We began the holy season of Lent yesterday, and I think God’s character is front and center. Is God an angry judge, bent on destruction? Or is God always looking to offer another chance?
Many people make a distinction between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God.” They see this as angry God verses loving God. I think it’s because they don’t know scripture very well or because they proof text looking for passages that highlight God’s anger.
I firmly believe that Jesus was the embodiment of God completely, that God’s character was shown best in the life of Christ. And so when you get the type of passage we heard from the prophet Joel yesterday, I still see God showing God’s true colors.
Without further adieu, my sermon from Ash Wednesday.
(Based on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 )
“Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on my holy mountain! For the day of the Lord is coming,” the prophet Joel declares to us today. He details how, because of the unfaithfulness of God’s chosen people, certain destruction is coming. The verses left out in our reading give the fine details of this coming annihilation. Fire, utter chaos, the darkening of the sun and moon, the stars losing their brightness, desolation of the city, and torment on the people. And not just any people, God’s people, those God has chosen. The ones who have utterly forsaken the covenant they had established with God.
“Yet” the prophet continues, giving pause to his prophecy. “Yet,” God says, “even now, return to me.” Joel gives this litany of what is about to happen because of the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel, and then he gives this glimmer of hope. “Yet, even now return to me with all your heart.” “Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Compassion, love, faithfulness, mercy.
As we begin this season of Lent, God’s character is at the forefront. God is not characterized by anger, injustice or swift retribution, rather God gives second chances, fifteenth chances, even 87th chances, so the Israelites can mend their ways, and return to God even though they constantly fail him. God’s desire for the Israelites is to have them live abundant lives, even though they often forget this.
We, like the Israelites, have taken God’s desire for our lives too casually; we have not lived fully as God’s people. We have grown complacent—we have forgotten the poor, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, we have allowed our own selfish desires for our lives to influence our actions. We have not seen the reality of our lives for what they are because we have been lulled into false assurances in our selves and in our world. Just like the people of Israel, we have “forgotten God’s utter fidelity” to us as his people.
And, when this happens, all that is around us begins to crumble. We know this, both individually and corporately. We have experienced the brokenness that sin produces in our own lives and in the life of our community. Walter Brueggermann writes, “When God’s fidelity is jettisoned, human relations become unfaithful and society disintegrates. The purpose of religious discipline is to remember who God really is, what is promised by God, and what is required for God.” Sin, as Frederick Buechner describes it, is centrifugal, pushing others and God out toward the periphery of our lives. When we forget God’s unequivocal faithfulness to us, our relationships—with others, with our world, with ourselves and especially with God—break down.
Yet, God remains faithful. In spite of our failings, our self-destructive behavior, our rejection of God, God stays true. God is gracious and merciful. God is slow to anger and is steadfast in love.
So, with this recognition of God’s faithfulness, we come to this day, to this solemn and holy season. We hear the call from the prophet Joel to awaken from our slumber and to return to the Lord our God. God calls us to return through fasting and recognition of how we have not lived faithfully so that we can turn around. True repentance requires us to turn our lives in the opposite direction, to realize the way we are headed is away from God and that we can, with God’s help, return to the path towards life.
That is why we will gather at this altar rail in a few moments to receive the imposition of ashes. With this mark we will remember what we are made of, to be sure, but we will also recognize God’s deep love for us and our need for God. This smudged cross placed on our foreheads will show to God our desire to try once again, with God’s help, to live the lives we are called to live. Lives of faithfulness and fidelity to the one, holy and true God. Our observance of this holy season of Lent is a sign of our sincere desire to return faithfully to the Lord.
May this season be for us a time for renewal. May we take a long look at our lives—what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we handle our relationships—and seek God’s help and guidance. May we remember that we are dust, and more than that, may we remember that we are members of God’s people upon whom God is full of compassion and mercy, and that God is slow to anger and full of steadfast love. Amen.