Ash Wednesday: Called to Repentance

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Peder Stenslie
Ash Wednesday
March 9, 2011

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Tonight's text from the prophet Joel comes to us from the mists of time. Two thousand five hundred years ago these words were penned in order to lead the people of God through a time of great national crisis.

It was, for the people of God, a time of terrible darkness… a time of great despair, broken dreams, ruined hope.

The prophet Joel calls this time of terrible darkness "the Day of the Lord." Doesn't that seem odd? “The Day of the Lord…” wouldn't it make more sense to use that title for happy days of triumph?

The lines that follow, however, explain why such a time of darkness would be called the Day of the Lord. Simply put, it is because such a time is when new direction that gives new life is finally possible.

Many of us in our lives must face times of deep darkness. It is good for us, then, to know why the people of God look for the Day of the Lord when all else fails them.

Because of his great love for us, God comes to us in our terrible darkness… even when we ourselves have caused the darkness by our own poor choices… by selfish and foolish living. He comes to us in the darkness and calls us forth. He calls us forward not because he wants to punish us; but because he loves us and it is his will that we come out of the darkness and live in his light. He calls us to repentance.

When we come to a dead end in life… when hope seems cut off, God is there. He is with us and he beckons us to new life through repentance.

That is why in times of darkness we wait for the Day of the Lord.

What, then, is repentance? The prophet Joel gives us an idea of what it involves. And I tell you, it is no small thing. It goes far beyond just being sorry. It is action that involves our whole person. It grabs hold of heart, mind and body. It involves turning around everything we are in order to take a new path. And that, I tell you, is difficult to do.

Through the prophet Joel, God says, "Return to me with all your heart.” He says, “Rend your hearts… not your clothing." In other words, no half-hearted efforts can help. True repentance involves everything we are and everything we do. It’s not just another chance we need. We need God’s new creation living and working and growing in us.

I think of all the conversations I’ve had with students over the years who have been preparing to leave this place and return home. They’re always tired of the trouble in their lives and they want to be done with it. They don’t want to live incarcerated anymore. They don’t want to do things that hurt people anymore. They want to be the people they need to be to become good fathers, mothers, husbands and wives. They want new life. They talk about how serious they are about doing things right this time and staying out of trouble.

But then often I hear them begin to talk about how they look forward to being able to do whatever they want again and hooking up with old friends and family members who have always been a part of their problem. I can hear them begin to lower expectations for themselves. And before they’ve even left here I can hear them making excuses in their own mind for doing things they shouldn't do and going places they shouldn't go.

If you want to know what repentance is; that is not it. This attitude will not lead to new life. It is living by wishful thinking. It is an attitude that leaves us imprisoned in our darkness.

Our wishful thinking wants us to believe that we can move from dead end to new life with minimal effort, minimal change, and minimal pain. It is thinking that we can wish away our darkness… our trouble. It is thinking that all we need is another chance. But that's not the case.

We are called to repentance that opens our hearts to the power of God. In that way, it claims all that we are and turns our world upside down and takes us places we would not choose to go. It leads us into challenges and changes that are quite honestly more than we can manage or bear.

It does all this in order that we might finally be able to receive new life.

And so we need not fear the Day of the Lord… the day of darkness, repentance and God’s presence… For there God will be with us to strengthen us and bear us through pain and hard times that we could never endure on our own. God is there to lead us through to new life.

In our lesson for this evening, the prophet Joel, as he gathers the old and young, even infants and wedding parties… and those in positions of power, he directs us to rearrange everything in our lives, involve everyone, put in play every resource at our disposal, because repentance isn't a small or easy task. But it is the work to which we are called. It is the work that Christ died to fulfill.

Part of the darkness of the Day of the Lord is the repentance itself. It is a difficult and painful process. Real change and growth are hard; but they are the bridge to the life God calls us to.

As we begin the long season of Lent, the Word of God, speaking through the ancient prophet Joel, calls us to repentance. “Return to me with all your heart… Return to the Lord, your God. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

We mark our foreheads with a cross of ash tonight. The ash reminds us that we are simple mortals in bondage to sin and death. “Remember that you are dust… and to dust you shall return.” We are all in need of repentance.

The shape of the cross, on the other hand, reminds us that we are not alone. We are never forsaken. Christ has entered the darkness before us; and he is there waiting for us. The power of God meets us in the darkness and calls us forward. God is there to support and strengthen us in our painful pulling away from the dead ends of our lives and to lead us toward new life in the light of God’s grace.

May God bless the Lenten journey we begin tonight.


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