Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 CEB
Blow the horn in Zion;
give a shout on my holy mountain!
Let all the people of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming.
It is near--
a day of darkness and no light,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread out upon the mountains,
a great and powerful army comes,
unlike any that has ever come before them,
or will come after them in centuries ahead.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your hearts,
with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow;
tear your hearts
and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
very patient, full of faithful love,
and ready to forgive.
Who knows whether he will have a change of heart
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord your God?
Blow the horn in Zion;
demand a fast;
request a special assembly.
Gather the people;
prepare a holy meeting;
assemble the elders;
gather the children,
even nursing infants.
Let the groom leave his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep.
Let them say, “Have mercy, Lord, on your people,
and don’t make your inheritance a disgrace,
an example of failure among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Here we are on the first day of Lent, on this day of ashes. We mark our entry into this season with a cross on our foreheads and a reminder that from the dust of the ground we have been formed and to this same dust we will return. We mark our heads with the gray dusty ash of palms, once filled with life, now consumed with fire to leave behind only char. Words from a prophet seem fitting for today, one that reminds us that the day of the Lord is coming, a day of darkness. We are told by the prophet Joel to prepare with repenting and weeping, rending our hearts before the Lord our God. How do we reconcile this bleak start with the redeeming love of this same God through Jesus Christ? How do we confront the duality of sin and death with love and grace? Perhaps it is time that we take a closer look at the ashes, which do not seem like much at first glance. There in the ash, like the unassuming grace of God, do we find restoration and new growth in this season of Lent.
I want to talk about ashes this evening. The ashes that will soon be placed on our foreheads. The ashes that came from burning up last year’s palms. The ashes that do not seem to promise much life, only a reminder of what was, the green life of palms and even the bright warmth of fire. Ash, however, contains the potential for a surprising amount of life. First of all, ash is often used as a fertilizer since it is a source of potassium, an essential nutrient for plants. It also contains calcium carbonate, which neutralizes acidic soil, and as any farmer can tell you, overly acidic soil is not good for crops. Furthermore, ash is a disinfecting agent, and can even be used to make soap to keep you clean! Finally, the darker ash is, the more charcoal it holds, and charcoal helps to purify and decontaminate everything from water to harmful poisons in our own bodies. Ash holds the surprising ability to cleanse and purify and restore, all to promote life.
The same is true of remembering our own mortality and repentance. While at first a reminder of our own mortal nature seems a bit bleak, it holds the ability to remind us that we need God. You know, back in the day, famous Roman generals would come back from major victories to welcoming parades in the city of Rome. Behind them, there would be a man whispering into their ear, Memento Mori. Memento Mori, Latin for, “Remember, you too will die,” this reminded the generals, for all their accomplishments, that they were still human, not gods. They could not do anything themselves to be anything more than mortal. Joel, in his prophecy to the people of Israel, calls out to the people to do much the same when he says, “[T]ear your hearts, and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Remember, Joel says, remember who you are and whose you are. Remember that God has shaped you out of the dust of the ground, and that it is upon God you rely for everything.
Sin, in all its varied forms, are those instances when we deny the power and presence and will of God. It is when we say to God, “My will be done, not yours.” To be reminded of our mortality, to be reminded through ash, perhaps it helps to purify us of our sinful willfulness to go our own way, to seek our own will rather than the will of the one who made us. Perhaps this is why we need to tear our hearts and rend our pride, as we seek to burn to ash all the things that keep us from following our God through our repentance this Lent. It is out of those ashes, out of that dust that seems so bleak that God will grow a fresh crop of grace, of love, of compassion, and of mercy.
I am reminded that it is in the shadow of many volcanoes that you find the most life. Here, in the shadow of what should be a place of “darkness and no light” where there are days of “clouds and thick darkness,” like “blackness spread upon the mountains,” we find some of the most fertile places in the world. Friends, in the bleakness of the ashes, there is life. In this season, where we give up things and seek repentance, this is where we find forgiveness and true life. God is always ready to forgive, even when we are not. Even when we try to hold onto the things apart from God that we think are important, instead, we must leave these and let them turn to ash and dust. The strangest thing is that when we do this, out of these remains will spring life and love and grace. It is out of confession and repentance, of letting go to God all of the hidden hurts and poisons of our soul that we will find ourselves purified and free.
Meditating on ashes this Wednesday, I think we will find that ashes will make us whole. Confession and repentance will not make us weaker but will make us stronger through the grace-filled God who forgives us! The ashes will purify and make us have a clean heart. We empty out our hearts, so that they can be filled with something else. A heart that is no longer filled with the junk and detritus of sin, instead has space to receive God this Lenten season. When others see us covered in ash and ask, “Where is your God,” we will be able to respond by pointing to our hearts and our lives and saying, “Right here.” Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman