Download or listen to Ash Wednesday, “Who Knows?” (Joel 2:12-19)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for [Yahweh] your God?” (2:14). Have you ever said, “who knows” about the work of God? Have you ever said “who knows” about the Gospel? Can we even hear words like those in Joel 2:14? Where did the “who knows” about God go? I don’t mean the kind of doubt that some Christians think is intrinsic to Christian faith. Some people seem to think that the yin of faith somehow requires the yang of doubt to be complete. But I usually have trouble telling what they mean by either faith or doubt. Is faith believing something unbelievable? Is it trying really hard to convince yourself of something, so that faith itself becomes a work you have to do? Is doubt simply having questions about the Scriptures? Or not being able to understand everything about God? What does any of that have to do with God? All of that is about us.
Instead, with these words in verse 14, Joel wants us to consider God; who He is and how He acts. He is not a vending machine. You cannot put in the right show of repentance, the right outward actions, enough sincerity, enough heartfelt words and emotions, and then He will dispense the mercy and the blessing. God cannot be manipulated; repentance is not magic. Magic works by saying or doing the right things, and then the magician can control the power he seeks. God is simply free from all coercion and control. He does what He wants: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19). So if you think there is a one to one ratio between asking for forgiveness and God granting it, it is not so. God is not somehow obligated by our confession.
But if we stay in the realm of generalities about our sin and God’s forgiveness, that’s almost exactly the impression we can give or get. Pastors—I—can cause this sometimes: you know that the sermon can become formulaic and predictable. “You’re a sinner; but don’t worry, Jesus died for you.” The Gospel can become a cliché which is not tied to any particular action of God, but to His general good feeling toward us. And the general confession can add to this: say some general words about how poor and miserable a sinner you are, assure God your confession comes from your heart and is really sincere, and He will dispense a little forgiveness. But God does not operate mechanically; He is personal and active. And if you remain in the realm of generalities about God’s love and kindness, the fact is that God is unpredictable. Who knows whether He will relent? Who knows whether He will bless? Who knows whether He will forgive? Maybe you have to get things right first; maybe you have to really feel your repentance; maybe you have to have flowing tears and ashy foreheads and ripped up shirts.
Oh…except Joel says, Rend your hearts, not your garments. And how will you do that? Open heart surgery? A few of you can claim to have had your hearts torn open. But if it’s not a doctor doing it, with a lot of experience and a lot of careful precaution, open heart surgery gets complicated and messy very quickly. And the kind of heart-tearing Joel is talking about means death. It’s not just giving up some small indulgence for Lent, to make us feel better about ourselves and our piety. It’s not giving up a vice for 40 days (seems to me God commands us to give up all vices at all times). And it’s not ash on your head. If the ash reminds you that you are going to die, that’s about as far as that mere symbol can go. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Why? Because your flesh, along with mine and the rest of creation, is cursed to sin and death. Nothing you can do will get rid of that. The stain of sin and the disease of death run too deep, all the way to your heart. So the rending of your heart is the end of pride in your religious observance; it’s the end of pride in relation to any other person; it’s the end of pride in all its forms. It’s the end of focusing on continual improvement, any sort of ladder to sainthood, incremental goodness in all its forms. Death is what is called for, and the Holy Spirit is here to do the killing.
So let’s call a fast, a solemn assembly, and gather everyone together before the Lord. But realize Lent is not forty days when you don’t get to do what you really want to do; then when Easter comes you get to rush back into all the good old indulgences and sins like the Rocky Reach dam letting go. Sin and death, or holiness and life. All or nothing. Christ or you. Of course, that’s a problem for sinners. “Who can endure [the Day of Yahweh]?” (2:11). The called fast, the solemn assembly, the gathering of the people of God to hear God’s judgment on pride and selfishness will never be as popular as a 40 day program of self-improvement that comes to an end on April 20. Lent doesn’t make us feel better, it doesn’t raise our self-esteem, it doesn’t hold out hope that there may be the tiniest spark of goodness way down deep in your heart of hearts.
The judgment of God on sinners and their sin comes to an end, not at the end of some 40-day period, but only where and when He freely chooses: in Christ, on a cross, killed dead because our proud hearts refuse to die of our own free will. The heart of sinful flesh, the sinful will, the sinful mind does not submit to God’s Law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8). But the Man who is God; the One who is both flesh and blood as well as Spirit, He naturally pleases God. He willingly submits. His heart is torn by a spear, and blood and water flows directly to the font and the altar according to His Word. There in the water, there in the bread and wine, is something that is not just a symbol. We use symbols in various ways, and we can interpret them in various ways. Google “Ash Wednesday” sometime and you’ll see there are as three or four or more interpretations of why we apply ashes. But with baptism and the Lord’s Supper there are only really two interpretations: one makes them something we do, the other receives them as something God does. What we do is always uncertain, always sticky with mixed motivations, always shifting according to our emotional well-being. But what God does doesn’t change, is always certain, and never shifts according to how we feel about it. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster (Joel 2:13). So He is and so He does. God chooses to send His Son; His Son chooses to enter the Virgin’s womb; the Trinity chooses to restore the devastation caused by sinners as they muck about in His creation. He looks around and finds no righteous humans on the earth, no one who seeks Him, no one who does good; so He takes matters into His own hands: He creates a body for His Son, and recreates in Him what we lost. His death and resurrection are not a cliché that we can repeat to make ourselves feel better; it is the absolutely new beginning of a creation that is slowly overtaking this old dust and ashes one. Everyone who is in Christ by water and the Word is already new, without remainder. The rest of the creation groans with longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
So if you want to fast or give something up, do it to stick it to your old man, your sinful flesh, and remind yourself that your life is hidden in Christ, not in the things of this world. If you give something up, do it for the sake of your neighbors, to serve them better. If you start a practice of prayer or devotion, don’t do it for 40 days only, but let Lent be practice for the life of prayer and trusting Christ’s promises. None of that has to do with improving your moral standing or with being a better Christian. You are already Christ’s; you live from His life and His forgiveness, every single day until the Day when He turns faith into sight. So what is there for you to do? The same things a Christian always does: hear His Word, by which He creates and strengthens faith; receive His Body and Blood; and serve your neighbor according to your vocation. Nothing spectacular, nothing special for Lent. Just Christ for you, today and every day. Who knows whether God will relent? You do, because Christ has come; He has turned the disaster of the Day of the Lord into blessing for you at the cross. If God had not told us, we would never believe it. The Gospel is only predictable and clichéd if we don’t actually believe it. But the Lord has spoken, and He will do it. The Lord is jealous for His Kingdom and He has pity on His people: You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied and praise the name of Yahweh your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. You shall know, day after day after day, that I am in the midst of My people, and that I am Yahweh your God and there is none else. And My people, who trust Me, shall never be put to shame.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/4/14