Join us online for Ash Wednesday as we begin the journey toward Easter called Lent.

This is a time when we exercise the Spiritual Disciplines as we travel with the Savior who understands all our needs.

Pastor Doug will share a meditation “Return to the Lord” based on Joel 2:12–17 with music from our Praise Team.

There will be a time of communion if you would like to have communion elements available for that time.

Thank you for worshiping with us.

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Introduction to Joel

Much as we have endured the hardships of a pandemic for the last year, at the time of the prophet Joel, a terrible locust plague devastated the country. Joel saw the ruin the locusts left behind as a dire warning of God’s judgment on the people and he issued a call to repentance. Joel 2.12-17 (NRSV),

 “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”

I’d like to call our attention to three important things Joel mentions: Return to the Lord, Rend your hearts, & Relents from punishing.

The first is “Return to the Lord.” When we return to something, what’s implied? That we’ve been there before. We can’t return some place we’ve never been. We return to a place we’ve been to already or to person we’ve been with before. Returning to the Lord, implies we have been with the Lord before, but we’re not with the Lord now, at least we’re not with the Lord in the same way we were before

Throughout the Bible the message is given, the further we get from the Lord, the worse off we are. This is not to say staying close to God spares us from hardship or even death – there are far too many examples of faithful people in the Bible, in history, and in the present time who have suffered and died. However, being unfaithful to the Lord, leaving God’s path, departing from the Lord’s teaching often leads to trouble. As the Lord says to the prophet Jeremiah (23:17), calamity comes to those who “stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts.” The prophets have strong words of condemnation for those who claim the name of God but whose lives are filled with deceit, corruption, indifference, and cruelty. A lack of empathy and compassion for the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the very young or very old are seen by the prophets as signs that someone has left the presence and teaching of the Lord. 

Joel urges us return to the Lord with all our heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. We weep and mourn for ourselves and our own sin and we weep and mourn for God’s world with all that’s been lost and all that’s happened in the last year. Looking at the world and lamenting the evil, violence, and lies of the wicked (see Psalm 7:9, 14), Psalm 7:11 says that “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day.” Where do we find strength and hope in times such as these? Isaiah 30:15 says, “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” 

In returning to the Lord, we’re to Rend our Heart. Rend means to tear or to cause great emotional pain. Joel tells us to rend our hearts and not our garments because it’s easy to rip up an article of clothing and say all sorts of religious sounding things to appear sorry or repentant. But unless we get into our heart, which in the imagery of the Bible is the source and origin of our behavior, we won’t return to the Lord. More than a cross around our neck or a fish emblem on our car, the Lord wants our heart more than our words. Isaiah 29:13 states, “The Lord said: these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.” 

Jesus quotes these words in Matthew 15:8-9 when he’s in a discussion with the Pharisees and scribes. They’re upset that Jesus and his followers are breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before they eat. Jesus asks why they’re breaking the commandment of God for the sake of their traditions. Then Jesus says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” 

There can often be a large gap between the words of people who claim to be followers of Christ, and our ethics and behavior. Returning to the Lord, rending our hearts, repenting of our sin and desiring to be more godly in our behavior and not just in our words is crucially important. That God sees through human pretension, dishonesty and a lack of integrity is clear in Isaiah 1:15-17 where the Lord spoke through Isaiah to the people saying, “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” To rend our hearts means grappling with the issues that shape who we are and what we do as individuals and as a society.   

The third point from Joel has to do with God’s character and the reason why we want to return to the Lord and are willing to rend and open our hearts to the sometimes painful work of spiritual change is because of who God is. “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” God wants us to get life right. God wants us to return to a growing relationship with our Creator, God wants us to rend our heart by engaging in honest self-examination and repentance and the Lord is willing to give us a new heart and a new spirit. God doesn’t look forward to or enjoy punishing anyone. God wants to relent from punishing and to bless.

Jesus’ death on the cross for every person in the world is stark and unmistakable evidence of God’s desire for us to return. 2 Peter 3:9 reminds us how patient God is with all of us, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

John 3:17 says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

The season of Lent has long been a time for Christians to return to the Lord; a time when members of the church who lapsed in their faith sought repentance and restoration as well as a time of preparation for baptism and initiation of new believers.  Anyone who has ever dieted or tried to maintain an exercise program knows that constant vigilance and discipline are needed to achieve our goals. As followers of Jesus there are also certain habits, we’re called to practice that enable us to return to and remain close to the Lord – things like prayer, fasting, worship, service, and giving.

I pray this season of Lent will be one in which you engage in some disciplines, practices, or habits that help you to return to the Lord in a deeper way. Who knows? When we repent, Come to Jesus and rend our hearts, the Lord may relent from punishing and bless us in ways beyond what we can imagine.

Reflection on Ashes

On Ash Wednesday, Christians usually experience a solemn, lower key worship service and are marked on the forehead with the sign of a cross made from ashes as “a sign of our mortality and penitence.” As the ashes are imposed, someone like me says to each person: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In some ways, it feels like we’ve been in Lent for almost a year. While we’ve experienced more death, crises, and isolation than we’d ever want, it can be helpful also to remember that new life can emerge from ashes. That’s true of a forest and, also of us so please join me in a spirit of prayer as we pray about returning, rending, fasting, mourning, and the possibility of new life.

Prayer

What will I give up for Lent this year?

What will I fast from?  What will I sacrifice?  What will I go without?

I have so much, Lord, I have so many things, I’m filled up so often, so easily –

there’s so much I could choose to give up:

food from my table, drink from my glass, candy from the bowl, sugar in my coffee,

desserts and snacks and munchies – and that’s just in the kitchen!

But I know you call me to a deeper fast, you call me to give up what sours me,

what keeps me down, what holds me back, what feeds my rage and resentments,

what stokes my passions and desires, what excuses my bias and prejudice,

what keeps me from loving you   and my neighbor   and even myself…

You call me to fast deep in my soul, Lord: to fast in ways that will change my ways,

will change my mind, will change my heart will the change the way I am with you

and with my neighbor and with myself.

You call me to fast, Lord – and to feast! You call me:

    to fast from discontent and to feast on gratitude;

    to fast from anger and to feast on patience;

    to fast from bitterness and to feast on forgiveness;

    to fast from self-concern and to feast on compassion;

    to fast from discouragement and to feast on hope;

    to fast from laziness and to feast on commitment;

    to fast from complaining and to feast on acceptance;

    to fast from lust and to feast on respect;

    to fast from prejudice and to feast on understanding;

    to fast from resentment and to feast on reconciliation;

    to fast from lies and to feast on the truth;

    to fast from wasted time and to feast on honest work;

    to fast from grimness and to feast on joy;

    to fast from suspicion and to feast on trust;

    to fast from idle talk and to feast on prayer and silence;

    to fast from guilt and to feast on the mercy of God.*

Precious Lord, be with us wherever we are tonight. Come close to us that we may come close to you. Forgive us that we may forgive one another. Renew us so that, where we have failed, We may begin again. In Jesus name.  Amen. 

*(This prayer “Fast From/Feast On” is attributed to William Arthur Ward)

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