The Call to Find Joy:
An Ash Wednesday Sermon

For some of us, the season of Lent offers not consolation but guilt.  We come face to face with ourselves, and we imagine God looks us over and finds us lacking.  We’d rather not spend time coming to terms with who we really are and where we are on our spiritual journeys because, perhaps, we wish we were someplace different.  

Author and minister Frederick Buechner offers this definition for the word “judgment.” He writes, “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.”

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 but should have; the steps I’ve taken that I should have avoided.  I’ve done things I should not have done, and I have not done those 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 overwhelming to me. That God will judge me and choose not to forgive.  That I will not earn that forgiveness.

However, Buechner doesn’t end there. He 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.”

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 throughout this season, to heap on more reasons why you might consider yourself worthless, hear again these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” 

What we do on this day is to help us put things in perspective, to recognize the ways we have done things that diminish the joy in our life.  When we make our life more about us and our own desires, or when we don’t pay attention to those we love for a whole host of 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 person Jesus wants us to be,  a faithful and repentant disciple who both worships him and seeks to share his love with others.

As we begin this Holy Season of Lent, I want to ask what you most need to do through the strength of Christ’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 might you ask God for 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 or where we have been.  He only longs for us to return to him and to be made whole and to experience true and abiding joy.

When we come today 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 mortal, I hope even more that we remember there is joy to be found in this mortal life if we can truly believe in Christ’s deep love for us.  When we remember that—when we know it fully—we can 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 to the joy that is ours through Christ. 

Image by 🌸♡💙♡🌸 Julita 🌸♡💙♡🌸 from Pixabay

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