Ash Wednesday 2014
St. George’s Chapel and All Saints’ Church
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
Throughout the year we set apart specific times to remember important occasions in the life of the Church. Every year is the same; we follow the same pattern, the familiar rhythm of worship and rituals guiding us as we go about our daily lives. Yet every year is also different; our daily lives influence us, and we approach each occasion with new insights, fresh ideas, and different viewpoints. Some occasions, like Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter, are celebratory, marking Christ’s birth, light, and resurrection. Others, like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, are more solemn, calling to mind Jesus’ last meal and crucifixion. And some occasions, like Advent and Lent, are preparatory.
In the face of a great plague and drought, the prophet Joel encourages the people of Israel to return to the Lord. In accordance with the belief of the times, he sees the incoming destruction as punishment for the sins of the people. The only way the Israelites can steer away from disaster is through fasting and prayer. In asking for forgiveness, the people attempt to repair their relationship with God. While we no longer believe that natural disasters are signs of God’s disapproval of us, the reading from Joel has some good insights into the nature of God. “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). I’m not saying that God never gets disappointed or angry with how we behave, but God does not stay that way for long. Throughout Scripture we see examples of God’s mercy and forgiveness: God forgives Jonah for disobeying God’s call; God forgives King David each time he apologizes after messing up; Jesus, God incarnate, pronounces God’s forgiveness in addition to healing.
In the Psalm we hear, as in Joel, that God is “slow to anger” (Psalm 103:8). The psalmist is expressing gratitude for the Lord’s many gifts, hoping that his or her actions--indeed his or her very existence--reflects the blessings received. It’s as if he or she is saying, “Don’t forget all the wonderful things we experience in this life, don’t forget how God has come through for us in the past--remember how we were enslaved in Egypt? We have received much more than we deserve, and have not been punished like we ought to have been. We’re only on the earth for a short time, so let’s make the most of it!” The most poignant line of the psalm for me is “As far as the east is from the west, * so far has [God] removed our sins from us” (v. 12). Imagine a compass on a piece of paper. The lines of East and West are marked with arrows, which signify that the directions continue into infinity. God doesn’t just forgive us, God separates us completely from our sins, so that they can never touch us again! Now that is what we mean by “mercy and loving-kindness” (v. 4)!
Paul’s letter urges the Corinthians to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20b). Note that he doesn’t tell them to reconcile themselves, but rather to open themselves up to God and allow God to do the work of reconciling. So often we can build up walls between ourselves and God, hiding behind our weaknesses because then nothing will be expected of us so we can’t fail or disappoint. Or worse, we feel that we can’t possibly be forgiven for what we’ve done. I must admit, I have felt both ways many times, preferring to wallow in self-pity and guilt, pronouncing the words of the absolution for everyone in the congregation but not believing they could apply to me. But who am I--who are we?--to put limits on God’s mercy, to define what God is or is not capable of forgiving? And what would our lives be like if we truly believed that we were forgiven?
Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the season of Lent. We now have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for reconciliation through prayer, discipline, and penitence. In ancient times Lent was a time when people who had fallen out of favor with the community would be forgiven and welcomed back; perhaps God is calling you to repair a broken relationship in your life. In Lent, people prepare for baptism, confirmation, and reception; as they learn about the faith and prepare to become followers of Christ, we can be reminded of our baptismal covenant and strive to follow it more closely. Regardless of what things we give up or which disciplines we take on, we are invited to deepen our relationship with God, admitting our faults and opening ourselves to God’s loving embrace. After all, let’s not forget that after these 40 days are over we are left not with the cross but with an empty tomb!
We are not just Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; we are flawed but beloved children of a God whose love for us knows no bounds. These next 40 days, you are invited to open yourself up, to bring everything before God, and then to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. Will you accept the invitation? The choice is yours.
image found here