A Time to Repent, Reflect

Did you hear the sounds as you entered the sanctuary tonight for worship?

Perhaps you heard the sounds of familiar friends and family members as we walked into the church. Perhaps you heard the sounds of paper rattling, the echoes of the heater blowing air through the sanctuary, or even people placing their items on the pew. Perhaps you heard the sounds of the organ as the music began to be played to alert us that our worship was about to begin.

But, did you hear the sounds of the trumpet?

At first glance, we are probably wondering if we missed something. We likely cannot recall someone standing before the sanctuary and blowing out the sounds of a deep melody. Yet, did you hear the trumpet? The proverbial sounds of the trumpet that blew out throughout this holy day calling us into this time of worship. The sounds that penetrated our hearts that called us to gather for this important time of holy reflection as a community of faith as we prepare to begin this season of preparation and renewal.

The trumpet sounded today in our hearts to call us to be renewed in our walk and life with God. We gather, as a body of faith, to reflect upon our lives in Christ’s love, to be renewed in our journey of faith, and to set our face towards the cross and the empty tomb. We have gathered to begin this important season of reflection on this Ash Wednesday evening.

Ash Wednesday starts the season of Lent. It is a day that is purposeful in its nature. We come to reflect on who we are and where we are in Christ, and to recognize that we need to spend the next 40 days in an intentional time of prayer in conversation with our Lord. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we need to seek God, both as individuals and a community, and to be renewed in our faith.

Throughout the generations, our passage from Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 has been important in this day of reflection. Within the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a way to study the Scriptures together in worship over a three-year period, Joel is rarely used for the Old Testament reading. This is one of the rare times it comes up, and it is because of its nature of calling the community to a time of worship and reflection.

Why does Joel write these words? It would help if we knew who Joel was. We don’t have a lot of clues within his words to help us to know who he was, the period he was writing in, or even the situations that faced the people of that time. Most likely, Joel was a prophet who was connected to the practices of the Temple, which served as the center of worship and reflection.

What we believe is that Joel’s words were used as something akin to a liturgy to be recited in worship as the community came together in times of repentance and reflection. They are words calling the community to worship God and ponder upon how it is to live for God. This is an important point for us to think on. In our increasingly secular world, we give attention more to the individual over the community. However, within the body of faith, we are not seen so much as individuals, but as a community that is brought together to worship God, grow in faith, and serve the Lord. As much as we need to consider what we bring into the community as individuals, we need to give equal weight to where we are as a community in our connection to God. To miss that would be to miss an important component to our shared life in grace.

This is something we pull from within Joel’s words. He calls the community to remember that the Day of the Lord is approaching. The Day of the Lord is a reference in the Old Testament to the judgment of God. It was a time when God would respond to the nature of the world and its sin and bring forth redemption and renewal. The Day of the Lord was a promise that God would take what was and create something new by renewing the hearts and souls of the people.

Why is this necessary? We have to remember how the world and each of us were created. We were created for community with God and one another. We were meant to be a community defined by a holy love of deep connection with God that would inform and empower our lives with one another. The whole of God’s creative activity was about relationship. We are not haphazard creatures. We are created out of love by God to be in a loving communion relationship with God and one another.

That love came with some expectations. We were tasked with the responsibility to live out our love by being in loving union with God and one another. We were tasked to match the holiness of God in our relationships and activities, so that in all we do, what we say, and how we live with each other is in response to the perfect love of God’s connection with us.

Unfortunately, we as individuals and communities take that love and the expectations and choose a different way. A pathway of self-focused attitudes and perspectives that seeks our own way in the world. We call this sin. Sin is both individual and communal. Sin happens when we choose a different way in the world, in our relationships with one another, in our conversations, or as a community of faith, than what God desires. It is knowingly violating God’s holy law to seek our own way in the world.

We don’t always take the time to ponder what sin does to our relationships with God and one another. We give it lip service in the churchy words of the moment in expectation that everyone knows exactly what we talk about. If we were created for a deep connection in our relationship with God and one another, what sin does is remove that relationship and pull it apart. It pulls us away from the God of holy love. Instead of God being at the center of our world, what sin does is it makes us the center of our own universe. We become more concerned with what we want, how we see the world, and how it is responding to us, both as individuals and a community, than we are about seeing God at work in our lives and in the world around us. Within that, sin pulls us apart from one another by allowing hurt to replace love, anger to replace joy, and division to replace connection in defining our shared life.

Because of all of this, Joel says the community needs to respond and come together for a time of prayer and renewal. He says it is important for both individuals and the community to spend time contemplating on its connection to God and where it needs to grow deeper in their walk with the Lord. Joel lists some specific ways for individuals and a community to reflect on as it contemplates its life in God’s love. Many of these practices are at the center of our Lenten journey to Jerusalem and the cross and empty tomb.

First and foremost, we need to recognize where there is pain in our relationship with God and one another. We need to recognize, both as individuals and a community, that we do not always get it right. That by our words, actions, and deeds, we turn our back on the God we seek to love and place the emphasis upon ourselves. When we recognize these moments, it calls us to repent and seek the Lord. Repentance is not merely about saying you are sorry. It is actively turning away from actions that violate God’s love and seeking to return to God’s desires. Repentance requires more than just simple words. It requires a change in our hearts and community to move from what was into what is desired in God’s deep care.

That recognition often comes through times of fasting, weeping, and mourning. We place a major emphasis upon the spiritual practice of fasting during Lent. Fasting is about separating ourselves from activities that can take us away from our walk with God and, thus, use that time in prayer and reflection. It is not merely about giving up something, but also about spending time contemplating where we need God. Within that comes the aspects of weeping and mourning. We need to grieve at what sin does to our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. We need to grieve, as well, how it holds us back from being the people and community God calls us to be and knows we can be.

As a community, it is important for us to reflect on where we are in our journey with Christ. In a moment, we will begin this journey of reflection, repentance, and renewal with the imposition of ashes and call to the Lenten journey. Throughout the history of faith, the imposition of ashes has served as a reminder of our need of God and recognition that we are in mourning for our contribution to the brokenness in the world. We apply the ashes tonight as a reminder of our contribution to the brokenness in the world, but also our need of Christ’s hope in the deep corners of our lives.

We enter here into a time of deep reflection. My hope is that we will spend these upcoming 40 days in a time of intentional of prayer and renewal. We cannot rush to Easter. We need this time to spend in worship, prayer, and deep contemplation on our shared life in Christ, so that we can be the people God calls us to be. We need this time of renewal, so that we can be the shining light of God’s love to the people we encounter each day.

What we are about to participate in is more than just a simple act of ritual that is connected to this day. It is the act of a community coming together to express its need of Christ, recognizing where we have fallen short of God’s glory, and seeking the hope of God’s redeeming love to transform us into the people of hope for all. It is more than a ritual. It is a sign of a hope that we desperately need today.

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