Joel 2:1-2; 12-19; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:2
I don’t know how in the world he got my phone number, nor did I ask. But I remember a phone call I got in the church office a number of years ago, from a man by the name of Anthony. Sometimes when people call churches, they start at the top of the list of churches alphabetically in the phone book, and just start calling one church after another. I figured maybe this guy started at the bottom, and that’s why he was calling me. And my immediate thought was that Anthony was looking for a handout. Pastors and churches get those kind of calls a lot.
But the handout he was looking for was not what I was expecting to get hit with. He was looking for … forgiveness. “I want to confess my sin,” he said. And then he told me what he had done, and the guilt he was feeling as a result. I asked him where he was calling from, and he said, “The Buffalo Psychiatric Center. I want to know what I have to do to atone.”
And then I gave him my best Lutheran answer. I said, “Anthony, you don’t have to make atonement. Jesus – through his death on the cross – has already done that for you. And you know what, Anthony? Just by saying to me what you just said to me, I want you to now that Jesus has heard your confession, and Jesus forgives you.” After I had prayed with him over the phone, I encouraged him to speak with the chaplain at the facility, and promised me he would.
Now I don’t know anything else about Anthony’s life, who he is, or even what he looks like. But the important thing is that at that moment he took a look deep with himself, and knew he needed God’s forgiveness. That he needed to turn his life around. He wanted a healing, and I would like to think that his phone call to me was the first step in that healing process.
What is true for Anthony is true for everyone of us here tonight. Tonight I am going to ask all of us to look deep within ourselves. Tonight we confess – and to confess is simply another way of saying – we admit – we agree – that we are sinners and that we are in need of forgiveness. Our sin has led us away from God – because that’s what sin does. Sin separates us from God. And that’s why we need reconciliation – we need to be reconciled to God.
Listen! I am here tonight not just to preach a message. I am here – along with all of you – because I too have a need to be reconciled to God.
The ashes that many of us will be wearing when we leave here tonight will be a reminder of that need. But there is a problem if tonight is only about the ashes.
It’s the same problem that the prophet Joel was addressing I our first reading tonight. I just love this passage from Joel. Listen again. “Rend you hearts, and not your garments.” Back in Old Testament times, repentance for the folks that Joel was speaking to included sackcloth and ashes, fasting – in other words, abstaining from eating for a period of time – and the rending – or the tearing – of one’s clothes. Unfortunately, these actions didn’t change anything. It was just an outward appearance. No change in their hearts and lives went along with it.
The sackcloth and ashes and fasting and rending of clothing was a first step. But the tragedy was that they never moved beyond that first step. So God sends the prophet Joel to say, “Rend your hearts, and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Did you hear that? Those are grace words. God wants us to hear those words tonight as we repent. God wants us to rend our hearts.
But I can’t state this emphatically enough. As important as repenting and rending our hearts is – they are just a first step. There is a transforming power in the gift of forgiveness. There is transforming power in Jesus Christ – and once He gets a hold of us – there is real change. Real transformation.
But we need to move beyond this first step.
Listen. Sometimes I think we are afraid of God. We run away from God. We’re afraid of returning to the Lord our God. Afraid of what God might do if we really do confess just what a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Sometimes I think we look at God like He’s the town cop, and afraid we’re going to get busted!
Well, let me tell you something! You won’t get busted! But you will be forgiven. God isn’t about to throw the cuffs on you. No. He’s in the forgiving business. In fact, God can’t wait to forgive you.
SO let’s call repentance and forgiveness the first step – the first step in what is for us a life-long journey. And if you will allow it – if this hasn’t already happened for you – the first step towards a transformed life. After all – for you and me to repent of our sin is only half of the equation. The other half of repentance involves change – a turning around – a turning away from the old life of sin.
And yes, I know. I know I know, I know, it’s not an easy thing to do. Spiritual growth – Christ like growth – that takes us beyond the first step takes time. It’s a process. But you know something? God is interested in you, and how you’re doing. God is interested in seeing you grow and change and develop – to see you become more and more like His Son Jesus Christ. It’s a maturing in Christ kind of thing. And this takes time. grow or change or develop. No. But God is interested in how strong you grow.
On my book shelf in my office is a book called, “The Purpose Driven Life.” To illustrate this process of growth and transformation, there is a story from that book that I want to tell you. A man by the name of “Lane Adams once compared the process of spiritual growth to the strategy the Allies used in World War II to liberate islands in the South Pacific. First, they would ‘soften up’ an island, weakening the resistance by shelling the enemy strongholds with bombs from offshore ships. Next, a small group of Marines would invade the island and establish a ‘beachhead’ – a tiny fragment of the island that they would control. Once the beachhead was secured, they would begin the long process of liberating the rest of the island, one bit of territory at a time. Eventually, the entire island would be brought under control, but not without some costly battles.
“Adams drew this parallel: Sometimes – when Christ comes into our lives – some folks open the doors of their hearts the first time Jesus knocks. But most of us – and I would suggest the vast majority of us – become defensive. We resist.”
[And let me add here that our resistance doesn’t mean that we aren’t Christians; that we aren’t believers. It’s just that change – especially in some areas of our lives – and I’ll let you fill in the blanks here – sometimes real change is hard. We know where we’ve messed up – we genuinely want to turn our backs on sin – and we’ll even take that first step called repentance. But change? You’re asking me to change? But I like my sin!]
But then – but then – we take that next step. There is a rending of the heart. We open our lives to Jesus as THE change agent in our lives. And he gets a beachhead. And then Adams goes on to say, “You may think you have surrendered all your life to him, but the truth is, there is a lot to your life that you aren’t even aware of ….[But] that’s okay. Once Christ is given a beachhead, he begins the campaign to take over more and more territory until – until what? Until all of your life is completely his. There will be struggles and battles, but the outcome will never be in doubt. God has promised that ‘he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.’”
[And you thought you were coming here tonight just to get a smudge on your forehead. There’s so much more to tonight than just ashes, isn’t there!]
Then Adams asks this question. “Why does this change process take so long? I’ll tell you why.
1. We are slow learners.
2. We have a lot to unlearn. [And that I will add is probably the most challenging part of moving beyond the first step. We have so much to unlearn. Chew on that for a while].
3. We are often afraid – not only to face God – but to face the truth about ourselves.
4. Quite frankly – growth is painful. Change can be painful. And sometimes – it can be downright scary.
5. And then the fifth reason why the change process can take so long is this. Habits – good habits – take time to develop.
Folks – Jesus is our change agent. He is working on you right now even as I speak. Oh, you might not be aware of it. But it’s happening.
Tonight, we begin once again with the first step. Ash Wednesday is to repent. But our life with Christ – our life of repentance – doesn’t end here. Can I encourage you tonight – to invite Jesus into that area or areas of your life that need changing? Those places in your life that cry out for transformation?
Yeah – it may be painful. In fact – I would say – count on it. But I’ve got just one word to say to you about that. Suck it up! Okay, that’s three words. But once you start walking with Jesus – and as you continue your walk with Jesus – once the healing gets started – you can find it can be one of the most joyful things you have ever experienced.
And who knows? Maybe God can even turn your mess into a message, yes? But once we’ve taken the first step, it’s time to move on – on beyond the first step. Change. Transformation. Our growth in Christ – our life with Christ – it’s a life-long walk – that goes way beyond the first step.