Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51.1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial. I personally look forward to this day because it gives me the perfect excuse each year to make you feel as bad about yourselves as possible by reminding you what miserable sinners you all are. What a great opportunity for any preacher! But because as you all know, I am really a nice guy who has no personal sins to account for, I will resist taking advantage of the Ash Wednesday Opportunity. All kidding aside, to be sure, our sin and rebellion against God should make us remorseful, but to focus on that alone misses the broader context for Lent with its somber reflection on our sin and brokenness. God wants us to repent, but for the right reasons, and that is what I want us to look at tonight.
In our OT lesson the Lord warns his people that the great and terrible Day of the Lord is coming when God will judge the sins of his people. It will be so awful, so devastating, that this day of judgment will be literally indescribable in its terror. The immediate context for the prophet’s warning was Israel’s spiritual adultery. God’s people had chased after false, unreal gods and had turned away from worshipping the one, true, and living God, the God of Israel. They had turned away, of course, because they had become like the gods they worshipped, just like we become like the gods we worship, whether those false gods are money, power, booze, sex, fame, or whatever. And now God warns his people and us that they should not be lulled into a false sense of security because he has not yet acted. God has been patient with his people, but because they stubbornly refuse to change their ways and worship the one true God, God’s patience is about to run out and when that happens, all hell will break loose—literally. This is a terrifying picture that is painted for us, and if we really believe that God exists, it had better sober us up pretty quickly because we ignore it at our own peril. So where’s the good news, you ask, and what kind of God are we dealing with here? We’re not feeling the love at the moment. Speak comfort to us, dude.
This is why the Big Picture perspective of Scripture is so important for us. If we read passages like our OT lesson out of context, and don’t put them in the larger narrative of Scripture, we are likely to develop some wrong-headed thinking about God’s character and God’s relation to us, seeing God as nothing more than some angry being who is constantly looking for ways to smack us down for every little thing possible. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To understand passages like our OT lesson, we have to go back to the beginning, literally to Genesis. There we see that God created this universe and our world good, and astonishingly decided to create humans in God’s own image to be stewards over his good creation and run it wisely. To do that, however, we have to be true to our creation. We have to indeed bear God’s image so that we can reflect God’s goodness out into the world. But as the creation narrative makes clear, we humans did not want to play second fiddle to God. We didn’t want to rule on God’s behalf. We wanted to rule as if we were God, and when that happened, it caused us to get kicked out of paradise and hopelessly disrupted God’s intended creative order. Instead of cooperating with God, we rebelled against God and brought about God’s curse on both us and the creation (cf. Romans 8.18-25). Our rebellion also opened the door for evil to further corrupt God’s good world. So God had two choices. He could destroy his good but corrupted creation, us included, and start over. Or he could go about restoring his good creation and creatures gone bad. Thankfully for all of us, God chose the latter course of action because God is always faithful and this gives us a glimpse into God’s motives and character. In our OT lesson, God pronounces judgment on God’s people because God had called them through Abraham to be true to his original creative purpose for humans. In other words, God called his people Israel to work with him to restore his good creation and its peoples gone bad. This is hardly an indication of a nasty, angry God bent on destroying us. Rather, we see God calling his people to act like the fully human creatures he created us to be.
But God’s people Israel became part of the problem instead of part of the solution. They chased after false gods and became thoroughly corrupted in doing so, just like we become thoroughly corrupted when we chase after our false gods. But God was and is patient with his people and has been so from the very beginning. Even after Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden and hid from him after having their eyes opened to their moral condition, we see God pursuing his proud and rebellious creatures, seeking them out for fellowship. He did the same with his people Israel by sending prophets like Joel to warn them of the consequences of their rebellious behavior. And we get that at one level, especially if we are parents. What good parent refuses to warn his rebellious child about the consequences of pursuing a particular course of action? So in our OT lesson, we see what happens when it becomes clear that God’s people are not going to change their ways and act like the image-bearers God created them to be. God cannot and will not tolerate evil of any kind. Evildoing separates us from God and when that happens we are cut off from our Source of life and become dead people walking. As Scripture puts it, sin leads to death, not because God is an angry God bent on punishing us, but because God cannot abide evil of any kind, and that’s for our own good. Who among us enjoys being afflicted by evil? Who wants to be afflicted by evil for all eternity? So when we read passages like our OT lesson tonight we must remember the bigger picture contained in Scripture. God wants to restore his image in us and make us fully human again so that God can restore his good creation gone bad. God called a particular people Israel to help him in that task, and later called a reconstituted Israel formed around Jesus to do likewise. In other words, God honors us and loves us enough to want us to fulfill his creative purposes for us as his image-bearing creatures so that we can rule his good creation on God’s behalf. That hardly indicates an angry and vindictive God! The warnings we read in both the OT and NT that terrify us and make us shudder are simply that—warnings. God is warning us of the dire consequences when we pursue other gods (ourselves included) and their corrupting influence on God’s image in us. God is warning us because God loves us and cherishes us and wants us to live and enjoy being the fully human creatures he created us to be. God does not desire the death of anyone, not even the worst evildoers (see, e.g., Ezekiel 18.23, 32). If you wrap your mind around this, it changes your whole perspective on Lent with its emphasis self-examination, confession, and repentance.
Why? Because you realize that God is for you, not against you. God loves you and cherishes you and wants the best for you, and who knows what is best for you better than your Creator? We know this is true because as Christians, we believe that God has taken the great and terrible day of judgment on himself so that we will never have to experience God’s terrible and final judgment and wrath. In other words, for Christians, the great and terrible day of the Lord happened at Calvary. Paul tells us this in our epistle lesson tonight, reminding us that God made Jesus sin, even though Jesus was sinless, so that in Jesus God could condemn our sin in the flesh instead of us. Paul tells us virtually the same thing in Romans 8.1-4. By bearing God’s just judgment on our sins himself, God opened the door for our reconciliation so that we no longer have to be dead people walking and can once again enjoy real life and real humanity. For those who are in Christ, who have real faith in Jesus and enjoy a real relationship with him, there is now no condemnation, thanks be to God! Amen?
In one way or another all our lessons tonight ask us the same question. Do you want to be healed of your sin-sickness so that you can resume your rightful role as God’s image-bearing rulers over his good creation? If you do, then turn to God because only God can heal you, and that usually comes when you decide to give up your disordered thinking and ways, and learn once again to be fully human in the manner God created you to be. The term for changing focus from ourselves to God is called repentance. When that starts happening, we open ourselves up to God’s healing presence in the power of the Spirit. In our epistle lesson, Paul was defending his apostolic ministry to the Corinthians, telling them to look at how he lived because his lifestyle and focus indicated the true transformative power of Christ living and working in a person. Imitate me, Paul tells us, i.e., give Jesus your ultimate loyalty and focus, and you too will be ready to resume your rightful place as God’s image-bearing creatures. This is important because as Paul and the NT writers remind us elsewhere, when the new creation comes in full, we will be fulfilling this function in a new and complete way, and it will be absolutely glorious.
This is why Joel calls us to repentance, not only so that God might relent in his wrath, but so that God’s people could start acting like the people God called them to be, to embody his healing love and blessings on a sin-sick and corrupted world. And this is why Jesus urges us to take the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving seriously. We don’t do them for their own sake or because we think we have to follow the rules so we can get our ticket punched. Viewing these disciplines in this way makes them a farce and signals we are still making it all about ourselves. No, we are to engage in these disciplines because they are beneficial for us and because they help us to develop a proper perspective on God. In other words, they help us learn to make God our central priority so that we stop focusing on other lesser and false gods. Too often we pray and fast and give our resources away for our own sake, not God’s. We want people to see how good and holy we are, and when we do that, we’ve lost the fight already. So Jesus tells us to use these disciplines as a means to a greater end, to learn to love God for his own sake. We can have confidence this is possible because we have been given the Holy Spirit to live in us and to heal and transform us. Yes, it is God who heals, but we have to do our part. We have to put in our sweat equity. And this should make sense to us. We go to doctors to be healed of our physical ailments. So why would we go to see a doctor and then fail to do what she prescribes so that we can be healed? You want to be healed, asks Jesus? Then start doing things that will turn your focus away from the things that lead to death and lead you back to God so that he can restore his image in you and you can start living life to its fullest. This is the point of Lent with its disciplines. Of course, we need to engage in these disciplines at all times because they help draw us out of ourselves and back to God. But Lent is a time when we especially focus on this work, unpleasant and difficult as it may be at times.
And if you need a further reminder of why you should take Lent seriously, remember Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11-32) because it reminds us of the character of God the Father. Jesus told this parable to some Pharisees who wanted to know why he was partying so much and hanging out with losers. In response, Jesus told them the story of a son who utterly rebelled against his father and walked away from his inheritance to spend it all on reckless living. But after the money was gone and the good times stopped as they always must, the boy came to his senses and decided to return home to his father. Notice carefully the dynamic here. The boy decided he knew best how to live his life and he ended up alienated from his family and starving to death. And so he came to his senses. In other words, he repented and went back home. And his father’s reaction? Did he refuse to see his son or berate him? Did he tell him “I told you so”? Did he make him feel like a low-life slime doggy? No. The father ran to his son and embraced and kissed him. He put the finest robe and a ring on him and ordered a big party to celebrate the boy’s return from death to life. The father in that story, of course, was God our Father, whose love and mercy makes the father in the story pale in comparison. We know this because God became human for our sake to destroy sin and the power of death in Jesus’ death and resurrection. He bestows his Spirit on us so that we can learn to put to death our sinful desires that dehumanize us and cause us to pursue other gods that will kill us. And in doing so, God calls us back to life by inviting us to learn to live once again as his fully image-bearing creatures to rule his world. What an awesome and gracious privilege!
If you crave a real, deep, and lasting relationship with this God, then examine yourselves and resolve during this Lenten season to put to death (or continue putting to death) with the help of the Spirit all that is within you that prevents you from enjoying that kind of relationship, and makes you focus on false and death-producing things. Take on the godly disciplines that will help refocus you and your priorities so that you pursue the only prize in this world that really matters: life with God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. Doing so will transform you over time into the fully human being God created you to be so that you will know without a doubt that you have Good News, now and for all eternity, thanks be to God! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.