Ash Wednesday at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, February 25, 2009
Ash Wednesday at Bethlehem Lutheran Church February 25, 2009
Joel 2:1-2,12-17 :: Psalm 51: 1-17 :: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 :: Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Text: Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Joel 2:13)
This is the verse from the Prophet Joel that we will be singing in Lent instead of the Hallelujah. We have to bury the Hallelujah until the forty days of Lent are over. Lent in old English simply means the season of Spring. It is like the word “lengthen” and comes from the fact that our days are lengthening again and the nights are growing shorter. “Hallelujah” means “Praise the Lord!” in Hebrew. It is hard to shout praises to God in the valley of suffering.Yet and still, I don’t believe in wearing a long face, because returning to our Lord and God will set our hearts rejoicing and I believe that rejoicing in our suffering is the best way to cope with it.
When you realize how gracious the Lord our Lord is and how abounding in steadfast love, then it makes our returning a thing of joy. Those who repent and get ready for baptism in the old Black experience were called mourners. “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.” But they were in for a surprise, just like we are in for a surprise, because our reunion with God will be a thing of joy. We just can’t even imagine how loving our God is. Yet and still, it is right for us to mourn our sin. Sadness and sorrow fills our hearts when we realize how much time we have wasted keeping our distance from God. Some people are afraid of God’s anger, but more are afraid of God’s love. How can we possibly not be swept off our feet, when on our return we meet with the abounding love of our gracious and merciful God?
I think of the prodigal, the wasteful son, who memorized his little verse returning to the Father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands!” (Luke 15:18-19) But the gracious and merciful Father abounding in steadfast love runs to the son while he is as yet far off, hugs and kisses him, says, “Get him a robe [for all God’s children have a robe], put a ring on his finger, get him a new set of clothes, kill the fatted calf and celebrate, because this my son was dead and behold he is alive; he was lost, and now he’s found.”
And the parable could be told about a prodigal daughter just as well: “Get her a robe [for all God’s children have a robe], put a ring on her finger, get her a new dress as beautiful as Michelle Obama’s, kill the fatted calf and celebrate, because this my daughter was dead and behold she is alive; she was lost, and now she’s found.”
Doesn’t that make you want to come back? Doesn’t that make you want to learn to know God better by reading the scripture, communing with the saints, spend quiet time with God in prayer? Just speaking intimately to God and making your relationship stronger once again?
Often a sin will prevent our hearts from becoming closer to the throbbing heart of God. Sometimes I ask myself why keep checking out the balance in my pension? Our heart can be wrapped up in money whether we have it or do not have it. It does not say, “Return to money, because it is gracious and merciful.” It is not. Everything does not turn into money and money cannot reproduce everything. Love, hope, patience, faith, solid relationships, real friends are all outside of the power of money to buy.
So our real treasure is Jesus in heaven, from whom we get all the really important things that matter in life. Our treasure is God in heaven, our God who is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, unshakeable love, overflowing love that you can count on. Our God is a God dying for you and me to return, as he really did in Jesus Christ when he died on the cross for us.
When we refuse to return and because God is slow to anger, it takes a while, but then God really does get angry. Doesn’t it feel like God is angry with us? We are in two wars. Our sons are getting blown up by roadside bombs. All the main brokerage houses have collapsed into the banks and the banks have to be propped up by our government so they don’t call down like a house of cards. Our financial storm is worse than Katrina: so many more people are losing their houses and jobs because of it. When we leave God we leave the blessed and good creation and find ourselves mingled in all kinds of self-destruction.
In Joel’s time it was the day of the locust. Great clouds of grasshoppers covered the land and ate up all the crops and they stared starvation in the face. The crackling noise they made when they ate was louder than a forest fire eating up our trees and burning up our houses. They swooped over the people and left them in utter darkness.
Joel said, “Blow the trumpet, declare a fast, let everyone appear in the temple and cry for the mercy of God! Let the priests intercede and cry and weep for the people” from the front doors all the way to the altar, that is, through the whole length of the church, so that God’s anger relents once we have gone too far and ignited it.
We have gone too far. How did we say it as children? Ooh, now you did it. Ooh, you’re going to get it! And this frightened sinking feeling came over you, knowing that you were going to be punished by an angry parent. All you could do was face the music.
I remember Deacon John, who told about how he used to drink secretly from his father’s wine. He would refill the bottle with water to the top so his father would not know. But he could tell when it was almost all water. “Get me a switch from the peach tree, boy. And it better be a good one.” And woe if he brought one back that was too small! And the old man still shuddered to think about the lashing he’d receive.
I’m describing this. I don’t believe that kind of punishment is good for kids. But psychological punishment can be worse. “You’ll never amount to anything!” can be a curse that parents put on their children and it keeps coming back in mind and making them fall down at the worst possible times.
Our God is slow to anger, but if we go too far, God will throw the book at us. But have you heard the Gospel? Jesus came down and took all our sins on himself, to give us the way to return and become reconciled with the Father. God is so gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love that when we went too far, he sent his Son and made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. God the Son covered us and shielded us from the anger of God. Jesus acted as if it was his sin, even though we were the ones who sinned. He acted as if he had gone too far and all God’s wrath and fury struck the cross like a lightening rod, instead of us.
When we look up at Jesus on the cross, then we are seeing our Lord and God, gracious and merciful, and abounding in steadfast love for us. So what force could possibly be stronger than this love of our wonderful God attracting us with overflowing and abounding compassion for us? God is like a cup overflowing with love and concern for us. That is why our treasure is in heaven. God is our portion and our cup overflowing with goodness for us.
So how can we return to God? Some may want to fast. Do it in secret. Do your good in secret so that it sneaks up from behind and suddenly overwhelms people with the goodness that can over power the evil done in secret. You may want to give something up. Chocolates, cake, liquor, movies, ice cream, what have you. You have the freedom of a Christian to do such things or not. Just don’t hurt your health. That is not the point.
Sometimes we add some discipline: like what about my cooking for Nora a couple times a week instead of always having her come home from work and then still cook for me? Ah, that hurts!
The point however is to get our hearts throbbing in time with the loving heart of Christ Jesus our Lord. Jesus is our priceless treasure and our hearts have to be inside his.
On my website, I have translated an old German poem from the days of courtly love, I’ll put it like this:
Jesus, you are mine, I am yours.
You can be sure it’s true.
Into my heart, I’ve gotten you.
Locked its lock, Lost the key,
So you’ll never get back out, you see.
No one is going to steal my God from me! And with Jesus in our hearts we will become like him: children of the heavenly Father. We’ll be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. So let’s return to God.
Say this whole world were mine. I’d give it up anytime, just to have a closer walk with Jesus!
“We are to love God with all our heart, strength, soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves!” Have you told your dear God lately that you love him? At home we never said that we loved each other. Our son Mark introduced it. Did you hear the story about the Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much he almost told her? And if you love God show it with your lives. It’s a sin to tell a lie!
O God how much we love you and celebrate your wonderful creation, such a gift to us. So we gladly serve you, because Jesus is our priceless treasure and nothing would give us more pleasure than to know that Jesus, you are mine and I belong to you.
You are mine and I am Thine and that’s for all time!
Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Amen.