Sermon presented at First Congregational Church, UCC, of West Boylston, February 22, 2012
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In our reading from Joel, we are told “Blow the Trumpet … for the day of the Lord is coming, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
Sounds depressing. Scary. … And, it is.
Ash Wednesday is a time when we remember how ephemeral life is; that all good things in our lives, including our own existence, will eventually come to an end. Matthew warns us that all of our treasures will eventually be consumed by moths and rust, stolen from us, nothing will remain.
Thick darkness. Moths and rust. Nothing will remain.
As if that isn’t enough, David lays it on even more heavily in Psalm 51, saying “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
So, not only will everything end, but sin and corruption are in our lives from the very beginning. We’re in a game that was fixed from the start. We can’t win. We cannot escape the trap of life.
It seems so hopeless.
And yes, that is one message of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season, that all things must end, even life itself. Nothing that matters to us: nothing we love, nothing we treasure, nothing we create, will survive. All of it will end. Worse still, even before we get to the end of our lives, we will all experience hard times – illness, disease, pain, loss.
So, why go to all the trouble of living, of dealing with all that pain, when all of it, in the end, will come to nothing?
In other words, why have faith? … What good is it? … Why bother?
Why not just go out – as many have done – and live life to its fullest? Why not pursue pleasure to the exclusion of all else? Why not hide from the pain of our existence? Why not just use it all up, since it will all come to nothing anyway? Use relationships, use drugs, use possessions, use this world, use all that we encounter, to escape, to run away from the fear and the pain, to hide from the thick darkness that will eventually, and inevitably, overwhelm us. A darkness so thick that we can never escape once it ensnares us.
The trumpet is blowing, Joel’s alarm has been sounded. We see that thick darkness approaching, and we will not survive.
Yet, this is a question for which the Lenten Season provides us an answer: Why bother?
David wrote that our God desires truth in our inward being, and asks the Lord to teach him wisdom in his secret heart. He goes on to say “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. “ He ends the Psalm with these words, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give you a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Is God seeking to break us? Does God want to trample us into the mud of eternity and leave us there? Is God simply going to cast us aside from his presence once he’s done with us, like we throw aside a toy when it is broken and useless?
I think not.
Running away from reality does not change reality. Hiding from the pain, uncertainty and corruption of this world will not change the fact that we have to deal with it. Hiding from the realities of our existence, from the inevitability of pain and failure in this life, from the inescapability of that thick darkness to come, only means we are dealing with it poorly; that we are failing at the only challenge in life that has any meaning whatsoever; because that challenge is ourselves.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns us of this. Those who trumpet their brokenness, those who seek to show others how Holy they really are, are running from reality. They are not dealing with their own brokenness. Instead, they are competing, trying to put on a robe of sanctity and piety that will raise them up in the eyes of all those around them. They are using Holiness to run from dealing with themselves, using it as a mask to hide from their own insecurities and fear, as a tool to gain advantage in a race they cannot win. They are not being more Holy, they are running from themselves, and from God. They are seeking to magnify themselves through sacrifice, which is the exact opposite of what these scriptures tell us must be done.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.
God wants us to sacrifice that idol of self, that cancer of self interest, that need to preserve ourselves at all costs. Because, trying to preserve what we are is a futile endeavor. This world will not allow it. Even if we could succeed at such a thing, we would be preserving the self of now at the cost of forever losing what we shall become, what God wants us to be.
And so, our broken spirits allow that spirit of self preservation at all costs to drain away. A broken spirit makes room for that clean heart, that new and right spirit that David sings of. By acknowledging our inability to change ourselves, the impossibility of escaping the trap of life on our own, we are giving God the keys to our souls. We are enabling God to work within us, to plant within us that joy of Salvation, that we might sing with joy of our deliverance and declare His praise.
So, in this evening’s service, we are remembering and celebrating that we are dust, and it is to dust that we shall return. We are confronting our mortality, our fear, our brokenness, and asking God to work in us. For, this night begins the season of Lent, a time of sorrow, a time of repentance, a time to renounce the transient pleasures of this world. An opportunity to look deep within ourselves, to throw aside the pretensions and distractions that prevent us from confronting ourselves, to take a long, hard and uncompromising look at who and what we really are.
It is a time of sorrow, a time of mourning, for we are mourning the loss of what we think we are. We are sacrificing the last and greatest idol we all must confront, the idol of ourselves, sacrificing it on the alter of God’s love, forgiveness and compassion; asking only that God create in us a clean heart. For, the only treasure worth having is the treasure of our relationship with God. As Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there is your heart also.”
If God is our treasure, then God has our hearts. God, the eternal, the omnipotent, the one who will never forget us nor leave us in the thick darkness; God, in whom we will live and move and have our being, for all eternity.
Copyright (c) 2012, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).