2022-03-02 Ash Wednesday
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
Return. A key on your keyboard. What you do with library books. Going back to that favourite vacation destination. To reciprocate. There are many instances and occasions of this word in the English language. But probably none more important than as it pertains to God. “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:12-13). The prophet Joel lays out this plan of returning for us. Fasting. Weeping. Mourning. Contrite hearts. All of the hallmarks of the bright sadness of the season of Lent. This is what it means to return.
But in order to return, we must confess that we went in the first place. And we certainly did! We always come back to the big picture of our salvation. The big picture of the fall of mankind, that original going away from God. We are familiar with the garden, the people and the serpent. We know the temptation that went on and the eventual exchange. God gave them everything and it was very good. But Adam and Eve returned the gift. They exchanged it–people exchanged perfect life with God for death. And as they embraced death, sin crept into the world. An unholy darkness enveloped everything. Life as they knew it ceased and they were ashamed.
Human life has been screwed up ever since. It’s become a complete debacle in pretty much every way. Pain. Sadness. Separation. Murder. Hatred. Enmity. Conflict. Harsh words. Torment. Tyranny. Oppression. Idolatry. Disrespect. Distrust. Loneliness. Isolation. Depression. Broken bodies. Broken minds. Broken relationships. We’ve got problems in life to no end! This is the path that has led away from God. The big picture is very clear. But we are blind to the truth of things. We cannot see the forest for the trees. Our own sin continues to push us down this dark path of death and spiritual destruction.
It is to this fallen sinful nature that the Prophet Joel preaches his message: Return. Return to the Lord. Return to the God that your first parents rejected and exchanged for death. Come back to the One who loved you and created you. But the message often would fall on deaf ears. People have become so entrenched in the darkness that they cannot see the light. Or, they refuse to see it. And instead of returning, they continue down the dark path that leads away from God. They hope they will find happiness in material things. They hope they will find contentment in other people and relationships. They hope they will find fulfillment in their work. They hope they will find escape from their problems in substances. But they won’t. They can’t. For the answer they seek resides in only in returning. Return to the Lord your God.
This is the message of Lent. This is the heart of repentance. The early Church Fathers noted that it’s not easy to return. It’s a struggle. It’s a fight. It’s a battle. Not with guns and weapons and war in a physical sense, but rather it’s a spiritual skirmish with ourselves. The ancient ascetics found that to target the spiritual, you had to target the physical, for the two are inseparably linked. Prayer with the mouth gave way to prayer of the heart. Fasting from food allowed the spirit to be fed with every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
Almsgiving and charity allowed the spirit to be light with contentment that is found in Christ alone. And so they practiced and developed these ascetic Lenten activities. They soon found that as they prayed, fasted and gave of themselves, they could more easily walk the road of repentance. They found that they could return to the Lord by faith.
Now of course we know that none of this could even happen if it wasn’t for what God has done for us first. God was the one who, despite Adam and Eve’s exchange, would not let them go. Instead, He worked out a great exchange of His own. Jesus Christ our Lord became flesh and dwelt among us. And upon the cross, there would exchange His Divine life for our death. Taking upon Himself all of our sin, failures and problems, He died our death in our place. He reversed what Adam had done wrong. He allowed God and humanity to be reconciled. He opened the way for all people to return to God.
And that way of returning begins anew again tonight. Ash Wednesday. That ancient practice of confessing our sins, confessing our mortality, confessing that we are dust and to dust we shall return. As we consider our sins, it humbles us. It’s like the story of the woman who drove drunk and rolled her SUV. As she did she killed her 15 year old daughter. But she survived. How do you think she felt when she got sober? I bet there isn’t a second that goes by that she doesn’t wish she could have that moment back. There has to be an incredible amount of weeping done by that mother over her actions. That’s how we ought to feel about our sins. When we sin, we hurt God far more than that drunk mother hurt her daughter and family. It is good for us to be mindful of our sins, to consider the depth of our iniquity, for as we do we perceive the depth of God’s grace for us in Christ.
Our Lord, in the Gospel reading tonight, really emphasizes this process of returning. He outlines giving, prayer and fasting in all righteousness. But then He concludes His Lenten teaching with a warning of sorts, a spiritual admonition: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Returning to the Lord calls on each of us to answer this question. Where is your treasure? Some may answer in family or friends. Some may say in earthly fortunes and possessions. Others still may say in experiences and fun times. But our Lord’s piercing question is only truly answerable by faith. Our treasure is found in our Lord’s cross and resurrection, for these works of salvation allow us to return to the Lord our God. They allow us to see the light of His kingdom shining brightly into our dark world. They allow us to be forgiven our sins and to know exactly where our treasure is through the blood of our Saviour. Then the big picture becomes clear once again to us. We see the love and sacrifice of God. We see our Lord’s heart. Then we see ours also. Return. That’s what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about. Returning to the very treasure of God and His Kingdom that were once exchanged for the poison of sin, suffering and death. Christ has walked the road of sorrow for us, that we may know the joy of sins forgiven and everlasting life. No greater love has been made known to the world than that of Christ our Lord. The Word of the Lord is clear: Return. Now and forevermore. Amen.