[Note to the reader: this sermon is based heavily on the Joel reading for Ash Wednesday]
For the day of the Lord is coming, it is near -- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!
The powerful symbolism of ashes this year seems to need little explanation. For all of us who have lived through the terror of the past few months, we know, even without thinking, what ashes imply. They have filled our television screens, our minds, our hearts, our discussions. Some of us actually had to breathe them in the midst of devastation in New York. A few have journeyed to Afghanistan to see them there in the aftermath of bombings and decades of war. We also feel the struggles of our brothers and sisters in the midst of ashes falling from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Joel's words, written almost two-and-a-half millennia ago, seem to touch us uncomfortably close to home. Today's reading comes in the greater context of prophetic words about scarcity and nationwide calamity. It is as though these words could have been written in the shock of our collective suffering around the events of September 11 and their aftermath. And here there lies both a comfort for us this Lent as well as a challenge. The comfort is that we are not alone in our experience of tragedy; the ancient Hebrew people whom Joel was addressing had been through many calamities, including the complete takeover of their homeland. Oddly enough, Joel's words are a call back to remembering those times, and also an apocalyptic view forward -- unpleasant to say the least! But tucked into Joel's message is a comfortable reminder of hope. We are assured that we will not be forgotten by a merciful God who is with us in the midst of our calamity and in the looming scarcity of an economic downturn: "For the day of the Lord is near."
Yet the challenge is that we are called, in the words of Joel, "to rend our hearts and not our clothing," to turn to God with our innermost selves, to gather as a people and sanctify a time of fasting, to put our treasures down if only for a moment and reflect on who we are in the deepest places.
And there's even more. The beginning of Lent is not merely a time for introspection, which could play neatly into the hands of our sometimes over-individualistic culture. Paul tells us in our reading from second Corinthians that we, as the people of God, are called towards a renewal of relationship. Our service is not just surviving what evils come our way, but of addressing them with goodness: speaking the truth from our hearts, offering kindness to others, striving for righteousness whether we face honor or dishonor.
Some of the heroes we've come to know and remember these past weeks and months found and stuck to this sort of discipline. They are the ones who looked into the faces of terror and destruction and acted on the principle of guarding life, even if it cost them their own lives. They are the ones around us who refused to shroud themselves in violence, hatred, or jingoism, and instead reached out with hope and kindness to the suffering and the oppressed, and even sometimes to their worst enemies. And they are the ones, so many of whom are left unnamed, who dared continue in paths of good will and joy even when the whole world seemed to be crashing down around them. In a way, they have helped pave the road for us this Lent. Why? Because these heroic people have been images of Christ before us.
And that is the ultimate challenge of this Lent: to follow their Christ-filled examples, to turn our hearts towards God, to be true to who God made us to be. Self-denial will be about putting down the baggage that gets in the way of who we really are. Fasting will be about finding clarity and simplicity in the midst of our complex, materialistic world-in Paul's words, to seem as though we have nothing, and then discovering that we really possess everything. And the point of all of this will be to make room in our hearts for our God and each other, to hold a light up in the darkness for the God-given communities, friends, families, and the creation that we cherish.
So take this Lent as a discipline not so much of sorry self-deprecation. Confession is only the first step of the journey. Live into the discipline of love that has been laid before us by Jesus. Over the coming weeks, we will be invited to follow him in this discipline, we will be challenged by it, and our world, if we let God in, might be turned inside out. But we may also find the peace and true freedom that the world cannot give or take away. And we may also discover and rediscover with our very hearts the deepest mystery of the Christian faith: that Christ, whom we follow, walks a path that leads beyond the cross. That even in the crucifixion sitting at Lent's end is a hope that God in Christ, the very source of life itself, rises out of the ashes; that indeed, a day of darkness is "the day of the Lord."