Return to the Lord

February 17, 2021 Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6. 16-21, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

                Have you ever found yourself in a situation you regret?

                Have you ever wished that you could change the outcome of a recent event in your life?

                Returning to the scene of the crime, if you want to call it that, is difficult. To admit we were wrong takes courage and some self-revelation. Yet, there is one person we can count on if we hope to be forgiven and loved unabashedly. Through Jesus Christ, God has revealed a forgiveness and love that flows out to all creation. The Prophet Joel’s call to the Israelites is a call that still is vital to us today:

Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing. 2:12-13

Returning to the Lord and entering right relationship with God is the reason Jesus preached a message of hope.

I do not know about you, but as I contemplated on our gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, I felt a sense of burden come over me. Within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he seems to be rattling off a to-do list which seems a bit overwhelming. These are things that we should do in regular practice because of our faith, yet Jesus seems to be putting restrictions in place. Especially on Ash Wednesday, during a normal year when we would take ashes and mark the sign of a cross on our foreheads. How can we practice our piety and not be seen by others when we have a smudge of ash on our foreheads?

                At many times, scripture seems to be a mystery as we want to fully understand it and at the same time we are not meant to fully understand. Actor Martin Sheen when being interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being said this about mystery: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”

                God invites us into the mystery this Ash Wednesday through our reflection on the scripture. Within that mystery is a call to relationship. The Prophet Joel heard this message long before Jesus came to be born to Mary. His call was to share the same message that Jesus is now sharing with his disciples during the Sermon on the Mount. It is a call to return to the Lord. In practicing your piety, do not to do it in the hope that other people are going to see it and be jealous or think what you are doing is better than what your next-door neighbor is doing. When giving to the church, do not flaunt it. God is grateful for your gifts to the church but does not wish for you to flaunt it in another person’s face. The amount you give does not equate to faithfulness.

                Fasting is a wonderful practice in living out your faith. Lent is a time that fasting becomes more apparent for Christians, but do not do it just to make yourself look good or one-up your next-door neighbor. Lastly Jesus asks us not to horde our wealth in places that will be consumed easily by moth or rust. When we go back to the dust, those riches are not going to mean anything to us. When we put our treasure where our heart is, we will truly come to know God.

                This is what Jesus is attempting to drive home. All these practices are great in and of themselves. If your reason for doing them is to lift yourself up for glory, then you are doing them all for the wrong reason.  On the other side of the spectrum, we could choose not to do anything at all. Thinking that we are not worthy of the love that God has promised to all of creation. If we are not worthy of God’s love, then we can choose to walk away and become distracted by the next best thing that will pull us away from God. We then find ourselves in brokenness and sin.

                God knows that humanity is broken and thus the reason for Jesus to come and walk with us as a human. Jesus gets to experience the many things that we experience, and he grows into right relationship with everyone he encounters. We are all invited to encounter Jesus in one form or another and build upon a life-long relationship.

                The gospel lesson and the lesson from the prophet Joel can be closely intertwined as Joel calls for fasting in the hopes of establishing and maintaining a right relationship with the Lord. From the beginning of creation, God’s desire has been to be in relationship with all people. All we have to do is read the Hebrew scriptures and our history books to learn that we are broken and have failed to live into that relationship. As a society, we have failed to love our neighbors and have even failed to love ourselves. The Prophet Joel’s call to return to the Lord is a chance for the Israelites to turn around and repent as they fast and encounter the living God in their midst.

                Jesus’ call to the disciples and everyone that is listening to his teaching is one of leaving your ego behind. It is not about you. It is what is done in the sight of the Lord. Our desire to be in relationship with Jesus and ultimately our neighbors is the return that God is hoping for. Are we living with a hardened heart, or are we allowing our heart to be open to a loving God? Thomas Merton, in one of his prayers, writes, “I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you.” In this desire, God welcomes us with open arms and a big embrace because God’s love knows no bounds.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and a time for us to take inventory. An inventory of our own being and lives in Christ. Are we listening to Jesus when we make decisions? Are we listening to Jesus’ call to repent of our words and actions that lead us away from God? Are we grateful for the love of God that pours out of scripture through a prophet like Joel and the gospels? Are you ready to return to the Lord this Lent? For God is gracious and merciful. For returning to the Lord reveals a love unbound.

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

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