Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’m a science fiction geek, and one of my favorite TV shows is an old show called Babylon 5. And there are two questions that Babylon 5 asks over and over again: Who are you? What do you want? Those are really important questions to take seriously. To ask yourself, every once in a while. Because if you don’t, you can end up in places you didn’t want to go, doing things you didn’t want to do, being the kind of person you don’t want to be.
Those are important questions, but they’re also hard questions. You have to stop and think, really think, not just let yourself get swept up by life. Who am I? When I strip away all the unnecessary stuff, all the baggage, all the distractions, all the assumptions, what’s left? Am I the kind of person I want to be? Am I the kind of person God wants me to be? And what do I want? When I do something, is it because I want to or because it’s just easier to go along with everyone else? Am I just going through the motions of life? Am I giving lip service to my ideals, or am I living them? Are the things I’m doing getting in the way of being the kind of person I want to be? The purpose of Lent—the reason for the ashes, for the fasting, for the prayers, for the worship, for the confession—is to help us ask those questions, to take them seriously. The rituals are designed to make us stop just going through the motions of life, and take a good hard look at who we are, and what we’re doing.
Rituals can help us. Rituals are powerful things that can shape our understanding of the world. Rituals can help us connect to God and one another and give us tools to build good and loving lives full of connection with God and one another. If we take them seriously, rituals can help shape who we are and what we want. But if we don’t take them seriously, rituals can also be nothing more than empty show, hypocrisy, and pious platitudes.
That’s what was going on in Isaiah’s day. God had called the people of Israel to be his own people, a light to all nations. God had called them to be free to love one another, free to live in justice and peace and harmony. And they had responded! They had said “yes” to God. They chose to be that light. They had agreed to the covenant, to the solemn promise that he would be their God and they would be his people. That was part of their name: Israel means “God rules.” It’s a way of saying “we’re God’s people.”
And the thing is, they didn’t. They turned away from his ways. Oh, sure, they kept the rituals, the sacrifices and the special holy days and the temples and the fasting and the feasting, and all that, but they didn’t really mean any of it. They did what was easy instead of what was right. Instead of loving one another, they quarreled and fought. Instead of justice, they exploited one another. Instead of working together, they nitpicked and found fault. The powerful ignored the needy. Slavery, abuse, backstabbing, greed, hypocrisy, hatred, fear … those were the things that drove them. They’d go through the motions of doing the religious stuff, and then go right out and do horrible things. They still said they were God’s people, they still said they wanted good and faithful lives … but it didn’t really matter because they didn’t take it seriously. It was easier to just drift along and ignore all the ways they were falling short of who God called them to be.
There were people like that in Jesus’ day, too, which is why he warns the disciples against empty shows of piety. And there are people like that today, too. And before you start thinking of all the people you think are like that, stop and take a good look at yourself. Because human beings are very good at pointing fingers, and not so good at examining our own behavior. And finger-pointing is one of the things that God condemns in our first lesson! Nobody can fix other people; we can’t even fix ourselves! The only thing finger-pointing does is make yourself feel better by tearing down others. We are all sinners, here; forgiven by God, born anew in the waters of baptism, but we are saved only by the grace and mercy of God. Without God, we are nothing but dust, dirt. We keep falling in to old bad habits, destructive and self-destructive ways of thinking and being and acting. But God has chosen us to be his beloved children, washed clean and given new life.
The question is, what are we going to do with that new life? Who are we? God has called us his children, his people, forgiven us, and set us free to live lives of faith and love. But we sometimes use that freedom for other things, things that hurt ourselves and others, things that take us further from God, things that betray our deepest calling and lead us into bad places. And the road that leads us into those bad places, the road that leads us to hurt ourselves and others … it’s not always obvious, when we set foot on it. And it’s usually easier to start and harder to get off. But not impossible. The first step is to ask the questions: who am I? What do I want? Who is God calling me to be? Even when the world is leading us in different places, taking the time to ask these questions and build our relationship with God can bear great fruit. And that’s what Lent is all about.