The following is the homily from today’s Ash Wednesday Services. The passages of Scripture referred to are Joel 2:1-2,11-17 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10.
One of my favorite parables that Jesus told is the story of the prodigal son; you are familiar with it. There was a man who had two sons, and one of those sons grew tired of waiting for his father to die so he could receive his inheritance; so he asked for it in advance. His father complied, and gave the son what he wanted. The son promptly took the money, left home, and spent it all on frivolous things, many of which brought great shame and dishonor on his father’s good name.
Eventually the son hit rock bottom. His money had all run out, and he found himself working as a pig farmer. Just to survive, he had to eat some of the food he was giving to them. One day it occurred to him that his father’s servants had far better lives than the one he was living, so he decided to return home and beg his father to take him back, not as a son, but as a slave.
What he didn’t know, is that his father had been awaiting his return since the day he left, often looking down their road, looking for any sign that his son was coming home. As he saw his son approaching, he ran to him (which is something grown men did not do in that society), and when he finally reached him, wrapped his arms around him in a warm embrace. He welcomed him home, not as a slave, but as a son, and called for a huge party to celebrate his return.
It’s a great story. One of the reasons I love this story is because of the picture it paints of God and his love for his children, even those who have wandered away, and have brought shame and dishonor upon their heavenly Father, their creator. It reminds us that at any point, no matter how far we have run from God, no matter what we have done, no matter how far we fall short of his will for us, we can return to our Father and find him waiting for us, arms wide open, running toward us even, to welcome us home.
Many people think this portrait of God is different than the one portrayed in the Old Testament, where they see God presented as angry, vengeful and vindictive. The first part of the passage we read from Joel kind of reinforces that point of view. It refers to the “Day of the Lord,” which it describes as a day of “darkness and gloom,” and a vast, terrifying army sent from God to punish evil doers. In verse 11 the prophet makes this observation, “Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?”
But in the verses that immediately follow we read this, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
The Father in the story of the prodigal son and the God Joel describes are one in the same. Through Jesus we have gained a fuller, more complete picture of God than Joel could offer, but even then, Joel understood that God longs for his children to return to him. Rather than punish, he wants to forgive, restore, redeem and transform. That has been his desire from the very beginning.
Thanks to the writers of the New Testament, people like Paul, we understand this is all made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul reminds us in the portion of his letter to the Corinthians that we read a few moments ago, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We see Paul extending the very same invitation to these early believers that Joel extended to God’s people so many years ago. Return to the Lord! Be reconciled to God! There is no time like the present to return to the God who created you, to be forgiven of your sins and begin this life-long journey of transformation into the image of Jesus.
That is what we want. If that were not true, we wouldn’t be attending an Ash Wednesday service. For some of you, it may be the complete return to God that you desire, the kind Joel and Paul were talking about, because you know you’ve been running away from him, moving in the opposite direction of where you should be headed. For most of you, you have returned to God, you have been reconciled to him, years ago, maybe even decades ago, but you know you have room for improvement. You know there is still plenty of work for God to do in your heart and life to make you who he created you to be. You want to be more loving. You want to be more holy. You want to be more like Jesus.
There is an old Negro spiritual that talks about this desire we all have. Historians believe it was written sometime in the 1750’s by slaves in Virginia. The slaves who worshiped in this church could very well have sung it here, in this place.
Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, in my heart.
Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.
In my heart, in my heart.
Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.
Lord, I want to be more loving.
Lord, I want to be more holy.
Lord, I want to be like Jesus.
This is what we want. It is God who places this desire in our hearts. But desire alone is not enough. We must join our intention with action. Joel called the people of God to return to him with all their hearts. The Jewish people believed the heart was the place where action originated. So it’s a call to match up desire with behavior.
Becoming more like Jesus is not an action we can perform. Any growth or transformation in our lives is all God’s doing. Our action is putting ourselves in a position where God’s grace can do its work. It’s not unlike the work of a gardener. We cannot cause a plant to grow, only God can do that. But we can create an environment where growth is possible, by exposing a seed to good soil, water, and sunlight. So we create an environment where God’s grace to bring about new growth or transformation in our lives.
How do we do this? It’s really not that complicated. We spend time in God’s Word and in prayer. We make corporate worship a priority. We discipline ourselves to focus more on God and less on ourselves and the distractions that surround us. For centuries Christians have been using the season of Lent to be more intentional about doing these things, either by giving something up for the Season of Lent, or committing to doing something new, or both. If you haven’t decided to do these things during this season I would strongly encourage you to do so. It’s not too late.
Our desire to return to God and become more like Jesus, and our discipline to join that desire to action must be compelled by the humble realization of who we are—dust, and the reminder of what God has sent his Son to become like we are, so that we could become as he is, and live forever with him.