A Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Sermon for Ash Wednesday
The prophet Joel wrote some time late in the Old Testament period. The book that records his prophetic messages doesn’t tell us anything about him, but we can tell that his ministry occurred sometime after the people of Judah returned from their exile in Babylon. In the first part of the book, Joel describes a plague of locusts that had fallen on the land. The crops had been eaten. The grain harvest was so sparse that the people questioned how they would be able to make the appropriate sacrifices that God required at the temple. It was a time of national calamity. And in the midst of the calamity, Joel called the people to repentance for their sins.
But as we see in the second half of the book, the disaster brought about by the locusts was only a foreshadowing of the coming day of the Lord: a coming day when God would judge unfaithful Israel, while pouring out his Holy Spirit on those who truly believed and who had been faithful. It’s a picture of the messianic kingdom established by Jesus at his first advent. He redeemed those who believed and poured out his Holy Spirit on them, giving them incredible spiritual abundance. And yet only a few years later, God used the Romans to bring his judgement on unbelieving Israel, destroying the temple and driving the people into exile.
That period, from the time of Joel, until the time of Jesus and the destruction of temple a generation later, was a time of spiritual ups and downs for the Jewish people, but what most characterises the Jewish people of that time it is a bare ritualism. The priests and the people “went through the motions”. This was the time when the party of the Pharisees was born. They kept the letter of the law, but too often they were guilty of ignoring its spirit. They brought their sacrifices to the temple as God had commanded, but they were largely unrepentant. Brothers and sisters, God despises that sort of “going through the motions”. Our faith is full of symbols, outward actions, and good works, but they’re all meant to reflect an inner life of grace. The externals of our faith should be the natural outgrowth of genuine contrition for our sins, a real striving for holiness, and a love for the God who loved us so much that he gave up his own Son as a sacrifice for our sins that we might be spared his just wrath and be restored to his fellowship.
Think about that in light of God’s call to the people in Joel 2:12.
“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.”
“With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Those are the external signs of a heart that is truly sorry for its sins.
You and I live on the other side of Joel’s prophecy. We’re here this evening because God poured out his Spirit on faithful men and women at Pentecost as he had promised he would through Joel. And yet we wait for another day of the Lord that’s still to come. We don’t know when, but Jesus has promised that he will come back one day to judge the living and the dead. But this time the consequences of that judgement will be eternal. If we are in Christ Jesus, we have no reason to fear that day. Jesus has satisfied the penalty of our sin. And yet the Church brings us to this season of Lent each year—a time of preparation for our celebration of the Lord’s passion and resurrection—and reminds of our need for repentance.
Yes, Jesus has paid the penalty for our sins and redeemed us, but he hasn’t just given us a “Get Out of Hell Free” card. He’s not only saved us from the consequences of our sin; he’s also given us new life and saved us from our sin itself. He’s filled us with his Holy Spirit that we might live holy lives and a be a holy people—that we might be witness of his grace and his mercy and his love to a world lost in darkness. Holiness, more than anything else, is our own act of sacrifice by which we give God thanks for what he’s done for us. Jesus tells us: “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
And yet we struggle to do that consistently. We all continue to struggle with temptation and we fall into sin. None of us is perfect yet. Lent reminds us of that. And it calls us to reflect on sacrifice. As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, Lent calls us to reflect on the sacrifice that Jesus made and to think especially about it’s costliness. Consider: Our sin is so great that the only way God could deal with it was to sacrifice the life of his own perfect Son. Lent reminds us that our sin is a big deal. It’s nothing to laugh at, nothing to sniff at, nothing to dismiss with a wink and a nod. Sin is a serious business. Its penalty is death—physical and eternal. And praise be to God, Jesus paid that penalty for us.
And so Lent also calls us to reflect on our need to offer up ourselves as living sacrifices to God—not in an effort to win his favour or to earn our salvation, but as a way of showing our thanks for what he has done for us and to demonstrate our love for him.
This is why Christians fast during Lent. Making some sacrifice is meant to be a way to recall the fact that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us and that we ought to offer our lives back as sacrifices of thanks and praise to him. A Lenten fast should be an outward symbol or sign of our desire to better understand and respond to the love that Jesus showed us at the cross. Giving up meat or chocolate or coffee or T.V. for Lent was never meant to be a way to lose weight or save money or to better discipline ourselves. It was never meant to be a form of penitence used to earn brownie points with God. Too often people seem to think of a Lenten fast in those terms. Let your Lenten fast bring you closer to God. If you give up T.V., use that extra time you’ve got and spend it in prayer, spend it meditating on the love of God shown to you at the cross, use it to read the Scriptures or some devotional writings. If you give up something that results in financial savings, use that money to help the poor or the ministry of the Church; let your fast be an opportunity to give of yourself as Jesus gave of himself for you. Whatever you do for Lent, let it be something that makes a lasting difference in your life. Let it be something that draws you closer to God—to his Word, to his grace, and to his love. Let it be something that gives you a greater passion for holiness. And let it be something that gives you opportunity to increasing the brightness of your light—something that increases your witness of the grace, love, and mercy of God to the world.
Let us pray: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.