Pastor Sherry’s Message for Ash Wednesday February 17, 2021
Scriptures: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Ps 51:1-17; 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10; Matt 6:1-6,16-21
The story is told of 2 African chiefs who came to a missionary named Chalmers. They approached him to request Christian teachers for their villages. He apologized, saying he had no one to send to them. Two years passed and the chiefs appeared again with the same request. This time, Chalmers went back with them himself. What he saw at the first village stopped him cold in his tracks. All the people of the village were silently on their knees. It was a Sunday, so Chalmers asked what they were doing. The chief replied that they were all praying. Chalmers then noted, “But no one is saying anything.” The chief then replied, “White man, we do not know what to say. For two years, every Sunday morning we have met here. And for four hours we have been on our knees and we have been praying like that; but we do not know what to say.”
This is a true story, but one that’s hard for us to imagine, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but stories like this of faith and piety or persistence in seeking God make me ashamed of myself by comparison. Would I, would you, willingly spend 4 hours on our knees seeking God, especially if we did not know how to pray? I believe this kind of faith and persistence is pleasing to God. I believe it blesses His heart. We too can bless God’s heart—and open our own hearts up to improve our spiritual connection with Him.
A. Joel 2:1-2, 12-17:Joel is prophesying to the Southern Kingdom that “the Day of the Lord”—the day of judgment–is coming. In the short term, Judah will be overrun by locusts, bringing on a widespread famine; but this was a metaphor for the long-term prophesy that the Babylonians would eventually invade and take over the Promised Land. So his message—from the Lord—is that they need to repent while they still have time. They can avoid locusts, famine, and a Babylonian takeover if they will return to the Lord (stop their worship of idols), confess their sins, and declare a holy fast to demonstrate their renewed commitment to God. Joel reminds them—and us– that God will give them another chance.
In v.13b he writes, He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love…[and] He relents from sending calamity. In other words, God loves them and wants them to draw near to Him, to avoid His judgment. Our culture today is in a similar fix. We have stopped worshipping the One True God. Instead, we have made idols of money, influence, power, materialism, our own intellects, sex, etc. Like those long-ago Judeans, if we want to please God, we need to humble ourselves before Him, admit our sins and failures, and ask His forgiveness.
Thankfully, it’s still not too late to avoid God’s wrath and discipline, but they—and we–need to get busy! We need to ask ourselves, in the past year, have we been more concerned with the things of this world than with the things of God? This past year, this year of Covid-19, has the Lord always taken 1st place in our hearts? Or have we allowed other priorities, and our fears, to crowd Him out? Have we been so focused on those priorities and fears that we have neglected to nurture our vital relationship with Jesus? Have we abandoned meeting with Him in daily prayer and Scripture reading? Have we locked the doors to our heart, assuming that our faith will remain intact until we have time to give it? Unfortunately, death can come to us too quickly for us to react and ask God to save us. We need to make the decision to draw near to God right now.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of spiritual house-cleaning lasting 40 days. Scholars have traced its observance to the early 100’s (attested to by Irenaeus of Lyons). The 40 days are a reminder of the time Jesus fasted in the wilderness. Ashes are applied to the forehead to remind us of the truth from Gen 3:19 when God told Adam and Eve, Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. The ashes are a sign of our repentance and our sorrow for our sins. As such, they remind us of the need to maintain our commitment to love and please Almighty God.
B. David’s evidence of his sorrow for his sins in perfectly recalled in Psalm 51. The prophet Nathan has confronted him about his sins of covetousness, adultery, and murder related to the beautiful Bathsheba. His resulting lament to God provides a perfect example of how we should feel about our own sins. (1)He takes personal responsibility—he admits he is guilty and does not blame others, including Bathsheba. (2)He humbly pleads with God to(a) forgive him and (b)give him a pure heart, saying, in v.10, Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast [right] spirit within me. David ended his life as a man after God’s own heart. This means that despite his sins, he pleased the Lord. We too, following David’s humble and heartfelt example, can please the Lord.
C. Paul calls for us to be reconciled to God in 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. We do this by remembering that Jesus, who was sinless, took on all our sins so that we could stand before God with clear consciences and clean hearts. Paul also tells us we do this by not allowing anything to displace our focus on God. Do you recognize the common theme throughout these passages? (1)Remember what Jesus has done for us;
(2) Keep God 1st pursuing Him like those African seekers;
(3) Humble ourselves with frequent sin inventories;
(4) Seek God’s face and ask His forgiveness.
D. In Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, Jesus tells us how to best go about fasting and doing good in God’s name. We are to fast and practice good deeds quietly, without any fanfare. He assures us that even if no one else notices, God does. If we play to the crowd, we receive our reward, from onlookers here on earth. But tostore up lasting treasure for ourselves in heaven, we want to be “stealth-givers” and silent, non-complaining fasters. This is not how we get ourselves to heaven–Jesus has already done that for us. But giving and fasting this covert way both blesses God’s heart and draws us closer to Him.
Again, today we begin the season of Lent. As usual, I am asking us all to fast something. It can be food or drink, or TV, or social media.
But it can also be a habit, something that calms you or brings you pleasure;
When we resolve to let go of it for 40 days, we demonstrate to God our commitment to get our hearts right with Him.
Rather than fast, you may choose instead to add a spiritual practice that will draw you closer to Christ. You may wish to do a Bible study, or to read a set of Lenten devotions. Or you may want to increase your time spent in prayerful conversation with God. Whether we give up something or add something, let’s realize that in doing so, we are making the kinds of sacrifices that please our God.
©2021 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams