Today we begin a forty plus six day journey toward the tomb. In a few minutes you will be invited to come forward to receive the ancient symbol of mourning, ashes, upon your brow. In a few minutes we will join with the chorus of believers throughout the generations and lament our sinfulness in reciting Psalm 51. But before we get there, we take a moment to pause and reflect on the Scriptures appointed for this most holy day. Ash Wednesday is a day filled with mystery, but perhaps no more so than the lesson from Joel, a book we only hear read on Ash Wednesday.
There is next to nothing known about the prophet Joel. We aren't sure who he was, where he lived, or when he wrote his prophecies. We don't know if his warnings are about an upcoming military battle or an already past invasion by locusts. What we do know is that the community that God had chosen, his people Israel, were being threatened. Their economy was on the brink of collapse. The very way they ordered themselves was on the in danger. Most importantly they had lost sight of the One through Whom all Things are Made. Joel, whose name means, "YHWH is God" calls the people to gather in prayer. "Blow the trumpet in Zion!" He goes on to describe an impending doom that is unlike anything that has been and unlike anything that will ever happen again, a devastating horde that threatens to destroy everything that God has made.
True to his name, however, Joel reminds the people that even under the threat of utter destruction, YHWH is still God, and God's desire remain the same; that all the earth might come within the reach of his saving embrace. Even in the midst of their sinfulness, God again calls for them to return to him, to repent, to be restored in right relationship by the practices of fasting, weeping, and mourning. But what really matters, the reason this lesson is central to Ash Wednesday and Lent, is the next verse, verse thirteen, "Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for his is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing."
In the light of events like the earthquake in Haiti and the crippling blizzards in the northeast, we are reminded over and over again that God's will is a mystery to us. We might understand better now how tectonic plates shift and how weather patterns like el nino and la nina affect our lives, but we still don't know why they happen; they just do. As much as we have come to learn, much still remains a mystery. What we do know, however, what we stated emphatically in our prayer for today is this, "God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent." Nothing else on earth may make sense, but that does. God loves everything he has made, and longs to restore to right relationship all who seek his ways.
And so today we take on the outward and visible sign of death and mourning, a cross of ashes upon our foreheads, as we seek the inward and invisible grace that is the rending of our hearts. We admit to YHWH who is the God of all Creation that we have erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our hearts, we have offended against his holy laws and for that we are truly sorry and we humbly repent and turn back to him. We call upon God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and pray that he would relent from the punishment due us, and once again, today, and probably again tomorrow, forgive us for the mistakes we make.
Our God is not a God of vengeance, but a God of love. He longs not for blood, but for restoration. His joy is made complete when we have love for him, for one another, and for his whole creation. Today we blow the trumpet and call together the assembly as we ask God to be true to who he is, to forgive us, and through these next forty plus six days, to help us grow closer to him.
Lord in your mercy. Hear our prayer.