Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:12-19

We heard it at the start of today’s liturgy: Dust you are, and to dust you will return.  The ashes, which give this day its name, have nothing to do with Lenten fasting.  Whether you have ashes on your forehead or not, they tell no one if you have been fasting.  But the ashes do show everyone that you are dying.  Of that, you and everyone else may be sure.  For we are dust, and to dust we will return.  Such is the wages of sin.

But then we stare in amazement tonight at One for whom those words do not describe.  We see Him and cry out: “O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down, now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown!” (LSB 450:1).  If ever there were a head that did not call for the ashes of this day, it is His sacred head!

Why thorns, when it should be a crown of gold?  With those thorns, we see in our flesh the One who formed us from the dust at the dawn of time.  With those thorns, we see the One, who in deep, deep love for our fallen race, became dust for us.  And now He will even lay down His head into the dust?

But He has no sin in Him!  So how can there be any death in Him?  How and why will He die?  We will spend this Lenten season pondering such questions.

When Joel calls for a sacred fast, when he urges the trumpet to sound, and the people to gather, we discover that he is calling us to return.  Lent is always about returning.  So often, we think that is about turning away from something.  But Lent is not about what we will not do, what we will give up, and what we will not eat.

Oh, it is proper to fast, to abstain from eating, as it is also proper to pray.  Didn’t our Lord assume that His disciples would do so when He said in tonight’s Gospel: “When you fast”?  When, not if!  Fasting is to be as much in Christian’s life as prayer is to be.  Yet, fasting, if emptied of meaning, becomes nothing more than an empty religious exercise.

The Lenten fast goes deeper than your decision to deny yourself some tasty treat.  Instead, fasting is God’s way to urge and invite you back to Him.  It’s as Joel says.  “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13).  A Lent that is anything less than a return in faith to the Lord is only a religious game and worth less than nothing.

In this sacred, Lenten season, instead of playing games with God, why not heed His call to return to Him?  For He doesn’t only want part of you.  He doesn’t want some shallow, outward display, like that of tearing your garments, especially if it’s only for show.  God doesn’t want a few minutes tossed His way one day a week.  No, He wants all of you, including your heart.  That’s why Joel speaks of rending your hearts, instead of only making an outward show of it!

“A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).  A heart that is rent and torn open is a wounded and damaged heart.  God receives such a heart from you as a pleasing sacrifice.  That’s when, from the depths of your being, you plead: “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner!  I have made such a mess of it all.  I have hurt so many people.  I have failed so often to show Your love.  You know how terrible my thoughts are, and how sin even stains my deepest yearnings.  Have mercy on me, O Lord!  Have mercy!”

Lent is not for pretend sinners.  Lent is for real, honest-to-God sinners who have failed to love God in sinless perfection.  Lent is for real, honest-to-God sinners who have failed in their love of neighbor and know this reality.  Lent is for real, honest-to-God sinners, who by God’s grace, despise their sin and ache for His forgiveness and for strength to do better.

For such heartbroken sinners, words of sheer refreshment ring aloud: “Even you, even now: Return!”  Return, and see the sacred head of Your Savior now wounded.  He is the One to whom the Holy Scriptures call us to return.  He is the One who knew that we, on our own, could not come to Him, return to Him, or find Him.  So, instead, He came to us, returned to us, and found us.

And we marvel this Lent at how far He went to find us.  For it is a marvel, indeed, that Yahweh, the God of Israel, should take on body and blood.  That’s what He did in His incarnation.  That should be enough to leave us astounded forever.

But God went even further.  He did more than take on our body and blood, to become dust for us.  He went even further, all to lift from us the burden of our sin.  He bore our sins in His own body until death to own our failures as His own.  Indeed, in the words ofSt. Paul: “He, who knew no sin,” became sin for us, so “in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, not only died.  He also died as the greatest sinner of that ever lived.  God laid on Jesus the sin of the entire world–all of it.  And so Jesus bore your sin, my sin–everyone’s.  In that way, the Lord revealed that He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Look to the cross and see!  He bore your sin to death that neither death nor sin might be the end of you.  Such is the measure of His love.

During Lent, the Church calls us to return.  She calls us to return to Christ, to draw near to this Savior, who was wounded for our transgressions.  The Church calls us to return to Christ, who was bruised for our iniquity, on whom was the punishment that brought us peace, and in whose stripes we find healing.  She reminds us of what is real.  For in this whole world, the only real life begins when the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, of bringing us into communion with Him.

Every time we settle for anything less, we have allowed ourselves to be deceived.  We cheat ourselves of the great gift of which Baptism has made us heirs.  As often as she sets the Table, the Church calls for all her children to return.  The Church calls us to come to this wounded Savior who bore our wounds in His own flesh, spilling His blood for us.  All this is so His flesh may be our living bread from heaven and His blood the blotting out of our every sin.

Dust we are, and to dust we will return.  That’s what the ashes are about on this Ash Wednesday.  The shape of the ashes, in the shape of the cross, recalls that we have a Savior who became dust for us.  His sacred head was laid in the dust of death.  Now, the dust of our corrupted being is made incorruptible in Him.  No wonder, when we ponder such love, the Church raises her voice to that sacred Head.  No wonder we rejoice to call Christ our greatest treasure.  Amen.