Ash Wednesday is one of my favourite days of the church year. It’s one of those few moments of total honesty in an age and death denying culture, when we hear that we are going to die (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”), and yet pointed to the mystery of Easter and the resurrection in such a way that the unflinching reminder of our mortality does not trouble us. I also love the chance to hear from the prophet Joel, one of the strangest and most poetic books of the Old Testament. I am not preaching today, since our base chapel service has to be short enough to accomodate a thirty minute lunch break. However, I did find a sermon that I preached when I was in my last parish, just a week shy of six years ago. Most of my sermons haven’t aged well, but this one, I think, isn’t bad. I hope this sermon is helpful to you as you enter the season of Lent. MP
A Sermon for Ash Wednesday, St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, Ontario, 21 February, 2007
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” (Joel 2:1)
The other night at our St. George’s parish council meeting we were considering some building issues, and we got onto the subject of smoke alarms. There is a certain irony in a church being required to have a smoke alarm, since these devices are useful to awaken sleepers and alert them to danger, and there few people who sleep in churches (or so we preachers hope).
If there was any chance of you sleeping through this service, however, the first words of our first lesson should have jolted you wide awake.
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—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness! (Joel 2:1)
The prophet Joel paints an image of the entire land of Israel responding to this urgent summons. People run in from the fields, parents snatch up children, weddings are interrupted and priests raise their hands to beg for mercy for God’s people. In a scene that could be out of a Hollywood movie, a great horde of locusts is approaching, more terrible than an invading army, devouring the crops, and threatening the land with famine and disaster. This is no natural calamity, for Joel says that this is “the day of the Lord”, this is just punishment for Israel forgetting its identity as God’s chosen people.
It’s tempting to compare Joel’s vision of God’s people in crisis with our own experience in our time. People like Al Gore in his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” warn of equally terrible environmental catastrophes. Threats of the extinction of animal species, contamination of food from toxins and pollutants, and doomsday terrorist scenarios continue to dominate the news. The louder the alarm bells get, however, the louder the controversies get. Is global warming really happening? Will we really have to sacrifice our lifestyles? What’s the best thing for us to do? It’s easy to imagine that if the prophet Joel was writing today, he would describe a special commission being set up to study if the locusts were really so bad and what their economic impact might be.
Of course, Joel isn’t sounding an environmental or an economic alarm. He’s sounding a spiritual alarm. Israel has sinned, and now that God has sent the locusts to get its attention, Israel had better repent, and quickly. The prophet is sounding the alarm, but he also offers hope, for God loves His people and He is prepared to forgive them. “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). The theology of Joel is as simple as his language is vivid. God has the right to punish, and God in his love is ready to forgive.
Tonight, the message we are hearing from scripture is just as simple. God has the right to punish us for sin, and God, in his love, is ready to forgive. Tonight there is no tolling bell or ringing alarm. We are free, if we like, to strike some sort of internal commission within our souls to see whether the problem of our sin is really that bad. We can decide that we’re not all that bad, that we can we don’t really need what’s offered here tonight, that we can negotiate our day of reckoning on our own terms, if and when it comes. Lord knows lots of people aren’t here tonight. My running group, for example, is out doing hills to prepare them for an upcoming race, because hills make a runner faster and stronger.
Tonight there is no violent warning. Tonight there is only the light brush of ash across our foreheads, to reminder us that all our training and all our speed, all our strength, all our self-reliance and accomplishments and ambition must come to this: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. This simple sign, these blunt words, remind us of our limitations. They remind us that we are not gods, that we are not immortals, but rather creatures, with a beginning and an end to our days.
As we are reminded that we are creatures, we are also reminded of our creator. There was a cross traced on our heads once before, before all the Ash Wednesdays, and it was traced not in ash but in holy oil, on the day of our baptism, when we died and were reborn in Christ. That baptism is the solution to our sin, it is the answer to all our regrets and sorrows. At our baptism we were asked then, either directly or through our sponsors, if “whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” (BAS p. 159). And just as Joel told Israel that God was ready to welcome his people home, so St. Paul reminds us that in Christ the day of salvation is made available to us, if we chose to accept it. We are not gods, but Paul promises us that through Christ we can share in “the righteousness of God”, and that promises makes us all look pretty clean and shiny, even with that little smudge of ash on our cheeks.
There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin says to his tiger friend, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it”. “Maybe you should apologize to her”, Hobbes says helpfully. Calvin thinks about this, and then says “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution”. With respect to Calvin, there is an obvious solution, and it’s on offer tonight. Repentance is going beyond being sorry to own up to our actions, and to make amends for them. Tonight, at the beginning of Lent, we are invited to a time of inner reflection and repentance. Tonight is an invitation to spend the next forty days as disciples following Christ in repentance and in love. It will not be an easy journey, because it leads to the cross and the cross, like repentance, seems like death. But don’t be fooled. Ahead is Easter, when we rediscover that through the risen Christ, our repentance brings us life. Amen.
©Michael Peterson+ 2007