faith in action

Ash Wednesday sermon

Coming Clean with God by Rev. Dr. Ianther Marie Mills, as prepared for delivery, preached in the Simpson Memorial Chapel at the United Methodist Building.

Coming Clean with God

“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.”
Joel 2:12-13a, NRSV

In the novel The Testament, John Grisham writes: The young man [in the pulpit] was praying. Nate [the alcoholic attorney] closed his eyes too and called God’s name. God was waiting. With both hands, Nate clenched the back of the pew in front of him. He repeated the list, mumbling softly every weakness and flaw and affliction and evil that plagued him. He confessed them all. In one long glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back. He unloaded enough burdens to crush any three men, and when he finally finished Nate had tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to God. “Please help me.”

And then he felt the baggage leave his soul. With one gentle brush of the hand, his slate had been wiped clean. He breathed a massive sigh of relief, but his pulse was racing. He heard the guitar again. He opened his eyes and wiped his cheeks. Instead of seeing the young man in the pulpit, Nate saw the face of Christ, in agony and pain, dying on the cross. Dying for him. [John Grisham, The Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 306.]

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is the time that we stop and come clean with God. Lent is the time that we stop and lay ourselves bare before God. Like Nate we can come with our long list of weaknesses and flaws and afflictions. We can come and find that God is waiting for us, waiting to receive us back into fellowship, waiting to be reconciled with us yet again.

The prophet Joel urges the people of God to come clean. He speaks to the people of Israel in a time of national crisis. Locusts have invaded the land destroying everything. A drought threatens the entire welfare of the nation. In the wake of this national crisis, Joel announces that the Day of the Lord has surely drawn near, that God is breaking into the world to bring about a new salvation. This Day of the Lord was known to Israel as a day of when God would deliver them out of the hands of their enemies. And having delivered them from these foreign nations, God would issue forth judgement upon those nations. Thus this “Day of the Lord” was both a day of salvation and a day of judgement. But here in this passage, the judgement is upon Israel, the people of God, for not living out God’s will. Yet this judgement is an act of grace, for it is an alarm to Israel so that the people might hear God’s divine “but”. And having heard that divine “but”, the people are to assemble themselves before God, and turn from their misdirection to God’s direction.

Ash Wednesday is a time to come clean with God. In the shadow of this day, the prophetic words of Joel beg the question “What then shall we do?” The answer is clear, “Return unto God with your whole heart”. The handwriting is on the wall yet there is a moment of grace, a divine “but”. And in verse 12, we indeed hear the content of that divine “but”. “Yet even now…” God says, “return to me”. Do not come before God halfhearted and half-stepping but return to the Lord with your whole heart. God is not looking for empty rituals. God wants authentic worship. In the prophet’s time the people would dress in sackcloth and roll in ashes as a way of mourning. The people would tear at their clothing as a way of expressing their grief and mourning. But here the prophet makes clear that God is not interested in empty rituals.

“True repentance” is more than going through a ritual. It is more than taking on these ashes on Ash Wednesday. It is more than reciting the words of the liturgy. It is more than getting emotional, saying, “I’m sorry” or rehearsing our remorse. True repentance is coming clean, turning away from that which is sin and turning toward God, turning toward the things of God, the will of God, and the way of God.

And so, this is a call to come clean. The prophet Joel tells us “return to God with our whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning”. He tells us to call a sacred assembly—come and worship God. Let everybody come—young and old, male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight, documented and undocumented, people of every color, saints and not so saintly, and the professional Christians too. Let everybody come and earnestly worship God. No one is exempt. And as for the priests, pastors, ministers, and bishops, let them make intercession praying, “Sanctify us holy”!

But this prophetic oracle is even more than that. It is a call to remembrance, a call to remember God. And when we remember God, we find that God is gracious, and merciful, and slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. In other words, we find that God is a God of extravagant grace.

Jonah: We see that extravagant grace in the story of Jonah, where God sends the prophet to speak a word of warning to those other people—the Assyrians, who are not even inside the margin of grace. They were not even counted among the chosen people. But they had the nerve to repent. And God spared them and saved them.

Prodigal Son: We see that extravagant grace in the story of the prodigal son, who went his own way living a riotous life. And when he had spent everything he had, and found himself without anything, he came to himself and said, “Let me go home to my father”. And there he was met by his father with open arms. God is like that father waiting to welcome us home.

Finally, we see that extravagant grace in the coming of Jesus, when God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Thus, this prophetic oracle is a call to redemption. It is a call to journey to the cross, for there we find “true redemption” in Christ Jesus. That is our Christian hope! Amen.