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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ash Wednesday 03/05/2014

Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That’s the Gospel Acclamation for Lent and you really could say that it represents the mantra for Lent; it is the theme as we move into this new part of the church year, the forty days plus Sundays that prepare us for and move us toward Easter.

Part of Lent has to do with being honest about ourselves before God and so we always start with Psalm 51, one of the great penitential psalms. In this psalm, which the tradition assigns to King David, there is acknowledgment of sin along with an appeal for mercy and forgiveness, forgiveness that’s not deserved but based only on the steadfast love and compassion of the Lord. The psalm is honest, no punches pulled and with that honesty, the tone for Lent is set.

The other lessons have to do with returning to God by means of proper worship, proper worship being worship that’s not just the proper rites and rituals, but worship that informs the way people live. Worship of God in and of itself is important for growing in faith, for growing in our relationship with God, but these lessons remind us of the importance of worship in forming who we are as we go out into the world.

With that, there is always a bit of irony on Ash Wednesday, especially with the gospel, another part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a part which is a caution about praying, fasting and giving alms in order to call attention to ourselves, trying to make ourselves look holy, like the hypocrites do. It’s ironic because on Ash Wednesday we engage in what is probably our most public act of piety, a smudge of ashes on the forehead with the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” Now granted, most of you are going to go home from here so that apart from those gathered here, no one else is likely to see your ashes. But the irony of it still stands with this ritual that would set us apart and draw attention to us. It used to be a way you could tell who was Catholic but not so much anymore as other groups, like Lutherans, have adopted the rite.

In addition to the gospel, this year I’m also drawn to the Isaiah text, perhaps because I just finished teaching the Prophets class for Lay School so I’ve been somewhat immersed in the prophets for awhile. Isaiah 58 has to do with the return of the people of Israel to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile. As they returned and reestablished themselves in the homeland, there was apparently some inconsistency in how they were living in relationship with God and each other as opposed to what they claimed to believe about those relationships as they worshiped. There was a gap, a hypocritical gap.

It’s a people who delight in worship though! As it says, “They delight to know my ways, they delight to draw near to God,” but then the caveat, “As if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.” As if! Through Isaiah, the Lord calls the people out for going through the motions. It’s a great text for Lent because it’s not about all the people who aren’t here, it’s about those who are here. It’s about the faithful with the call to be honest about the hypocritical gaps, not in everybody else, but in ourselves.

Those gaps have changed. Many of you remember a time when to be a well respected person in town you better be attending church somewhere; people noticed those things. That’s not true anymore so my guess is that these days most people, at least those who are old enough to decide for themselves, do attend church because they “delight” in worship; they’re not just going through the motions, they’re not just here for the sake of being seen.

I also don’t think that our hypocritical gaps are like what Isaiah observed in the people returning from exile, people who were worshiping but not following through on issues of justice, people who were ignoring the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, those in need of clothing and shelter. It’s not that we do those things perfectly, it’s not that we can’t do more as individuals, as churches and as a nation, but such things are on our radar. We do respond in many and various ways both locally and globally, with the understanding that this is what Jesus, following prophets like Isaiah, calls us to do.

Another way to think about hypocritical gaps and the Lenten call to “Return to the Lord” is to ask yourself if you are growing in faith? At the conference I attended a couple of weeks ago in Nebraska a lot of statistics and charts and surveys on the current state of the church were presented. One of the survey questions I found most interesting (and these questions were asked of people attending church across many denominations) was “How much have you grown in your faith?” This came as part of a discussion about churches that are “successful.” Success can obviously be defined in many ways but my thought was that a church where people feel that they are growing in faith is a successful church.

My Lenten “Return to the Lord” challenge for you is to ask yourself that question and to think about ways you can make this a season of continuing or renewed daily growth. Isaiah chided the people for delighting in worship but failing to live out their faith relative to issues of justice. For some of us the issue can be delighting in worship but failing to grow in our relationship with God the rest of the week by engaging in some spiritual discipline or practice. For many of us, it’s easy to get complacent or to be too busy to take time for God; that can be our hypocritical gap.

It’s something for you to think about and obviously there’s no one size fits all answer. Returning to the Lord might be through the traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but it might be something else. It starts though with Ash Wednesday honesty that acknowledges that we are not who or what we are called to be.

You might think that after all these years of observing Lent we shouldn’t need it anymore, that we should have gotten the message about returning to the Lord. Instead, every year we’re back at it, making yet another return. In my reading though I found something written by Caesarius of Arles, an early bishop of the church in the late 400’s and early 500’s. He said that the days of Lent signify the life of the present world where Easter prefigures eternal glory. That made sense to me. Life in the present world, while there is continuity to it, is also a series of starts and stops and restarts as we make our way through all the ups and downs of life including our faith life. Ash Wednesday then does signify another one of those restarts, another return to the Lord as we begin another forty day Lenten journey.

So…Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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