As a boy living in the country, Joe thought his grandfather was some kind of wizard. At the strangest times his grandpa would perk up and say, “There’s an emergency coming.” Always within a few minutes either an ambulance, fire truck, or sheriff’s car would scream by the house. When Joe grew up he learned his grandpa’s secret: When he heard the neighbor’s dog howl, soon humans also would be able to hear the approaching siren.
Tonight, as we embark on the Lenten journey, we hear the prophet Joel sounding an alarm from God. The role of the prophets in ancient times was to sound the alarm for the people to prepare for the emergencies that lay ahead of them. They were called to return to God with their whole heart, not just with outward signs of fasting, weeping, or mourning. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are like an alarm from God for His people to turn from their sins—the things that keep them from God—and do an ‘about face’ and follow God’s call to love and serve all people.
A few years ago, newspapers carried the story of Al Johnson, a Kansas man who came to faith in Jesus Christ. What made the story remarkable was not necessarily his conversion, but the fact that as a result of his new-found faith in Jesus, he confessed to a bank robbery he had participated in when he was 19 years old. Because the statute of limitations on the case had run out, Johnson could not be prosecuted with the crime. Still, he believed his relationship with Christ demanded a confession. He voluntarily repaid his share of the stolen money as his repentance.
“Return to the Lord your God,” says Joel. It may seem as if I’m preaching to the choir here, (not the Zion choir, it’s just a metaphor), about returning to the Lord. After all, you’re here tonight and hopefully there are folks watching from home. In doing this, you’re participating in the Lenten experience. But the call to repent remains relevant for us because each day we sin. Every day we need repentance. It is so easy to feel as if we are doing OK, and we’re good people. This is one of Satan’s biggest deceptions: to get us thinking that we’re doing just fine and we have no real need to repent. The power of this Lenten journey is found in our reawakening to our sinfulness and our need for repentance. The ashes we use tonight are the Palm branches from past Palm Sundays when we so gloriously welcomed our Lord into Jerusalem. The events of Holy Week remind us that it was humans who called for the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior. We remembered our humanity, our sinfulness, and our need for Jesus as we made the sign of the cross on our foreheads and the foreheads of our family members. I’m hoping this is a powerful experience for us to remember our own need for Jesus’ love and forgiveness. We remember our mortality and that of our loved ones as we make the sign of the cross with the ashes. As in our baptisms, we are marked with the cross of Christ. Those ashes, mixed with the waters of baptism, are vibrant reminders of our humanity, of our need for a savior, and of the awesome mercy and goodness of our God who so eagerly and lovingly forgives our sins. In the next few weeks leading up to Easter, let’s examine ourselves—let’s look deeply into our own personal lives to get a grip on the sin that invades us and threatens to break apart our relationship with our Lord. Make use of the Lenten Devotional booklets in the narthex as one way to work on that relationship.
Joel and the apostle Paul are calling us to be reconciled to God once again, for we have a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
One of the most stirring examples of reconciliation that I can think of occurred in that little Pennsylvania Dutch village known as Nickel Mines, back in October of 2006. You may remember that a deranged man, a neighbor from outside the Amish community, walked into their one-room schoolhouse with a gun, and took a group of children hostage. A little while later, five girls were dead: shot, execution-style, in the back of the head. Five others were wounded. The gunman committed suicide. It remains for me an unthinkable tragedy for a community to undergo.
The world watched as those deeply religious Amish folks responded to this horrific event. What we saw was an amazing Christian witness. One of the first things the Amish did was reach out to the gunman’s widow and her children. They brought them food and raised money to help them pay for their bills. “We have to forgive,” an Amish woman told a reporter. “We have to forgive him in order for God to forgive us.” Then, shortly after the shootings, a bulldozer crashed through the walls of the Amish schoolhouse. This isn’t the way they do things—with heavy machinery. They usually tear a building down piece by piece and save the lumber to be reused. The reason they hired an outside contractor to come in and destroy the building was to show the outside world that they were absolutely determined to forgive and forget—and quickly at that.
Jesus calls us to forgive and forget when someone sins against us. Paul entreats us to be reconciled to Christ, who though He knew no sin, became sin for us, so that we might be reconciled to God.
Remembering the difficult year we have been through, and the continuing struggles we are dealing with this year, it is important to remember what truly matters in this life and the next. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us not seek personal recognition for the things we do for others, but to go about our work quietly as His disciples. We’re not called to parade our good works in front of others or draw attention to our own piety. We are called to serve faithfully and lovingly with our eyes wide open and our lips closed. Jesus calls us to practice our piety and faith for the right reasons as we reach out to help others in need and share the Good News of a God who is overwhelmingly loving and merciful toward all people. Jesus knows that our lives reflect His love and our hearts lead us in His loving ways.