Ash Wednesday, 2020
The Lesson Appointed
The Epistle – Joel 2:12-17
The Gospel – St. Matthew 6:16-21
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
This Ash Wednesday, as usual, to focus and orient ourselves on the season of Lent, we began with a penitential office. This one, however was a bit different than what we have done in the past.
We began with the Commination service taken from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer…which is still the standard in the Church of England.
The Commination service is still certainly in the spirit of penitence as the structure still reminds us of God’s hatred of sin, our response of contrition, the recitation of a penitential Psalm, this time Psalm 51...a much shorter litany… a prayer for God’s mercy on us by the priest and a final plea to God by all of us.
There we ask God to turn toward us in favor, Be merciful after His power.
Be compassionate and forgiving.
Spare us, hear us, look upon us.
All of which we surely receive…finishing with those most important and indeed necessary words… “through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ.”
And so, it begins. Lent is upon us.
The opening act being one of direct access to God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit where we lay out before God prone and humbled by His great mercy set against our great sin.
We are not distant from God and He is certainly not distant from us. He is not like the gods of so many other religions.
He is not the one who just is.
He is not one of many….in a pantheon of gods.
He is not the good god, wrestling for all eternity with the bad.
Our God. The One True God. The One who has revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ and has further spoken to us in the Scriptures, is the One we come before this day/evening, to confess our sins and need for Him…. and at the same time….receiving both of those from Him.
It is vital that we grasp both of these concepts…these attributes of God.
The One who says of Himself that He is jealous, and a consuming fire is also the One who says that He will be our God and we shall be His people and that “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…” (ESV)
Though we confess that we are like sheep in that we have erred and strayed from His ways, laws and precepts….we are reminded at the same time that “we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.”
So, there is true possession here.
God is our shepherd and we are His sheep. People of His pasture and sheep of His hand certainly conveys ownership, love and care…and the intent to see the sheep safe and not forgotten.
So, the sometimes difficult and seemingly harsh language of the Litany, the Penitential Office, the Confession and the Commination are all to be viewed with a dual understanding.
God hates sin. But, God is still for us.
Our Collect today says that very thing. “Almighty and everlasting God, who hates nothing that you have made, and forgives the sins of all those who are penitent…”
There is no language there of forsaking us or relishing the thought of punishing us.
Rather what we hear here is hating nothing He has made means He doesn’t hate us. He loves us.
And He forgives the sins of all those who are truly sorry for their sins.
From the very beginning of creation, when Adam sinned, God did not and has not forsaken His beloved creation.
He immediately provided animal skins to cover them and a sacrificed animal in the process… to begin the model of atoning for the sins of man through the shedding of blood.
The model He would Himself fulfill in the person of Jesus Christ who would come and sacrifice His own body on the Cross for our sins…shedding His own blood.
This would then do away with all animal sacrifices that the Jews performed in the Temple. This would bring an end to all other forms of sacrifice by death and blood spilling.
Further we ask in that prayer something from God.
We ask that He would create and mold and fashion and form in us new and contrite hearts so that we might lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness.
A new heart is of course given to us at baptism.
But here we are really asking for a newly dedicated heart….a heart that is once again determined to follow God and eschew sin…a heart that is renewed daily to follow Christ and walk in His footsteps.
And this is done so that we may obtain perfect remission and forgiveness.
This is vital for the Christian. Perfect remission and forgiveness are necessary in order for the Christian to grow in grace and sanctification.
There needs to be genuine contrition so there can be genuine and full sanctification.
This prayer is most likely based in part on 1 John 1. John there tells us that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (ESV)
Joel reiterates this to us today as he speaks for God to the people of Judah.
Here is what God asked of them…and let’s think how this wording can be applied to us as well today.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”
Every call that is sent out to us to repent of our sins or to avoid sins is not intended to scare us or terrify us without reason.
The intent is to encourage us to repentance. If God did not intend to forgive us, He would not insist that we turn to Him.
God’s hand is always stretched out toward us. “Return to me” is His repeated cry to those He loves and is saving.
He invites us again and again to escape His wrath by turning our whole hearts toward Him again and again.
God’s message through Joel parallels the message we find in the Gospels on the lips of Jesus and of the other writers like Paul and James and Peter.
Even now, declares the Lord….it is not too late. Turn or return to me.
“Return to me” tells us or implies…that we at one-time were turned toward Him and we have turned away…or we tend to turn away.
And we know this is true as we read of Adam in Genesis.
So, return to God, even now. This is certainly a call for Christians who have already tasted the heavenly gift of forgiveness.
And yet it is a message we are to encourage unbelievers with as well, as the call goes out to all creation to turn to God.
Return to me, says God, with contrition. …a real heartfelt desire for His pardon and forgiveness.
Joel asks for mourning, fasting and weeping. Elements of the
degree to which we are affected.
He does not say, “when you get around to it, turn to God.”
He says now is the time, turn to Him now, so that pardon may be received while
we have time.
He wants it to be genuine and from the heart. He says at the first there to rend our hearts and not our garments.
There was a real rending or tearing of garments in the Old Testament and even the New that we read of. Jacob tears his garment when the brothers bring back the blood stained multicolored robe of Joseph.
David tears his garments when he hears of the death of King Saul.
The Pharisees a few times are said to have torn their robes as Jesus confounded them with His teaching.
This act had however become ceremonial but empty. The garment was torn but the heart inside the man was not.
God is telling the people to Judah, I’m not all that impressed with you tearing your garments (which is outward) if you are not also truly affected in the heart (which is inward).
He also wants it to be genuine, as He is genuine on His end.
The reason is, He is gracious and merciful. He desires not the death of the sinner, but that he would turn from his wickedness and live.
God’s anger is slow to rise. …but it will and does rise.
But again, God is abounding in steadfast love. Both are true.
His love is supreme, so that is the driving force behind His longsuffering and patience and kindness and even His hatred of sin.
They are all based on His love.
So this day we have received ashes on our foreheads as a sign and a reminder that we are mere dust and upon death, to dust we shall return.
This certainly puts us in our place. It humbles us…or it should. It should work to help us find that true contrition that God seeks in us.
It should work to bring about in us a heart that is sorrowful for our sins, sorrowful that God had to sacrifice His only Son in death in order to save us from eternal death.
Take these ashes with you today.
Remember that you are dust.
Remember the great cost to God that your sins brought…
And yet do not let those drive you to despair.
You cannot save yourself nor pardon yourself. But you can certainly find both salvation and forgiveness in abundance from our God through Jesus Christ.
It is only in Him and through Him that we find all that we need for a true, genuine and heartfelt repentance and at the same time, a complete and perfect forgiveness.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.