A Homily for Ash Wednesday

*A homily given on Ash Wednesday at Midtown Christian Community, Feb. 17, 2010

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Joel 2:1-2,12-17
Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm 103

Our passages for today have a fairly recognizable pattern to them.  We are called upon to repent, to turn from destructive practices and habits, and to genuinely begin to do what is right.  But upon closer inspection, there are some edges to these texts that prevent us from skipping too quickly through them.  They trip us up a bit.  They hurt.  Their identification of our sinful ways is more searching than we might have expected.  These texts make us uncomfortable.  But what is wonderful is that God’s goodness, mercy, condescending love, his overpowering forgiveness, and his sweet redemption, are also greater than they first appear.

First, our texts call out against hypocrisy and complacency.  These are constant problems for the people of God, sins into which we are always falling.  Just like biblical Israel, it is easy for us to assume that we’re on the inside track with God.  We’re doing his work!  He’s so proud of us!  Look at us!  We’re not at Comfy-Cozy Baptist Church down the street.  We’re Midtown, we’re doing cutting edge ministry, on the frontiers of God’s work in the world!

We can easily get to the place where we congratulate ourselves for what we’re doing, and we feel that God is congratulating us, too.  And this privileged status has some benefits, one of which is that we can now begin to judge others.  It’s kind of fun!  We never run out of material!  Others are always falling short of the standard, always failing to measure up. 

It’s so easy to get to the place where all we can see is the sin in others’ lives.  We become blind to our own failings, shortcomings, small rebellions, seemingly insignificant dishonesties.  It’s easy to do this, as the story of Israel demonstrates repeatedly.  It’s easy to become self-satisfied and self-congratulatory, to assume that we’re God’s favorite.  What happens when we have this mind-set is that we give ourselves something of a “free-pass” when it comes to sin.  God hates the sin of pagans, and we’re part of God’s solution, so since we’re so amazing, we get to enjoy a few freebies here and there—a little bit of sin on the side.

This is hypocrisy, born of complacency.  Assuming that we’re on the inside track with God, so God sort of turns a “blind-eye” to our sin.

But this is a deception and an illusion.  Our anger at others; our destructive speech; our lack of generosity; our lustful fantasies; our greed and consumeristic idolatries; our small-heartedness; our bitterness and lack of forgiveness; our lack of concern for others; our deep-seated and soul-destroying jealousies.  These are just as destructive to us as to anyone; and these are just as grievous to God when they are found among us as when they are found among anyone else.

God wants to reclaim and redeem creation; God calls sinners everywhere to repent and receive life.  We need to see ourselves primarily as the audience for that message, not necessarily the ones who announce it. 

That is, the gospel call to sinners comes first to us.  We are corrupt.  We are broken.  Destructive practices creep in so easily and we are totally susceptible.  So we need this season of Lent—self-examination; quiet and searching reflection; because we are the ones who need to repent.  And hypocrisy and complacency are chief among the practices, habits, and attitudes from which we need to turn.

This much is pretty clear from a first reading of these texts.  But the Scriptures for tonight anticipate our first move and cut it off.  We are warned against false or inadequate repentance.  The prophets Joel and Isaiah talk about Israel fasting, weeping, wailing, and tearing their garments—it isn’t enough.  Why?  God tells them, “I’ve seen all this, I’ve seen your tear-filled services where you’ve all come forward and made loud commitments to never sin again, but that’s not what I want!”  Why would he say that?  It’s because Israel, like us, had become good at public pronouncements of contrition and public performances of confession and remorse . . . , but then went home and kept on living exactly as before.

Many of us have been trained to consider the end of a service the end of our responsibility.  And we’ve been taught to think that “awareness” is an actual accomplishment of something.  That is, if we become aware of our sin and our sinful practices and habits, and we kind of express remorse for it, we’re done.  It’s sufficient to pray something like this: “Oh God, I’m horrible for doing this and that, I’m so bad, please forgive me, I seriously will never ever do it again, I’m so serious, I’ll live for you and be amazing and be so committed, how can I not when you’re such an amazing God who died for me and I stand in awe of you and I stand amazed in your presence and you’re so amazing because you love the whole world and I just want to live for you and I love you, God, and you’re so amazing . . . forever and ever and ever . . . Amen.” 

We think that when we’ve rattled off a long-winded prayer like this and called forth an impressive series of machine-gun style passionate prayer-groanings, that we’ve actually done something.

But according to the prophets, this isn’t anything.  Our awareness of our sinfulness and our destructive patterns of behavior and of thought are all worthless unless such awareness has its end in changed patterns of behavior in the days, weeks, and months that follow. 

Here’s what Isaiah says:

Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.Is not this the fast that I choose:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Think carefully about commitments that you make to God.  Think very carefully about doing any sort of public act of contrition, or even of praying to God anything at all, if you don’t intend to leave our gathering here this evening and make any changes.  It’s easy for us to express love for God out loud, or even in prayer, but to make no plans to go out and repair a damaged relationship.  Some of you know that you need to take steps to make something right between you and God, or between you and another person.  Some of you know that there are destructive habits that you are cultivating that will destroy your soul.  But you have carved out a nice haven somewhere in a back-room of your mind and heart, and you have no intention of dealing with that, of cleaning it out.  That’s not good.  A treasured bitterness against someone.  A refusal to forgive.  A fantasy about revenge against another person.  Deal with these.  Drag them out into the open before God and ask him to cleanse you and give you wisdom to walk in pathways of goodness and truth.  Ask him to help make you whole.  And ask a trusted friend to help you walk through that process so that you can walk in God’s own life.  That’s where true joy and true freedom are located.

Beware of false repentance.  Public wailing, or even quiet passionate prayer now, with no intention to leave here and make small but concrete changes—it’s a waste of time.

These texts are bit more challenging than we first imagined.  And they don’t relent.  A second thing these texts highlight for us is the tendency to avoid positively and purposefully pursuing reconciliation, redemption, and the flourishing of others.  Again, if we examine ourselves, our patterns of behavior and our habits of thought and speech, we might not find much hypocrisy.  Fine!  That’s wonderful.  But God is not content to leave us in a place where we’re not currently making a mess of things.  God wants us to be purposeful and positive agents of his life to this community and to the world, which means that we all must be positively and actively engaged.  To say, “well, I’m not currently doing any harm to anyone” isn’t sufficient.

In the 2 Corinthians text, Paul talks about the lengths to which he went in order to bring about others’ reconciliation to God.  He put up with all sorts of hardships, suffered loss, humiliation, and personal injury, all so that God’s grace could reach into the lives of others and effect redemption.

We need to take this to heart.  Where are we being complacent?  Where are we stuck in small patterns of selfishness and self-orientation?  Perhaps there are very small steps we can take to actually contribute positively to this community or to the lives of others.  As part of Lent, you might consider giving up a small portion of time each day or each week so that you can carry out small acts of service to others in the name of Jesus.  Give up your own use of that time and give it as a gift to someone else.  You might consider a technology fast—those pockets of your day where you are consumed with staring at a tiny screen, engaged in text-speak with others about fascinating issues like what movie your friend saw last week, and, OMG, the guys want pizza tonight, but the rest of us want subs!

There are many other ways in which we fail to pursue redemption and reconciliation.  Perhaps we have relationships that are broken, and we think that “giving them to God” ends our responsibility.  You ought to reconsider.  Perhaps you need to give someone a call and ask for a long conversation that might bring about forgiveness and reconciliation.  The point here is that God’s grace floods our lives when we purposefully and positively walk in the truth, actively taking steps of obedience, no matter how threatening the situation or fearful we may be.

Well, to this point we’ve only considered our responsibility—God’s call to us to repent and the opportunity for self-examination that Lent affords to us.  But there’s something fundamental to all of this, something that is essential.  Something that, if we don’t have it, there’s no point to any of this.  God’s gracious character.

If we consider Lent, and our passages for tonight, with our self-generated conception of what God must be like, we might come away with something like this: Lent is a season for all of us to repent, to change our ways.  So, let’s do this, knowing that when we do, God will appreciate us doing our part.  Or, let’s do this, and God will approve of us as we meet his expectations of us.  Or, God will make his expectations clear when we repent and try to please him.

But we don’t find any of these things in our passages, because this isn’t who God is.  That’s who God would be if we were God.  Just as these texts have edges to them that trip up our hypocrisies and our follies, so God has surprising edges that demonstrate he’s a far more lavish lover than we’d expect.  He’s an overpowering forgiver, a magnanimous lover, and his grace to us is overwhelming.

In addition to the sweet promises in the Isaiah passages, the phrases of Ps 103 are pure grace:

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.

He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities;

He redeems your life from the grave
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness; 

He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.

For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.

As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our sins from us.

As a father cares for his children,
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.

For he himself knows whereof we are made;
he remembers that we are but dust.

God’s grace undergirds the entire project of confession, self-examination, and repentance.  If that weren’t the case, we’d be crazy to open ourselves up.  If God were like us, we would never open up the dark corners of our hearts for examination, would we?  I wouldn’t!!  But if we are guaranteed in advance that there is nothing but forgiveness and restoration, nothing but pure grace from God, then we are set free to be open and honest, to be truly vulnerable before the searchlight of God’s Spirit.  If I know that when I confess, I’ll find only grace and overpowering forgiveness, this sets me free to admit all my failings and ask for help.

As the psalmist says, God already knows us.  He knows our failings and our follies.  He knows our inner torments and our hidden sins.  He knows what we’re made of—and he loves us.  He longs to set us right and put us on the path of life.

So, take advantage of this Lent season as a time of self-examination, self-discipline, and simplicity.  Embark on a journey of letting God examine you, to search you and find any hurtful way in you, and to lead you in the everlasting way.

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