Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.
I know. What a way to begin the season–darkness and gloom, devouring fire and flame, and desolate wilderness! I know what you’re thinking. Can we go back to that manger scene now? Can we go back to being bathed in light with the hope of the world nestled in our arms? Well, the problem, is that somewhere on this journey between seasons, we forgot. We forgot who and whose we were. Somewhere along the way we became self-sufficient and sure of ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we thought we had figured it out, thought we were so right. Somewhere along the way the trumpet announcing the birth of our Savior became our own horn. Somewhere along the way we forgot that we were blessed not by what God has given us but by what God has called us to do. You know–scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful, filling the hungry and sending the rich away. (Hmmm, that sounds distantly and vaguely familiar.) And now we sit in ashes wondering what to do next.
Lent is our chance to begin again. Because, think about it, those ashes that you are going to spread on your forehead today are what is left. They are what has survived. After all of the devouring fires scorching the gardens, they are left. They are the remnant. They are the hope for what will come next. So we begin our Lenten journey in ashes because we repent for what we have done. But that is not the end. God does not leave us on the ash heap alone. God picks us up and recreates us, walking us through the wilderness, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the Cross, to Life. The ashes are the beginning.
I’ve used this before on Ash Wednesday (and for those who will hear me later in the day, you have two more chances to hear it in a sermon!), but it’s such a great reminder, I couldn’t resist. A rabbi once told his disciples, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on their needs. When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “Ani eifer v’afar; I am dust and ashes. But when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or without hope, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha’olam…For my sake was the world created.”
So what will you do with what is left? What will you do with your share of ashes? Repent and turning–that is what this day is about. No longer do we wallow in morbid shame and guilt; no longer do we pound ourselves down for our past mistakes; no longer do we sit on the ash heap sullen and morose. This is the day when we begin to begin again. Pick yourself up! Dust yourself off! And start. This is the day when we begin the journey to life. But we are called to travel light. God has given what we need.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1: 46b-49)
As you begin this Lenten journey, what things do you need to leave behind? What things do you need to take with you? Remember, we are traveling light. The wilderness journey is long and difficult. But we are traveling with the one who created us and calls us to live life freely and blessed.
Grace and Peace,