Return to the Lord

An Ash Wednesday Sermon

The prophet Joel implores us today with these words from the Lord. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

This holy and sacred season of Lent is an invitation from the Church for all of us to return to the Lord.  To seek out spiritual practices; engage in personal reflection; share our resources with others; read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the words of Scripture; seek forgiveness through repentance; and make our way back home to God.

A sermon based on Joel 2

Because it’s easy to get distracted and get off track. It’s easy to get sucked in by what Frederick Buechner terms “the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us.”  It drowns out that still small voice of God that Elijah heard in the utter silence.  It distracts us, turning our attention away from God and the things that draw us closer to God.  And so we need to make time in our lives to intentionally return, to re-center, refocus, and re-establish our connection with God.  To realistically face ourselves and where we have been and where we are.  To see those patterns that pull us away from God, and make amends.

Throughout Holy Scripture this work takes place in the desert and in the wilderness.  The ones we recall most readily are Moses and the people of Israel journey through the wilderness for forty years on their way to the Promised Land, and Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism, but there are many more.  The wilderness becomes a place where those things that are not necessary in our lives are stripped away.  We get down to the essentials both in terms of what makes us who we are and how much we must depend upon God.

Hermits began popping up in the desert around Egypt in the 3rd and 4th centuries.  Christianity had gone from a religion on the margins and under intense persecution to one accepted by the State.  The Roman Empire of Jesus’ time became the Holy Roman Empire after the time of Constantine.  And while Christians began to enjoy their new-found identity and acceptance, the practice of Christianity became lax.  Choosing to follow Christ when there might be hungry lions in your future because of your faith cannot compare to choosing to following Christ when there might be a promotion in your future. 

So the Desert Fathers and Mothers as Helen Waddell described it, “left the material comforts, the worldly politics, and secular social distractions of urban Egyptian life for the forbidding silence of the Nile desert region.” (The Desert Fathers, xxvii)  M. Basil Pennington explains that the call of every baptized Christian is to find freedom in God.  And this “was essentially the quest of the desert: freedom—to free to be oneself, to be who we truly are, to celebrate our oneness in our common humanity and in our call to share in the bliss of divinity.”  (ibid, xvi)

He continues, “What is most evident and distinctive about these fathers and mothers is that they went apart, that they shunned a society that placed its values in the goods of this world and in prestige in their transient society. Most of us cannot go apart so radically, but we need to separate ourselves from enslavement to this world’s values.  We may have to be in the world, but we cannot be of the world.”  Such is the work of Lent.  For us to travel in the wilderness for forty days in order to separate ourselves from the world and uncover freedom found in God.

While we may not be able to make it out into the physical desert or wilderness this Lent, we can do things that can transport us there.  Fasting being one of them.  When we intentionally eat less we recognize both those who go with less in our world and show our dependence upon God.  Perhaps the fast we need is from consuming goods—so we might give up shopping during these forty days, the wandering around Target or Amazon to see what tickles our fancy.  Or maybe it’s solitude we crave.  Making time and space where we intentionally shut out the voices of our culture—unplugging, sitting quietly or going out for a walk.  Maybe we need to write in a journal, or take up another practice that feeds us.

What I’ve noticed in my own experience in the wilderness—both physical and spiritual—is that when there I am able to see more clearly where I’ve missed the mark.  When I’m stripped of my accomplishments or the busyness in my life and it’s just me and the wilderness and God, I’m confronted by reality.  And it’s then that I can hear clearly the word of the Lord to repent and return.  To lay aside those things that separate me from God and others and to truly experience God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.  For God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love no matter how many times we might expect God to be judgmental and explosively harsh.

So I encourage you to join me this Lent in the wilderness.  Uncover the true freedom that is to be found in Christ.  Even now, return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”  May we journey in the wilderness this Lent and find our way home to God.  Amen.