|Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
|2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
|Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
By Bruce G. Epperly
Good news on Ash Wednesday? Many people stay away 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, then we 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 or national 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 Alfred North 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 verses 1-2, 10, 12-17, for the following reasons:
- It assumes that our misdeeds only affect God and not other creatures. (v. 4)
- It asserts that we are born guilty. (v. 5)
- It is 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.” (v. 8)
- It suggests divine abandonment. (v. 11)
An abbreviated version 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 transforming relationships 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 intimately present in our lives, seeking our healing and wholeness. We can be transformed and renewed and in our renewal 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: A Guide 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 email@example.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats.