Ash Wednesday Sermon

March 5th, 2014

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Joel 2

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Has it ever happened that someone has had the wrong impression about you?  Have you ever been misinterpreted, misunderstood or seen by someone as a person you believe yourself not to be?  The prophet Joel whom we hear today portrays a people who feel misunderstood.  God in God’s anger has sent locust to devour their crops.  And after the locust, God is threatening to come in person:  “Let the inhabitants of the land tremble.”  The people of Israel feel misunderstood.  They are good folks  the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God’s chosen ones.  Clearly there is some misunderstanding here.  If that is the case, Joel says, then change God’s mind:  ”For God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  If you are not being seen as the person you know yourself to be, then change God’s mind.

Now the question, of course: is changing God’s mind possible?  After all, God knows everything, and God made everything, but does God control everything?  Our theology, our knowledge of history and our personal experience tells us that there is a space in creation where God has withdrawn God’s sovereignty in favor of our freedom.  God made us to be free; which means outcomes are not fore-ordained or fore-known by God.   God is as surprised as we are each day about how things unfold in the world in which we live.

Why were we given this freedom?  There is a short answer and there is a shorter answer.  The short answer is that there is no real love if there is no real freedom.  God loves us and God loves our love, and God knows that our love isn’t really love if we don’t freely choose it.  The shorter answer is that our freedom is a mystery, given by God for some bigger purpose.  So there is freedom, because there is love.  And in freedom the outcome is indeterminable which means that we have impact on what happens next, and this matters to God.

This is the issue that confused the Israelites. They believed that they  were the inheritors of God’s favor, and that this was a static reality.  Joel had a different point of view.  He bellieved that what we do actually matters to God.  Which brings us to Lent, the season, in our liturgical year set aside to consider what we do, how this is consistent with who we think we are, and more so, who God sees us as being.  Lent is a season where we seek to change God’s mind.

Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy, asks a question that can become our primary focus in Lent: “are we living for an Audience of One?”  The Apostle Paul inspires this Audience of One orientation when he writes in this letter to the Colossians:  “Do all that you do with enthusiasm, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that God is the one who rewards you and whom we really serve” (Col 3:17)  In other words God is the only audience that matters and makes sense.  And yet here is the beauty and simplicity of life lived in the Kingdom of God, when we orient ourselves toward the Audience of One everyone else we encounter benefits and is blessed.  To live life toward God is to be a person who dances to the melodies of  “love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22).  And not just one of these, but all of these.  These are the fruits of a spirit we feast upon when we sit down to dine with the Audience of One.

Now here is where the Israelites Joel is speaking to get in trouble. The evidence of the kind of people they were was in their action,  not in their opinions of themselves. They said, “God, I’m not a curser.” To which God replied, “OK, but when I hear you speak I hear curse words.” “I’m not a glutton,” they claimed. “Ok,” God replied, “maybe not.  But when I look at how you eat, and how you spend, I see gluttony.” “I’m not lustful,” they declared. “Very well,” God responded, “it is possible.  But your eyes and your heart and your fantasies tell a different story.”

The evidence is in the action, not our opinion of ourselves, which is why Joel implores the people of Israel to change God’s mind.  All God has to go on is what we show God.  Lent is a season where we seek to change God’s mind.

The disciplines of Lent are taken on toward this end.  Here are four spiritual exercises to consider this Lent:

  1. Prayer
  2. Self-Examination
  3. Fasting
  4. Reading Scripture

Prayer is the daily discipline where we set aside time to talk to God and to listen to God.  It is an action that happens the same time, in the same place, using the same process, in a way the creates a posture of prayer.  The habit of prayer is toward the end of teaching the body how to quickly turn back to God.  The outcome of this habit is a body that can easily orient itself toward God, which, I guarantee will come in handy many times in life.

Self-examination is another discipline to consider. It is the process of reflecting on our life, and wondering about the things we seem to do over and over again that produce results that are not particularly pleasing.  The first question to ask in self-examination is: “am I actually enjoying in some less than healthy way the results I am producing by my behavior?”  This is the getting honest with self question. The next step asks, “what behaviors can I try on to see if a different result is produced?”  Note this will feel weird.

Being cheery instead of glum when greeting your spouse after work might feel weird, but that is the discipline required in changing a habit.  Maybe greeting her with flowers instead of critique?  Maybe letting the first thing out of your mouth be a question not a statement?  The self-examination becomes a internal conversation about the actions of our lives, against the results they are producing.

Fasting is the third discipline.  It is simply taking away from our body a habit that it uses to distract our attention from God.  It may be fasting from food, shopping,  pornography,  gossip, 24 hour news stations,  or eccessive exercise.  The question of the fast is:  “What activities am I letting my body dictate in an effort to get the little dopamene rush it is so addicted too?”  Then fast from that.  The body is a tool to engage the Audience of One, not be the Audience of One.

Finally there is reading Scripture.  This is the discipline of learning how Jesus acted.  This is the activity where we examine the character of God.  This is the activity where we ask ourselves as we read scripture:  “How would Jesus live his life if he had been born me?”

These are the disciplines I invite you to consider this Lent, prayer, self-examination, fasting and scripture.  They are the hammers with which, over forty days, we break habits that we would rather not defend when sitting at the dinner table with the Audience of One.

How do we know which one to practice this Lent?  It is a question to ask when when looking in the mirror.  As it is written in the Letter of James, “For if we are hearers of the word, and not doers, we are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, and on going away immediately forgetting what they look like.” (James 1:23-24) These are words not disimilar to what we hear from Joel.  God knows what we look like, whether we remember or not.  Paul says it straight in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians:  “What we are is known to God,  and I hope it is known to our conscious as well.” (2 Cor 5:13).  Lent is a season in which we look in the mirror and stand there without turning away and ask: “What does God see?” The answer is in our action.

I am reminded of an old Quaker hymn.  Near the end the words go like this:  “When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed, to turn, turn, will be our delight till by turning, turning we come round right.” Lent is a season for turning around, turning around and looking into the mirror, turning around to take a look to see what God sees when God looks at us, and to fully face the reality of who we are. And in this seeing to remember God loves us enough to give us the power and the freedom to change God’s mind; and in doing so we change the world…and more than that, as the old song says, we experience and share delight.  That is the point of delight.

The season of Lent, the season of self-examination and self-discipline and self-denial is one giant step toward delight. Lent is meant to be a season that delights the soul.  Conversation with God in prayer delights the soul. Self-examination through journaling delights the soul.  Fasting from the things that bloat our body delights the soul.  Reading Scripture to know the character and love of God delights the soul.  Lent is a season meant to delight the soul.  It is a season in which we delight in the presence of an Audience of One, as we seek to be the person we wish God to see.