Uncovering Joy in Lent

A sermon for Ash Wednesday 2015. 

For some the season of Lent offers not consolation but guilt. We come face to face with ourselves and God looks over our shoulder finding us wanting. We’d rather not spend time coming to terms with who we are and where we are in our journeys because, perhaps, we wish we were somehow further along.

Frederick Buechner offers this as his definition of the word “judgment.” “We are all of us judged every day. We are judged by the face that looks back at us from the bathroom mirror. We are judged by the faces of the people we love and by the faces and lives of our children and by our dreams. Each day finds us at the junction of many roads, and we are judged as much by the roads we have not taken as by the roads we have.”[1]

I can feel the guilt piling on in those words. This face of mine that stares back each morning knows the missteps and the failings all too well. The places I have not traveled and should have, the steps taken which I should have avoided. I’ve done things I should not have done, and I have not done things I ought to have done. More so, I echo the words of John Donne in asking the Almighty, “Wilt Thou forgive that sin, where I begun, Which is my sin, though it were done before? Wilt Thou forgive those sins through which I run, And do run still, though still I do deplore?” It sometimes seems too great, that God will not want to forgive. That I will not deserve it.

Yet Buechner continues his definition. He writes, “The New Testament proclaims that at some unforeseeable time in the future God will ring down the final curtain on history, and there will come a Day on which all our days and all the judgments upon us and all our judgments upon each other will themselves be judged. The judge will be Christ. In other words, the one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully. Romantic love is blind to everything except what is lovable and lovely, but Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy. The worst sentence Love can pass is that we behold the suffering which Love has endured for our sake, and that is also our acquittal. The justice and mercy of the judge are ultimately one.”[2]

Did you catch that? “Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy.” That’s what Lent is really about. It’s a time to be ruthless against everything that diminishes our joy. While it may feel easy to pile on guilt on this day and in this season, to heap on more reasons why you might consider yourself worthless, hear these words again from the prophet Joel: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

What we do on this day is to help us put things in perspective, to recognize the ways we have done things that diminish our joy in life. When we make life more about us and our own desires, or we don’t pay attention to those we love for various reasons. Maybe we do not treat others as we would like to be treated, or we allow our anger to burn inside. Perhaps we have become lazy and ignore the gifts given to us by God, or we forget our dependency on God. All these things—and other sins—diminish our joy. They take us away from the people Jesus wants us to be—his disciples who worship him as savior and lord and who seek to share his love with the world.

As we begin this Holy Season of Lent, I want to ask what you must do with the the strength of God’s love in order to experience more joy? Certainly some areas in your life are drawing you away from God—none of us is perfect—so how can you ask for God’s help? Christ sees us fully as we are in our most vulnerable of states—he isn’t duped by the images we promote or the way we hide truths from others and ourselves—and he continues to love us just the same. He loves fully, without question, no matter what we have done in the past. He only longs for us to be made whole and to experience true and abiding joy.

When we come to have ashes placed on our foreheads, we remind ourselves that this life will one day come to an end. As we remember that we are but dust, we remember as well that life is short. I hope even more so that we remember there is joy to be found in this life if we can uncover and know Christ’s deep love. When we remember that—when we know it fully—we can with God’s help open ourselves up to God’s penetrating yet loving gaze, knowing without a doubt that before a gracious, holy and loving God we stand totally in the clear. Beloved, we are dust and we are God’s. May this holy season draw us closer to God and bring us eventually to the joy that is ours through Christ’s resurrection. Amen.

[1] Frederick Buechner. Wishful Thinking. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993). Pg. 58.

[2] Buechner, Pg. 58.