our core, then we are embracing the “dawn spreading across the mountains” that Joel describes in tonight’s passage. (Joel 2:2b)
And this isn’t easy process to contemplate, or even to begin in and for our lives.
We’ve lived with that paint all of our lives. We’ve willingly added layer after layer trying to hide what we don’t want the world, what we don’t want God to see, or even remember.
Yet, Joel tells us: “12 “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:12-13)
He makes it sound easy, doesn’t he? And to some extent it is, but it is a journey we make with God at our side, with Christ guiding us each step of the way. Some steps are as easy as a good hot shower, others may require tearing away bandages and healing the hurts beneath that we’ve ignored under those layers of paint.
But tonight, we enter the season of Lent. We enter the time when we intentionally seek to heal our pasts, to enter into the sunrise of the resurrection experience with open hearts and lives.
The three pillars of lent are: Prayer, Fasting, and almsgiving. And although we do these things with a surprising regularity, if we do them with the aim of stripping away the layers we have wrapped about ourselves, then the results will be as beautiful as discovering that piece of furniture under the multiple layers of paint.
And we know this is a journey that is as individual as we are. We are able to walk side by side, but we have to do our own work. We have to be willing to open those old errors, those old wounds and bare them to God for healing and for forgiveness, and for the receiving of God’s grace on each one.
Paul tells us that: “3 We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path…. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses;5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God.” (2 Cor 5:3-7a)
We are able to encourage each other in this work of opening ourselves, our hearts, our lives to the love and forgiveness of God. We’re able to support each other, in this, walk side by side, but the walk is still our own, with Christ at our side, gently encouraging us to strip away our pasts, and lay bare the old hurts, and the old injuries caused by sin.
We are able to receive Christ’s healing touch in our lives as we ask for forgiveness for those age-old hurts, and as we strive to look to the light of a brighter tomorrow, with our brothers and our sisters at our side encouraging us, as much as we are encouraging each one of them.
So, here we stand tonight. We stand between, the darkness of yesterday and the light of tomorrows dawn.
Here we stand, today, in that dark gloom that precedes the bright light and warmth of the dawn. We stand at the precipice of Lent, and together we are able to set our faces toward the cross, toward the sacrifice of Jesus that bears our sins away.
Here we are, looking to tomorrow, to the dawn that tells us that we are still the children of God, and we are still loved by our Father, every day.