Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Turn Around -- A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-19

Perhaps you’ve driven down a road to nowhere. You think you know where you’re going, but then the road runs out, and you find yourself sitting in a field. You’ve taken a wrong turn, and now you’re lost. At that point, you don’t have any other choice, except to turn around and retrace your steps, hoping that you’ll find your way home.

When we hear these words of Scripture from Joel, what we hear is a wake up call. Joel says to the people of Israel on behalf of God:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming it is near — (Joel 2:1).

As we begin our Lenten journey tonight, we start with an invitation to reconsider the direction of our lives. Joel calls on us to think about whether or not we’re heading in the right direction. And then, should we discover that we’re heading in the wrong direction, we find ourselves being called upon to turn around and head the other direction.

It’s appropriate that we come together on a rainy evening to observe Ash Wednesday, because it casts a dark shadow over our lives. It marks us with a sign of death, grief, and repentance. It’s a call for change and transformation. This journey of transformation and change continues on through Good Friday to the glories of Easter Sunday. We get to enjoy Easter Sunday, but we have a difficult journey ahead.

This is a time of reflection and repentance. Like Jesus, we will be tested in the deserts of our lives, and as we face these tests we are forced to look inward, and as we do, we again hear Joel’s wake up call.

When Joel spoke these words, Israel was in a difficult situation. They were suffering, probably from a drought, and Joel suggests that their sufferings are the result of the choices they have made. They chose this path, and now it’s time to reconsider and return to God. As dark and foreboding as this message is, there is within it a word of hope. It’s not too late to change course.

Yet even now return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and
with mourning; rend your hearts not your clothing
(Joel 2:12-13a).

Joel says to them and to us: If you want to experience God's restoring grace, then first take responsibility for your lives. Don't blame your problems on someone else. Rending your clothes, however, won’t cut it. Without a change of heart, no ceremony or gesture will resolve the problem. Ceremony without true heartfelt repentance won't solve the problem. But, if we will turn around, take responsibility, and embrace the ways of God, then our hearts will be unbound and we will experience God’s grace and mercy and we will be "abounding in steadfast love.” Then we will know that God has relented from his word of judgment. (Joel 2:13b). We may suffer the consequences of our actions, but in the end we will be restored to right relationship with God and with one another.

We have come here tonight to stand before God, even if we continue to break our covenant, knowing that God is faithful and that God will not abandon us or reject us. But first, we must turn around, and return to the fold. We do this tonight, as we receive this sign of the ash, confess our sins before God and each other, and receive God’s forgiveness, knowing that as we do we might experience a day of new beginnings.

Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Ash Wednesday
February 25, 2009
Image from Jan Richardson, Artful Ashes

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