Ash Wednesday
1 March 2017 // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Joel 2.1-2, 12-17
Psalm 103.8-14
2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our OT reading today is about as bracing as they come. The name “Joel” appears in holy scripture only one time, in the introduction to that prophet’s own book from which we read today. But don’t let his lack of coverage fool you — Joel’s was (and is) an incredibly important message. You see, Joel was looking forward to the Day of the Lord — a term of art for the long-awaited day when Yahweh would come to judge his enemies, free his people, and set the world to rights. Joel mentions this “day of the Lord” five times, more than any other prophet. It was the heart of his message to Judah. God’s people had anticipated, had yearned for this day for so long, but Joel shocked them with his words. While they thought the day would bring judgment and wrath against the pagan nations surrounding them; Joel said “No — judgment begins at home.” In verse 15 of the first chapter, Joel says “Woe for that day, for the day of the Lord is near.”

“Woe,” Joel says. Blow the trumpet, sound the alarm. Gather all the people because judgment is coming. “Woe,” Joel says. The day of the Lord won’t be a day of triumph. It will be a day for ashes.

What we do here on Ash Wednesday, the church has always done in one form or another. Baptized Christians sin — get used to it — so what do we do to deal with that sin before we meet the Lord? The church decided on “penance.” At one time, public penance was the norm, and people who had committed notorious sins were admitted to begin their penance on a Sunday about 40 days before Easter. By the 9th or 10th century, that discipline fell into disuse, and a general penance of the entire body of the faithful took its place, and the symbol of that penance was a cross of ash on the forehead. A symbol of mourning for our sin, a symbol of penance. The first Anglican prayer book had a special fast day to mark the beginning of the season of penance, as our prayer book does today.

That’s why we are here. Or why we should be here. It’s because we appreciate the precariousness of our situation, the urgency of this moment, right here, tonight. I am a sinner deserving of God’s judgment. I need grace if I am to stand. I forget who it was, but a man once said “If we are but dust, we are very guilty dust.”

And yet . . .

As bracing as Joel’s message was, there’s no more gospel word than the one in verse 12 — the word “yet.” Yet even now, declares the Lord, all is not lost. Return to me, God says, return with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping; mourn and come home. Take these ashes and return to me — not because I’m vengeful and angry and drawing back to smite you; return because I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

We call that returning to God “repentance,” turning around, changing the direction of our lives to run after God again.

Starting now, we have another opportunity to do that, to lean into the grace of God and his work of converting us, conforming us to the image of his Son. God invites us to cooperate with him as he continues the work of transfiguring us. He wants to change us; but — and this is hard for a recovering Calvinist to say — we have to let him.

C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce — Remember the part where the narrator sees a ghost, one of the inhabitants of the shadowy land between the mountain — heaven, where the gods live — and hell, and this particular ghost has a red lizard riding on his shoulder. The ghost has an encounter with a being the narrator comes to realize is an angel, and this is how Lewis describes it:

I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder . . . . What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. The he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.

“Off so soon? said a voice.

The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright I could hardly look at him . . . .

“Yes, I’m off,” said the Ghost. “Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came — which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realize that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.”

“Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit — and angel, as I now understood.

“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.

“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.

“Oh — ah — look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.

“Don’t you want him killed?”

“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”

“It’s the only way,” said the Angle, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”

(And then the Ghost starts arguing, negotiating with the Angel)

“May I kill it?”

“Well, there’s time to discuss that later.”

“There is no time. May I kill it.”

“Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please — really — don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”

“May I kill it?”

“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”

“The gradual process is of no use at all.”

“Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefullly. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well to-day. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”

“There is no other day. All days are present now.”

. . .

“Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me? How can I let you tear me to pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me — before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.”

“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?”

[But finally the Ghost relents]

“Damn and blast you! Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like, bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”

Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One close his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.

. . .

[Seconds later] Something seemed to be happening to the lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggfled. And as it grew, it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I had ever seen.

[And the ghost, now become a new-made man] leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallions with his heels. They were off before I knew well what was happening . . . like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brown of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, in to the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.

The prophet Joel accurately diagnosed our condition — so long as we cling to our sin, and let it cling to our shoulders and whisper in our ears, so long as we negotiate with God and delay the painful work of grace in our lives, we cannot ascend the mountain of God.

  • The gradual process is of no use at all.
  • There is no other day, all days are present now.
  • God won’t kill our sin absent our permission.

“May I kill it,” God asks. Right now, this moment, he awaits our answer.

This liturgy is how we respond. Remember — we are very guilty dust, and yet . . .

And yet . . .

Amen.
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