“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; and He relents over disaster.
As we have come to another occurrence of Ash Wednesday, the Lord God directs us to two actions: return and reconciliation. That is the theme of this day, as it is every year that Christ’s Church is mercifully granted the ability to experience it. Return and reconciliation: both are actions that indicate two directions or two parties. In order to return, one must (a) have been going away from something or someone, (b) switch directions, and (c) proceed back toward something or someone. In order for reconciliation to occur, one party that has been wronged or aggrieved needs to be brought back into harmony with the other party. Each of these actions describes what takes place between the Lord God and sinful humanity.
All of humanity has run away from the Lord God and His will. It has been so from the very beginning, with the first humans. They disobeyed the Lord God’s will and forsook the good relationship that they had with Him. The command was simple, yet was broken. Not content with being the stewards of the Lord God’s creation, they desired a different arrangement than they had with Him. Desiring to be their own masters, their own lords, they coveted the poisonous fruit that tempted the eyes and the heart. And so they went away from the direction that the Lord God had given them.
No different than your ancestors, you have done the same. The Lord God’s way of life has been laid out for you. You are not ignorant of it; you have been explicitly told what it is. His commandments have been written on your hearts, heard by your ears, gazed upon by your eyes. And yet, you desert them. You break them. You see where they direct you, but then you go the opposite way. You follow the path that your mind lays out for you, refusing to travel in the way that the Lord God has set.
But on your journey, your wandering from Him and His righteousness, the Lord God calls you back. He sends out the message to return: “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.” It is an earnest desire that He has for you. The Lord God knows where your desires will lead you: to eternal destruction, to an endless time of sorrow, to a continuous separation from all that is good. But it is not what He desires for you. No, the Lord God has something much greater in store for you, and He wants you to have it. So He sends out the cry to return, to turn around and come back to Him. And you hear it today.
For that is the nature of the Lord God. He is powerful and majestic, righteous and holy. But along with those attributes are others: “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Because He is so, the Lord God sends out His words for your ears to hear. He sends out His words to change your hearts, minds, and souls. Like the whistle that calls back wandering hounds or the bugle call that redirects an ill-fated cavalry, the Lord God’s words of repentance lead you back to His righteousness, so that you may participate in it.
So you have heard this evening. The Apostle writes: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” That is how the Lord God displayed His character. The Lord God was so “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” that He made His Son to be like you, so that you could be like Him. To reconcile you, to bring you back into harmony with Himself, the Lord God made His Son suffer in your place. The full measure of His wrath was visited against the Christ, so that you could be given the full measure of His grace. Jesus Christ was made to be unrighteous by carrying your guilt and bearing the sins of the world, so that you “might become the righteousness of God.”
That is what the Lord God shares with you. But this happens only when you return to Him. It only occurs when your hearts, souls, and minds are changed: changed by hearing His words of law that point out where you have gone wrong and hearing His words of forgiveness and promise that show you the goodness that He has for you. But you need not wait for this to happen on another day: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” The Lord God has been reconciled with you through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. All that is needed to bury the eternal, cosmic hatchet has already taken place. And now, in this time, on this day, the Lord God calls you back: “Return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
So you have heard this evening. And so you may act. For the Lord God’s words have struck your ears and have been carried to your hearts, minds, and souls. You have been instructed to turn back to the Lord God’s righteousness: but not only told to; you are being led by the Holy Spirit to do so. It has taken place right here and now in this “favorable time” and this “day of salvation.” So you may do as the Lord God leads you. As the words of the Great Litany are prayed, you may rend your hearts. As the ashes are placed on your foreheads, you may weep and mourn that your sin will return you to the dust. As the holy season of Lent begins, you may fast and deny yourselves the treasures and delights of this earth. But you do so, knowing that you are returning to the Lord God—and His grace and mercy—as He calls you back to Him.
With rent hearts, you pray with King David’s certainty: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite hearts, O God, You will not despise.” It is a certainty that you may truly have, even as the Divine Law has crushed your bones. For you know how the Lord God is: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” You have heard “joy and gladness” as the Divine Gospel has “renewed a right spirit” within you. You know what He has promised for you: “He relents over [your] disaster.” You know how much He cares for you: “The Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” That is how He is for you in this “favorable time” and this “day of salvation.”
Turned back to Him, you possess the true treasure that the Lord God has in store for you: “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Turned back to Him, the Lord God does not “make your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.” Turned back to the Lord God, you have “a blessing [left] behind Him.” May you always be guided by the Lord God’s words that call you away from destruction and into His reconciliation. For then you shall have “your reward from your Father who is in heaven”—the forgiveness, life, and salvation earned by His Son who was made sin for you, so that you “might become the righteousness of God.”
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.