Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51 (consider amending or eliminating altogether)
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Good news on Ash Wednesday? Many people stayaway from Ash Wednesday services because of the ashes, doom, and gloom they identify with the Ash Wednesday message. In their eyes, it’s all about sin and mortality, guilt and punishment, and what good can come from focusing on such issues? But, perhaps, Ash Wednesday is a bit like Lysol; it gets rid of the germs to insure continued good health and prevent further illness.
The passage from Joel speaks of a day of destruction, a time of darkness and
gloom. Destruction is on the horizon and it seems to come from God’s hand. If God
is punishing us, is there any hope for us? If God is against us and has planned our destruction from eternity, thenwe are hopeless and must endure whatever God intends for us. Questioning, protest, and change are futile,for our fate has been determined. But, if the future is undecided, our actions
can lead to new possibilities and open new horizons for personal and community
change and God’s activity in the world.
Now, I don’t believe that God is directly responsible for troubles we experience. While we may interpret our personal ornational reversals as coming from God’s hand or reflecting divine withdrawal, I
believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between God and the world and
that our actions shape, to a certain extent, the nature of divine activity in
the world. As the philosopher AlfredNorth Whitehead says, God’s aim or action in any given moment is the best for that impasse; it may not always be good in our eyes or in terms of the ideal
possibility, but it is the most helpful possibility given our previous actions
and environmental context.
In contrast to those who see history as the unfolding of God’s eternal decisions,
Joel sees history in terms of call and response. If the people repent, then the gracious and
loving God may relent from punishing us. Although I do not believe that God punishes us with mayhem and chaos, it is clear that Joel believes that God changes in relationship to the world; for
Joel, God can withdraw God’s intent to punish and focus on our restoration. God is a dynamic, historical, and innovative force in history and in terms of God’s own experience and activity.
Frankly, Psalm 51 present is more problematic than helpful. Unless it is central to the sermon, I would
suggest that it be dropped from the liturgy or abbreviated to emphasize verses1-2, 10, 12-17, for the following reasons:
- Itassumes that our misdeeds only affect God and not other creatures. (v. 4)
- Itasserts that we are born guilty. (v. 5)
- Itis a precursor of the doctrine of “original sin” insofar as it identifies
conception with sin. (v. 5)
- It implies divine abuse. God has “crushed
our bones and suggests divine abandonment. (v. 8 and 11)
An abbreviated version of Psalm 51 emphasizes God’s mercy, love, and healing
intentionality. God seeks to create a new heart within us and inspire us to partnership in sharing God’s message in the world.
The passage from Matthew 6 emphasizes the inner life. Faith is not about external piety or
impressing others but our relationship to God. Still, it would be incorrect to identify faith
entirely with individual piety. Earlier in Matthew (5:14-16), Jesus asserts that we are to let our light shine. We are also to share God’s love with the least of these. (25:31-46) Jesus’ message of God’s realm involves transformingrelationships and changing lives. What we do in private radiates beyond ourselves to shape others’ lives.
Matthew’s point is that faith is not about self-aggrandizement, manipulating others, or
gaining status in other peoples’ eyes. Nor, it is it as many politicians assume about gaining votes from
particular voting blocs. Our faithfulness is intrinsically valuable, first, and then influential on others.
Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians challenge us to be God’s ambassadors. God is moving through our finite human lives to bring healing and wholeness to others. We are God’s voices in the world, sharing good news on God’s behalf. In aligning ourselves with God’s vision for us and the world, we can participate in bringing God’s realm to the persons and institutions.
Paul notes the decisive nature of each moment. God is near. Accordingly, now is
the day of salvation and healing. God calls to others through our actions, just as God is constantly presenting us with visions of our role in shaping the universe. Ash Wednesday can be a hopeful day. There is plenty of doom and gloom in the world as well as in our own lives. We need an influx of divine energy and possibility. We need to claim Jesus’ message, following his retreat in the wilderness, “The time is fulfilled, and the realm of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” The good news is that God is intimatelypresent in our lives, seeking our healing and wholeness. We can be transformed and renewed and in ourrenewal and re-orientation, we can bring healing to the world.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of
twenty two books, including Process Theology: AGuide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process:Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church.
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures,workshops, and retreats.