February 13, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“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.
The Prophet Joel sends out the divine invitation, carrying the call to repentance that the Lord gave. And the people respond to this message. In similar way, we have heard the Lord’s message. Months in advance, we set aside this evening to take up the divine invitation and act upon it. For we have come to the first day in Lent, this Ash Wednesday, what some of our forefathers called Fastenzeit, the “time of fasting”.
What Joel calls the people of Israel to do, we also fulfill. We are the Lord’s chosen people—a nation of many ethnicities, as we have been selected from every tribe, race, and language, seeing the Light of grace, truth, salvation, and life that Jesus shines on those who dwelt in the shadow of death. We have “blown the trumpet in Zion”—even if it was the paper trumpets of newsletters and postcards. “The solemn assembly has been called,” so we have gathered. And in moments, we will pray: “Good Lord, deliver us. Spare us, good Lord.”
But why do we do so? Or perhaps we should ask: Why does the Lord give us this invitation? The preface to our service gave the rationale from our end. As we heard in the Introduction to Lent: “From ancient times the season of Lent has been kept as a time of special devotion, self-denial, and humble repentance born of a faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope.”
The promise of an answer motivates our actions this evening and throughout the next six weeks of Lent. Like all things we deliberately do as the Church, our Lenten disciplines and observances are done expecting to receive something from the Lord. We must be clear on this point. We do not do things expecting to receive something in exchange for our efforts. Never in these 40 days do we take our acts of penitence or self-denial and put them in the hand of God and say we have made down payment for our salvation. These actions are not tokens or tickets that we redeem and take home the Carnival gift of eternal life.
However, what we do is in answer to the Lord’s invitation. He bids us welcome. He instructs us to particular actions. Jesus, the Incarnate Lord, says that goodness and benefit is found at the end of them: “Take My word of promise and powerful Name; attach them to water; apply it to an individual, and they will be made a disciple, a beloved child of My Father. Take My word of promise; confer it to a man who is called, and he will speak My absolution to sinners. Take My word of promise; attach it to bread and wine; give them to My disciples to eat and drink in remembrance of Me, and they will receive forgiveness, life, and salvation.”
Tonight is no different. Another invitation is given to us. It’s what the prophet Joel gave: “’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.” The Lord gives us the sequence: “Recognize My righteous law. Repent of what you have done contrary to it. Return to Me and to My ways. Receive the forgiveness of sins, because I am gracious and merciful.” That is what we are doing right now. It’s what all of us do individually as followers of Jesus, but what we set apart this night to do together in a corporate and deliberate way.
We’ve already begun answering this invitation in our opening hymn, the opening collect, the readings, praying verses from Psalm 51 together. All this is done in recognition of the Lord’s righteousness and our lack thereof. We have admitted our guilt. We have indicated a desire to return to the way of life, the path laid out by Jesus for us to follow. And in a moment, we will pray the Litany that cries out for the Lord’s mercy, receive ashes as a sign of our mortality and penitence, and receive the absolution that Jesus provides for His people. In sequence this is done in response to the invitation that we have been given.
We must keep in mind that all of this is an act of faith. What we do is not empty ritual. It isn’t just a maintaining of tradition. Though what we do may appear mysterious and even impressive to outsiders, that thought should hardly enter the mind. Our worship this Ash Wednesday or any day is not meant to entertain or to provide mystery and awe. Ritual, tradition, mystery, and awe certainly have their place in what we do. But the true heart of the matter is the divine promise that we believe. We act because we believe the promises that have been attached to these actions.
That same foundation caused the people of Israel to act upon the prophet’s words. They heard the Lord’s spokesman declare the Lord’s words. Through him, the Lord says: “I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; I relent from disaster.” The gracious and merciful Lord invites the people: “Return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” His people heard those words and trusted them. They believed them and banked on them. That belief drove them to act on what the Lord said.
And so it is for us. We hear the same promise; we receive the same invitation. Christ speaks to us: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So we act. We come here to where the Lord has made heavenly treasures available for us. We gather together to hear His words of life and to receive forgiveness and redemption. Christ’s words are trusted; our faith drives our actions. We are willing to stake our claim of eternal salvation on them.
This is what we have heard and why we act. We act in this “favorable time,” as St. Paul called it. The invitation to reconciliation has been given. The Lord has promised mercy and forgiveness to us sinners. So heed your Savior’s words, the call that has gone out to you, His people. Join in the prayer: “Spare Your people, O Lord.” He promises to hear that prayer and to answer it in the affirmative: “I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; I relent from disaster.”
So the Lord speaks about Himself and what He will be for you, His repentant people. You can believe it and bank on it this night, during this solemn assembly and this time of fasting, for your forgiveness. But you can also rely on it tomorrow, the next day, and even years from now for your salvation and everlasting life. Such is the promise He makes to you, to you who bear His Name.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.