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Ash Wednesday
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Michael Moffitt, February 17, 2021

Who Knows What God Might Do

Text: Joel 2:12–14

This afternoon, we have come together for the Ash Wednesday Service. For the people of God this is the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) of reflection on the costs of our sin and a time of repentance and prayer for both individuals and the church in preparation for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter morning. The idea of 40 days of prayer and reflection comes from the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for 40 days prior to the beginning of his earthly ministry. During this time, the proof that he was the Son of God in the flesh was established to the enemy. Jesus showed that there would be no going back, and no deals made. He had come at the command of his Father and he would follow through to the end.

For us, Lent is a time when we make that journey with Christ and we consider our temptations and the fact that we have sinned and fallen short of His glory and need to bow before God in repentance. After these 40 days of focusing on the cross and our absolute need for a Savior, we should emerge stronger and more resolved to follow Christ than we had been before. Lent is a time for us to invite the Holy Spirit to help us evaluate ourselves in light of God’s Word. It’s a time to abandon the sins that we have grown accustomed to committing in our lives. It’s a time to receive God’s forgiveness and strength to lead a Christian life and it’s a time to renew our desire to serve God, to be the followers of Christ that God desires. The ceremony of the imposition of Ashes has its roots in the Old Testament where covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes was a sign of repentance and mourning. Most of you are probably familiar with the Old Testament story of Jonah. The prophet was sent to Nineveh to prophecy that because of their great sin God was going to destroy them in 40 days. It took Jonah a while to finally do what God commanded because he hated the Ninevites but of course that’s another story of a need for repentance. Listen to what happened when Jonah did show up and prophesy,

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.

It was this same hope that Joel was prophesying in tonight’s Old Testament passage. Let’s read again Joel 2:12–14,

“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. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?

Notice that in both of these situations the prophet is encouraging the people to turn from their wickedness in genuine repentance hoping that God will show mercy, even though they had turned away from Him and his righteous decrees. They were not to assume that God’s response to repentance would result in the removal of the consequences of their sin, but they should still come to him hoping for his mercy.

Remember King David who committed adultery with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11–12. She became pregnant and God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David about his sin of adultery and the murder of husband Uriah to cover up his sin. David repented of his sin as we will see later in Psalm 51, but God told him that one of the consequences of his sin was that the son who would be born from this adultery would die. When the child was born and was dying David prayed and fasted begging God to allow the child to live, but he died. When told that the child was dead David got up washed, changed clothes, went into the house of the Lord and worshipped, and then asked for something to eat. The servants were confused about the abrupt change in David’s demeanor. Listen to 2 Samuel 12:21–22,

Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?”

The people of God knew the character and nature of God, which is he wanted to show mercy and have an intimate relationship with his people. However, they were warned in the giving of the law that God was offering blessings or curses depending upon whether or not they followed him faithfully or turned away in disobedience. Moses told them the story of when he asked the Lord to show him his glory and the Lord places him in the cleft of a rock and covers Moses' face as he walks by. Listen to Exodus 34:6–7,

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, 

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

In Matthew 6:1 Jesus warned, 

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” 

The Pharisees were making a show of helping the poor, praying openly and letting it be evident that they were fasting so they would be seen as righteous before men and would have a place of honor in the synagogue. Jesus tells them they should help the poor in private because it would please God when they demonstrated his heart for them. They should pray in private to their Father in Heaven because they longed for his love and mercy, because they were in love with Him. They were too fast in private because they earnestly desired his blessing and forgiveness. The Pharisees did not see themselves as wicked and in need of repentance but looked down on others as inferior. They saw themselves as the model of godliness but Jesus rebukes them for their self-righteousness and hardness of heart. They had forgotten that God is holy, and not at all like them. When they came into his presence they should bow before him in worship and repentance. God is rich in mercy, but he is also a consuming fire. Hebrews 10:31 warns us that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” 

The people of Nineveh were spared God’s wrath because they humbled themselves in the sight of the Lord and he showed them great mercy.

However, they later turned away from God and became even more wicked than before. God’s patience should never be misinterpreted as weakness. He will not leave unpunished individual, corporate or national sins as Nineveh found out. The Book of Nahum records the prophet telling Nineveh of God’s judgment upon them and this time God totally destroyed them as Nahum had prophesied and left no trace of them. It wasn’t until the 1800s, almost 2,700 years later, that archaeologists would find and excavate portions of the ancient city.

If you have ever read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick you likely remember chapter nine entitled “Sermon.” Before Ismael, the narrator ships out on the voyage to find the great whale he goes to church. Father Mapple preaches a sermon from the Book of Jonah on the reluctance of men to obey the commands of God. I want to read to you a brief quote from that sermon,

As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God- never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed- which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do- remember that- and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.

I love that section because it is in the nature of men/women to seek to obey the desires of the flesh even though they are in direct disobedience to the command of God. If we are to obey God, we must intentionally say, “NO” to ourselves.

From the beginning in Genesis 3, at the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, men and women have understood that it is sin that separates them from a God who is holy and sinless. Since apostolic times, the church has used the season of Lent as a time of preparation and fasting, though the practice was not formalized until the First Council of Nicaea in 325. They also used this period for teaching the catechism for those seeking baptism early on Easter morning. Before candidates were allowed to be baptized the church wanted to make sure that they understood that their only hope for salvation was to repent of their sins and to turn and follow Christ. The church was committed to making sure that those who were baptized and began receiving communion understood what it meant to follow Christ and to surrender their lives to him.

This season was to be an intentional time of preparation even for those who had been baptized and were members in good standing in the church. This is because at the baptismal service on Easter morning they would be asked to renew their baptismal vows and we still make that our practice on Easter morning. This season is meant for us to be intentional in asking God to help us refocus our lives on the journey of the cross and to find our hope and purpose there.

Ash Wednesday begins that refocusing because had it not been for our sin there would have been no need for the cross of Christ. Tonight, we want to be intentional as we come to God acknowledging our need for his forgiveness and our utter dependence on him for life and salvation.

Our Psalm tonight reminds us that we enter the season of Lent in faith in our God who wants to be reconciled to us.

Psalm 103:8–14,

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
          slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
         nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
        nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
          so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
          so far does he remove our transgressions from us. 
As a father shows compassion to his children,
          so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
          he remembers that we are dust.

Let’s pray.

©2021 Rev. Mike Moffitt

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