Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday - February 10, 2016 (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)

When my sister and I were little, there was a book in the toy bin at our grandparents’ house in Winston-Salem that my sister loved to have read to her. It was a little Golden book in the Rocky and Bullwinkle series called something like Rocky and Friends. It was only about twenty pages long, and, being a children’s book, its very simple storyline was driven more by big, colorful pictures than by sentences with words. But my sister loved the story, and whenever we were over at their house, she would inevitably end up on granddaddy’s lap at some point and he’d read it to her, over and over and over.

I was never involved in the listening or telling of Rocky and Friends—I would always be occupied with something else that I thought was less baby-ish—but the plot had something to do with a camping trip in the woods which seemed to be going wrong. One by one, Rocky’s friends would leave the tent where they were all sleeping and disappear into the dark night, never to return. Every time a new person left the tent, the words would go, “One second, two seconds, three seconds went by.” For most little kids, that kind of stuff is suspenseful. My sister ate it up. As for me, I would get so put off by repetition of that middle part, the way it droned on and on, that about halfway thought I’d tune it all out. Bored by the monotony and frustrated with the tension, I never actually listened to the end to hear what happened to Rocky and his friends in the woods. I must have heard granddaddy read that book to Katherine a hundred times. I can hear his kind voice and see her legs dangling under the edge of the book. I never paid attention to how it ended.

Today is about paying attention to the end. That’s what the ashes soon to be placed on our foreheads are all about. Our lives are a story that can be, especially in the long middle stretches, boring and monotonous, tedious and filled with tension. We can get caught up in the repetition of certain aspects or distracted by things that don’t really matter. And even if we are successful at tuning it out for a while as we worship the idol of youth or burnishing the impact of our legacy, we ultimately won’t be able to ignore where it all winds up for us. We are dust, and to dust we will return.

Today, tonight, throughout the world, friends and strangers gather in worship to be reminded in stark fashion that we will disappear back into the woods at some point. It’s unavoidable. It happens whether there is suspense in our lives or not. It happens whether we are surrounded by worldly success or not. God formed each of us from the same raw materials of his universe, and that is the direction our bodies eventually take. Ash Wednesday is considered by many to be the most jarring, the most solemn time of worship of the entire year. It reminds us that we are not in total control of what is happening to us and that we have inherited a human story that ends in death. Pope Francis has said, “Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.” Indeed, call it the lull of “one second, two seconds, three seconds going by.” We need to be shaken to pay attention to the end of our story.

That appears to be one of the motivations for the people of God during the time of the prophet Joel. They too, are confronted with a great darkness on the horizon that promises to wipe all of them out. They see the day of clouds and blackness approaching, which we think may have been a swarm of crop-devouring locusts, and they contemplate their end. It could mean massive famine, disease, war between those who have and those who have not. No matter what, it is their end, and in contemplating it through the acts of repenting and praying, even mourning for their impending demise, they remember that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Because just as they become aware of their story of sinfulness and decay, they are also aware of God’s story. It is a holy story that began with their very creation out of dust and continues through the mighty acts of that loving Creator, each time pulling them out of the monotony and tedium, sorrow and boredom of their human story and making them aware of another end that God has in store for them.

And that, we remember, is a story of salvation, not of ultimately clouds and thick darkness. It is a real history of God working among God’s people to love them and restore them to blessing. This God had once called their patriarchs and matriarchs like Abraham and Sarah, in order to become a holy people that would be a blessing to the earth. God’s story continued as God heard the cries of suffering of the slaves in Egypt, the offspring of those matriarchs and patriarchs, now stranded in a strange land. God brought them out, delivering them through a great Exodus into freedom that would renew their covenant with God and allow them to shine once again as God’s treasured people.

As God’s story for them continues, they plead for a leader who would be able to unite their bickering tribes and help them maintain their treasured status among so many other diverse peoples. And God renews his covenant once again, and makes of them a real city on hill. Unbelievably, God would come to reside with them in that city, taking up residence in a holy temple. But unlike other holy shrines elsewhere, God’s temple would not contain God goodness and glory in one place. Rather, God’s light would stream out from there to be embodied in the relationships of the people in the kingdom where grace and love for the neighbor would rule over all else. 

The Flight of the Prisoners (Tissot)
When their efforts at that began to burn once more into ashes, God would draw near, this time forming them through a period of great hardship and sorrow. In foreign Babylon they would become like slaves again, scattered from their holy city and the temple that inspired them so. Into exile and then back, they’d yet come to realize God was still with them, honing them to be people who lived according to his Word, no matter where they were.

Then, to fully link the human story of death and sin to God’s holy story of life and freedom, God gave his Son, Jesus of Nazareth. His birth, life, and death among us unites our story as mortal creatures with God’s story of salvation and life eternal. This is the story, the great history of hope, that we have inherited through our faith in Christ. When a person receives the water of baptism, the pastor stands at the font and sometimes says, “We are born children of a fallen humanity; by water and the Holy Spirit we are reborn children of God and made members of the body of Christ.” Though our human story is broken by sin and ends with the ashes of death, we are now also united to God’s story in Christ who is risen from the dead.

The traditional disciplines of Lent are designed to awaken us and help us pay attention to that story, to that hope. Fasting, the giving of alms, and prayer all, in different ways, jolt us out of the humdrum of a normal, self-centered existence and help us re-learn and receive this new ending in Christ’s life. We become living and breathing—and even dying—reminders that our story of decay and sin has now overlapped with God’s great salvation. Devoted to God and to neighbor, we can bear God’s image, answer the call to be God’s people, enjoy deliverance from sin, build God’s kingdom in our presence, and be molded by God’s judgment of slow anger and steadfast love. The life of faith helps us remember that everything—everything—comes to an end except for the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ.

My own grandfather reached the end of his earthly story last October at the age of 93. As we sat gathered with close family in his final days, the subject of that old Rocky and Bullwinkle book came up. As an act of remembering him and honoring that time together, my sister hunted and hunted for a copy of it somewhere. It’s out of print, of course, so it wasn’t on any of the major booksellers on-line, but eventually she got it from an obscure Etsy seller for a whopping $3. It arrived the week or so after he died.

I was curious about the end, and as it turns out there’s a little surprise. Rocky’s friends disappear one by one in the forest not to meet some terrible demise, but because they’re throwing him a secret surprise birthday party. After so much worry, or boredom, or tedium, or suspense, the story ends in a celebration of life and thankfulness.

Huh. A story with a surprise end of joy and thanksgiving. Well, now how to you like that?

Granddaddy (Bob) and my sister (Katherine)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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