Ash Wednesday - Repentance

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God the Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Deploration by Anthony van Dyke c. 1618.

Deploration by Anthony van Dyke c. 1618.

Our theme for Lent is #hearingthegospel. But, to “hear the gospel” and truly understand it we must first hear the law. For where there is no law there is no gospel.

Ash Wednesday stands in stark contrast to Transfiguration Sunday. This past Sunday we went up to the mountain top and saw the glory of Christ revealed. His clothes because white, His face shone like the sun, Moses and Elijah appeared, and from the cloud the voice of God the Father rang out – “Listen to My Son!” We were reminded of a holy and pure God. A God who does not abide sin, but detests it. A God who demands perfect holiness from His people. A God who terrified the Israelites on another mountain thousands of years ago.

In our Old Testament passage we only get the middle section of Joel 2. Why is Joel calling on the people to “even now…return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments?” Because the Lord is coming with disaster to judge His people.

Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near, 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. 3 Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. 4 Their appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses they run. 5 As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. 6 Before them peoples are in anguish; all faces grow pale. 7 Like warriors they charge; like soldiers they scale the wall. They march each on his way; they do not swerve from their paths. 8 They do not jostle one another; each marches in his path; they burst through the weapons and are not halted. 9 They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls, they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief. 10 The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. 11 The Lord utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it?
— Joel 2:1-11

It is from the Day of Judgment that the prophet Joel calls the peoples to repentance. That even though the coming destruction is great and deserved the Lord can and will relent if the Israelites repent, not just in show, but in heart. If they turn to the Lord God. If they renounce their wicked works and ways. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance,” (Luther, 95 Thesis).

Lamentation Over the Dead Christ by Anthony van Dyck c. 1635.

Lamentation Over the Dead Christ by Anthony van Dyck c. 1635.

Notice, in Joel 2:12-19 that repentance is not just a sitting down and thinking about the bad things we do and the evil thoughts we have. This repentance is, as Luther calls it, “the hatred of self.” Notice what the Lord calls for: returning with “all your heart,” fasting, weeping, and mourning. Consecrate the congregation, assemble the elders, call a fast, gather the children (even nursing infants), leave the parties, the merrymaking, have the priest lead the people in worship. In other words, stop what you are doing.

In today’s times, we would say, “turn to the cross and repent!” In “A Sermon on Indulgence and Grace” given in 1518 Luther said this, “It is a grievous error for anyone to think that he can make satisfaction for his own sins. God always forgives them out of His priceless grace and demands nothing more than a good life thereafter. Christianity actually does demand something.”

The demand is to love God and love our neighbor. The demand is to live a life of repentance. The demand is to continuously turn from our sin and turn to the Lord. To, as Paul puts it, stir one another up to do good deeds.

And what happens when we live this life? When we repent, and call on the Lord? Joel 2:20-32.

20 “I will remove the northerner far from you, and drive him into a parched and desolate land, his vanguard into the eastern sea, and his rear guard into the western sea; the stench and foul smell of him will rise, for he has done great things. 21 “Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! 22 Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit; the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 23 “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before. 24 “The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25 I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. 26 “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 28 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. 30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
— Joel 2:20-32