You know it is Ash Wednesday when the nail clippers come out and my thumb nail gets cut down as short as I can handle it. This is not only so that I don’t stab people in their heads while putting the cross on their forehead but because after my first Ash Wednesday I was bothered by the number of days the ash stayed under my nail. Really it does not matter how long or short my nail is, the black of the ashes stays for days.
I dislike dirt. I especially dislike dirt under my nails.
I was the kind of kid who wanted a washcloth outside with me…I would have done really well as a child of today with the baby wipes and handsanitizer.
I want things to be clean and tidy and as much as I can control them to at least have the appearance of perfection.
Life is not clean or tidy or perfect.
God does not use clean or tidy or perfect people as much as dirty, messy, on the verge of death people.
I am struck that in Isaiah 58, God’s people fast, thinking that as long as they appear to do what God wants of them they will make God happy. They miss the point. We miss the point.
The dirt is important. The ashes are important. Looking death in the face, feeling our own mortality, our weaknesses, our failures, the messiness of our life is important. It is only then we call out “Help me.” It is only then we hear God answer “Here am I.”
Only in the ashes, in the dirt, in the stains, do we move away from appearances and into truth.
God offers us a life that is more than “the yoke of oppression with the pointing finger and malicious talk.” We are given love. Grace. Help in the midst of our very real, very messy, very broken life.
Right about now…7:12ish PM on February 18th, I ought to be standing in the pulpit of Crewe UMC with a cross of ashes on my forehead to reflect on the words we should have just heard. My favorite words, the words I most often choose to say are “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel.”
The call in Joel 2 to blow the trumpet call to the community for repentance.
12“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
13Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
14Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.
As people of faith we are called to not only a pointing to the positive, speaking to hope, encouraging others (and ourselves along the way) but we are called to a life that is honest in all regards. The only way to return to God often is with fasting. With weeping. With mourning. With recognizing that we are far less the individuals than God desires us to be and that we can only be saved, not by our own heroic efforts but because God in his mercy and love has saved us. At some point we have to start with honesty about our own need for saving and the distance we really truly are from God because of our sin.
Along with the call to repentance, and I would argue equally important, Joel reminds us that God calls us not just to a right relation with Him, but His call is also a call to assemble.
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.
Too often we are ashamed of being repentant. Ash Wednesday is a nice break, a socially acceptable way to acknowledge our bent towards sinning. But the trumpet that blows on Ash Wednesday demands more of us than a ten minute ritual. It demands a willingness to be honest with ourselves about the distance we have put between us and God because of our sins and also the truth that God is asking us to assemble and walk with others who have less, as much and sometimes more distance than us. The call is not that we would journey alone. Ashamed that we are repenting. Ashamed that our sins have carried us so far away. Ashamed that we are more dust and mortal than holy and sacred. The call is that we would return, together. That our witness would help others and that their witness would help us. That the conversations along the way would bring us clarity in our journey and that we would be able to help someone else from turning back. We are not made to journey alone.
That is what Ash Wednesday reminds us. That while we are dust and to dust we will return, God has given us an incredible gift. His love. His Son. His community.