Thursday, February 25, 2010

Abounding in Steadfast Love

By the Rev. Margay Jo Whitlock

Ash Wednesday 2010
Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Mathew 6:1-6; 16-21

I was thinking about giving up sandwiches for Lent.  But, then, I thought about the prophet Joel.  “Rend your heart and not your garments”, says Joel.  Or in my case “your menus”.

Joel is one of the so-called Minor Prophets, meaning his book doesn’t take all that long to read.  Joel writes about the fallout from a plague of locusts.  Alas!  There are no grapes to make the wine.  There is no grain to be harvested to make the flour.  Blow the trumpet!  (Not a modern trumpet, but a ram’s horn – a shofar.)  Summon the people!  Gather together for a fast.

Well, that’s interesting… gather together for a fast.  So, it’s not about what I am going to give up; it’s about what we are going to give up.  There’s also some irony here: a fast is called, but what would they eat anyway?  All of the crops had been destroyed.  Talk about a downturn in the economy!  This is serious business.

When you come to church, you are supposed to remember to bring your envelope.  But, Joel says, don’t worry that you can’t bring your proper offering.  Who knows?  Maybe the Lord himself will provide the offering.  Instead, think of what you can give – your heart.  And no, not your “achy breaky heart”.

In Joel’s time, the heart was thought to be the seat of the will, as opposed to the seat of emotion.  Joel is telling us to break our wills to God, to offer our broken agendas to God.  “Return to the Lord your God”, says Joel.  Turn around.  Face God.  Proclaim a fast.  A fast that’s not about giving up sandwiches, or chocolate, or alcohol, or whatever…  This is a communal fast, meaning we are called to come together as a congregation and to give up the dividing walls between us.

How are we going to do this?  By relying on the steadfast love of God.  This Hebrew concept of the steadfast love of God is in essence the same thing as Lutherans talk about when they use the word gospel – as in law and gospel.  God’s word comes to us in two ways: the law tells us what God wants us to do – return to the Lord, call a fast, come to church – and the gospel tells us what God does.  God is gracious and merciful.  And because God is gracious and merciful, we have courage to repent.

If our main concept of God is that of a judge dangling us over the pit, we’re not going to want to go there.  But, because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, we are given the necessary motivation to turn back and face God.  The Law is what we do, or are supposed to do.  The Gospel is what God does.

One of the problems of being human is that we like to pretend we are in charge.  So, we like scenarios that fool us into believing we are in charge and that we can earn God’s love.  If I act in this certain way, or if I don’t act in this other way, then God will love me.  This is the human way of thinking.  But, here is God’s way of thinking: because I love you so much, therefore, you will return my love.  As Christians, we see God’s steadfast love in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  As followers of Jesus, we join together with other followers of Jesus to radiate his steadfast love to everyone we meet.  We are called to welcome all people as children of God, and to love them as God loves us.

There can be no mistake.  If it comes down to the law versus the gospel, the gospel will always win.  Yes, the law is there for a reason – two reasons, actually: to keep good order in society, and to drive us back into the arms of Christ.  So, you see, the gospel always trumps the law.  And even though you are dust, and to dust you shall return, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Abounding in steadfast love.

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