Ash Wednesday, Year B, February 14, 2018
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, 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, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our culture has a fairly shallow view of what love is, have you ever noticed that? We elevate romantic love as the most important, as if the love of friends and siblings isn’t also deep and true, and then we reduce romantic love to that overwhelming first flush of feeling, as if the commitment of living your life together isn’t just as important a barometer of the depth of love. And every Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love … with clichés and mass-produced cards and candy. And then we judge relationships based on the ‘specialness’ of that one day’s plans and gifts. It’s not that candy and flowers and dinner and such are bad, but when we’re talking about love, they only just scratch the surface of what love is. And sometimes, we use the word “love” when we really mean uglier things, like obsession or jealousy or abuse or selfishness, using the word “love” to paper over and excuse terrible things we do to one another.
As Christians, we are supposed to learn what love is from the love of the Lord our God. We should not let the world’s shallowness dictate our views of love. We should not let the way the world twists things to shape how we understand love. We should learn how to love from our creator, redeemer, and friend. God, who in the Old Testament is often described as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” as the prophet Joel tells us in our Old Testament reading.
What does that mean? ‘Gracious’ is not a word we use often, but it means a kind of generous compassion, a good will towards someone even if they are not worthy of it. Merciful we know, it’s about forgiveness and bringing relief from something unpleasant. Slow to anger, well, there are some people who think of God as some frowning, hotheaded tyrant just waiting to smite anybody who slips. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. God is like a parent who has set boundaries but tries to guide and discipline his children without punishing them, using harsh measures only as the very last resort.
You can see that in Joel’s words. In Joel’s time, God’s people had turned away from God. They had abandoned his ways, and pursued selfishness and injustice, bigotry and greed. Instead of the merciful and just society God had shown them how to create, they had set up a system in which the rich prospered and everyone else suffered. People cared only for their own good, and let others suffer. In other words, they were acting exactly the opposite of the love God had shown them and called them to live by. And how does God react? He pleads with them to return to him, to follow his example to live in love, so that they can avoid the consequences of their actions.
More than anything, God wants all people to live together in harmony. God wants us all to follow his example and be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God does not want love to be a surface thing, a thing of presents and dates, but rather the core of how we treat ourselves and all of humanity. All kinds of love—the love of family, the love of friends, romantic love, love for strangers and those who are different than us. God wants good will and compassion and mercy to form the basis for us as individuals and as a community and as a species, because in that way each and every one of us will be free to grow and prosper and blossom as the good people God created us to be.
When God punishes, it’s always because we have forgotten that love. We human beings have an awful tendency to hurt one another, to let selfishness or fear or anger or hate or jealousy or pride dictate our actions, and then justify our actions with all sorts of different ways. We hurt others, and tell ourselves they deserved it. We do bad things and then tell ourselves that we’re really good people, so we must have been right. We look away when others abuse people, and then blame the victim. We bully people and say it was just a joke, or they’re just too sensitive. We shrug uncomfortably when someone’s partner manipulates and beats them, and then say it’s okay because he loves her and he didn’t really mean it. And it’s not just atheists who do this: we do it, too. We, the good, God-fearing people, have fallen so far short of who God calls us to be. We make a mockery of the healthy, life-giving love that God calls us to live by, and in so doing walk further and further away from God’s presence, and increase the destruction and violence and death in the world.
But even as far from God as we stray, even despite the violence and destruction we allow and condone, God will not let us go. God sent God’s only Son to save us from our sins, to save us from the unholy, hate-filled mess of a world we have created for ourselves. God loves us so much that he was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. God loves us so much that he will never stop calling from us to turn from our sins, receive God’s love, and live. This Lent, may the love of God fill our hearts and minds. May God create in us clean hearts, ready to love as God has loved us.