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Ash Wednesday, 02/06/2008

Sermon on Joel 2:12-19, by Hubert Beck


"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; and he relents over disaster.  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?  Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.  Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants.  Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.  Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, "Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.  Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'"  Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people.  The Lord answered and said to his people, "Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations."  (English Standard Version)


Although many in our day belittle and even disparage rites and rituals as being purely superficial, they have always been, are today, and always will be very important parts of our human existence.  They help to define who we are, how we fit into society, and especially how we recognize God's place in our lives.

Those rites and rituals may be very personal.  You undoubtedly have developed particular ways of bathing, dressing, eating, etc.  Whether one owns up to it or not, most of these things take place in a "ritualistic way."  Rarely do two people do the same thing in exactly the same way.  Ask any newly married couple about how many adaptations each had to make to the rituals of the other once they lived together!

Many - perhaps even most - of those rites and rituals are very public, however.  Some are ways we recognize national or communal values and virtues.  Others recognize family history and tradition.  Still others have to do with friendships, school allegiances, social commitments, loyalty to organizations of our choice, etc.

Recognition of God's place in our lives, however, ranks very high among those rites and rituals for religious people.  I do not simply say "Christian people" at this point, for every religion has its "high holy days," its "rites and rituals" of various kinds, its "communal renewal of allegiance," etc.  Those things are not unique to Christianity.

It should not seem strange, therefore, that Christians observe many such rites and rituals in their own unique and particular forms, distinctive days and times, moments of high hilarity and / or of sober reflection.  Some or many of those rites and rituals actually are rooted far back in a time prior to the rise of Christianity - times such as those of the prophet whose ministry lies at the heart of today's text.

The Text - An Introduction to Ash Wednesday

The prophet Joel lived in a day when Israel was devastated by an army of locusts, laying bare all the countryside, leaving famine and misery in their wake, described vividly in the words before our text.    With the eyes of the Lord Joel sees this invasion as judgment on a people who had turned their backs on the very God who had brought them into existence and had stood guard over them throughout their history.

So he called for a day on which penitential rites were to be observed.  It was to be a national event.  It was not left to the desire and devotion of those who agreed with his assessment.  "Call a solemn assembly; gather the people.  Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children . . . Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber."  The priests were assigned their places and given a ritual of repentance:  "Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations." 

Joel remembered the lament of Moses when God wanted to destroy the ever-so-quickly rebellious people of Israel shortly after they left Egypt.  "Just think of what the Egyptians will say of you if you do this, O Lord," Moses said in effect.  "They will say, ‘A fine God he is . . . he takes his people out into the desert and promptly destroys them!  We could have done that for him right here in Egypt!'"  Such an idea is echoed here by Joel.  "The nations around will say, ‘Where is their God?' if you do not relent and take this plague away from us."  The priests were to be bold in their rituals as they stood between God and the people.  They were to say boldly, "Spare your people.  Do not make them a reproach to the nations around them."

This solemn assembly called by Joel reminds one of the Day of Atonement annually observed by the community of Israel when they collectively remembered their sins.  And it reminds us in many ways of this day, Ash Wednesday, when we are called on to stand together before God with our sins, remembering them in particular ways, asking anew and with fervency for his mercy.

The Ashes of Ash Wednesday

This is a day for sober reflection.  On this day we enter an entire season of sober reflection, for that matter.  This is the first of forty days of preparation for a day of high hilarity to follow six weeks from now!  We all know that Lent ends with that day of celebration we call Easter, the day of our Lord's resurrection.

There can be no resurrection without a death, however.  There can be no celebration of new life without the death of an old life.  That is the somber thought that dominates this day of ashes. 

So on this day we present ourselves before God with an old life that needs to be resurrected.

That is what the ashes are all about.  They call us to solemn consideration of what our lives are like when  God is absent from them.  We remember that even with God's presence in them we have too often forgotten, or even worse, have denied that presence, acting as though we were quite capable of getting along on our own without him.  We forget our sins all too easily and live as though they were not part of  our lives - or at least as though they were of little consequence.

So we are marked with ashes, the sign of our mortality.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  The words spoken as the ashes are administered bring us up short.  They remind us that we die daily through our sins . . . and that our daily dying inevitably leads us back to the dust from which God first made Adam.  "Remember," we are told, when the ashes are applied.  "Remember that your tenure on earth is really quite short before you face the God who made you."

The ashes, therefore, remind us of the sin that binds itself to us so tightly and will not let us go in spite of our best intentions or efforts . . . even in spite of the fact that they have no ultimate and final hold on us because of God's grace and mercy in Christ.  The ashes remind us that we can never take that grace and mercy for granted.  "We are in bondage to sin," we confess when those ashes are placed on our forehead. 

Those ashes, in fact, are a form of mourning for the life that should have been even though it has never been.  They are ways of remembering who we were made to be . . . the joyfully obedient children of our heavenly Father . . . and of remembering what we have done with that original intention.  We have taken the dust of our beginning and returned it to dust again instead of raising it up as a mirror imaging  the God from whom our breath of life originally came.  We have burned God's image within us to ashes.

So the ashes are signs of humility - humility before God and before each other.  They are signs that all we have to offer God are the ashes of what we have made of the life he gave us - and it is humbling in the extreme to stand before him with nothing in our hands - with nothing but ashes on our forehead. 

We do not come alone, however, nor can we go out from here alone, for we come with each other to receive the ashes.  As in Joel's day, the word has gone out:  "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. . . . Blow the trumpet in Zion . . . Call a solemn assembly; gather the people.  Consecrate the congregation."  We do not make ashes in the privacy of our home and put them on our foreheads.  We come together to receive the sign of the ashes made by burning the palm leaves used by us to hail the King of Kings last Palm Sunday.  We joined the hosannas of that day . . . and we join the weeping and mourning of this day with foreheads marked by the ashes of palm leaves left in the path of hosannas on the via dolorosa, the way of sorrows, the road we followed to watch the crucifixion of the Lord of life.

 With these ashes we tell each other as well as God who we are and what we have done . . . and to what end we are bound.  Young and old, rich and poor, sick and healthy, working and retired, those highly successful and those struggling to get a foothold in life . . . together we come before the Lord and alongside each other in recognition that we are commonly poor, needy and helpless, all ashes and dust, all bound for the grave of death.  There is no room for pride or place here - no legroom for anything other than sin and death shoulder to shoulder.  The ashes are administered to all alike - all who must admit to one another that in the final analysis we are all cut of the same cloth, destined for the same end, brothers and sisters on the road to the grave.  It is terribly humbling to say this to one another.  The ashes destroy all distances between us.  We must carry these ashes, these signs of the leveling effect of sin and death, out into the world wherever we go.  We must say to one and all that we are dust that must return to dust, ashes born of lives used up in sin and burned before the fire of God's judgment.

But this, too, we remember:  The ashes are signs that we want to leave behind those sins that have gone before this moment, burning them in the ashes of repentance, of sorrow over all that has haunted our will and longing to serve God.  These ashes signify a fire of grief that breaks apart and disintegrates all the past obstacles to our life with the Lord.  The ashes are the residue of our burning sadness over the failures to which we must confess.  They are not only signs of our failures and our destiny, but they are also signs of our hope and longing for that which has not yet been, but which we are confident can still be.

They are ashen signs of our baptism, the waters in which our old life was placed into the grave along with Christ's crucified body so that it could be raised with him in his resurrection to a newness of life.  Today's ashes remind us that we died long ago when the waters were poured . . . and that, still, we must daily die all over again and again as we are caught between the slavery of the sin that will not let us go and the grace of God whose promises to us in our baptism assure us that the last word will be his and not the word of our sin.  Our sin has been burned to ashes in the cross of Christ.


The ashes placed on our forehead are not mere formless smears of dirt.  They are cruciformed.  They are administered in the fashion of a cross!  They are signs of that one alone whose death did not end up in dust.  They are, in the very outline of the cross, the assurance that our sins are not, in spite of everything, deadly even though they are death-bound.  Is it not of considerable interest to note how, in the history of soap, ashes have played such a significant part?  The ashes of this day also are cleansing agents of the very sinfulness that they signify!

The grace of God comes in the shape of a cross . . . not just any cross, mind you, but the shape of the cross of a man named Jesus, whose suffering, death and resurrection is the very cleansing agent of which we just spoke.  It is a strange shape for such a major word as grace, to be sure, but God's ways are often discovered in many strange and unexpected forms.  Your forehead today is marked by the same grace that marked it in your baptism.  Then, too, the sign of the cross was made over your head and over your heart to signify that you are marked by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  The bread and wine soon to be set before you will be consecrated, set aside, through the making of the sign of the cross over them along with the words Jesus gave us to assure us that it is he who will be there in our eating and drinking as the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

You will come before this altar with the ashes administered in a cross-shaped form on your forehead as a sign that you trust God's promise to be sure and true when you eat and drink this "foretaste of the feast to come."  You will come shoulder to shoulder, side by side with others who are marked with the same cross-shaped ashes on their forehead.  You will find yourself gathered together with them into the family of God, brothers and sisters in both sin and grace, in both death and life, in both sorrow and hope all brought together in this bread and wine. 

Sin and death and sorrow are there, for where Christ's body and blood are found, there is also the sin heaped upon him, the death he endured and the grief that it is we who made his sorrow and suffering necessary. 

But grace and life and hope are all there also, for where Christ's body and blood are found, there the mercy of God is wrapped up in the forgiveness of sins made available through his cross; there is life that prevailed over death in his resurrection, offered to us in our baptism; and there is hope that walks through the wondrous gates of God's sure and certain promises that he will never leave nor forsake us - not even in the darkness of those words spoken when the ashes were administered:  "Dust you are and to dust you shall return."  In the bread and wine new words are spoken:  "The bread of life.  The cup of salvation!"

The Text Revisited

When Joel urged the nation to return to the Lord, establishing the rite and ritual of penitence, he was sure that God would visit blessing upon his people once again.  "Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love."  Thus spoke the prophet.

So it was.  "Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people."  Although we frequently think of jealousy in negative terms, is this not a wonderful word in this text?  When Joel turned  the Lord's attention to the possibility that his people would become the butt of Gentile jokes if he did not intervene, he broke out his blessings in rich abundance.  He was jealous . . . really jealous! . . . for his people.  He desperately wanted them to recognize anew that they were every bit as precious to him as he was to them.  When they returned to him in deep penitence he "answered and said to his people, ‘Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.'"  The following verses speak of how he sent the destroying locusts off into the seas and their own destruction.  God gathered his people again and promised them an even more glorious future:  "It shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit," he promised.  (Joel 2:28, 29  ESV)

These words became the text for Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost when the Spirit of God came with flames of fire and the sound of a rushing, mighty wind.  Peter interpreted the magnificence of that day in terms that were born of the prophet whose words form our text today . . . words of grace and renewal and hope, words of light that break into the dark night of sin and death.

The Spirit of Ash Wednesday

"Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments," said the Lord.  These same words propel us from this day with these ashes on our head into the season of Lent.  It will be all too easy to make of Lent nothing more than a time of self-reproach, of introspection, of self-denial as though such a recognition of the misery of the human condition is what Lent is about.

Let it not be so, though!  The ashes are in the shape of a cross . . . and Lent is the journey to the cross.  We do, indeed, lament the fact that we are the cause of the cross; but let us go through these forty days with wonder in our heart at the willingness with which the Son of God went to Jerusalem, the place of his agony, in order to carry that cross for us.  We do, indeed, grieve over the sorrow we have created in the heart of God through our constant desire for and pursuit of self-indulgence, the source of our sinfulness; but let us also recognize that we are not going to Jerusalem alone.  We are accompanying the one whose saving act breaks the bondage of sin in such a way that death is no longer the trump card of Satan, our enemy.  The ashes are in the shape of a cross.  Never forget that!

This day, then, we begin a forty day passage from sin to forgiveness; from the bondage of death to the life-breathing fresh air of the open tomb; from the grievous lament over our helpless condition to the exhilarating shouts of those whose lives are lifted up and borne by the everlasting arms!  There is a tension of sorts here, to be sure, but above all there is the sure and certain promise that those who travel this way with ashes on their foreheads will find in the cross the glory of God's unending grace!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Retired Lutheran Pastor Hubert Beck

E-Mail: hbeck@austin.rr.com