Today marks the first day of the season of Lent — 40 days that end on Holy Saturday.
The significance of those 40 days is because that’s how long Jesus was tempted in the wilderness,
And on the fortieth day, Jesus began his ministry.
In a nutshell, we could say Jesus fasted, turned from temptation, then obediently followed God’s call for his life,
and — Praise God — for our lives as well.
As we know, the first day in Lent is also Ash Wednesday.
Not ironically, we also fast, repent — that is, turn away from temptation to sin — and then we, too, obediently follow God’s call for our lives.
And isn’t that why we’re here this morning?
Or is this some seasonal routine or practice we go through — who knows — even half-heartedly?
I’m not judging… you’re all here at 7:30 on a cold winter’s morning.
And I’m certain it’s not because of the oatmeal….
Nothing against the oatmeal… It’s just that you can get that at home or down the block at Cool Beans.
A significant day.
It’s the halfway point of the week.
And doesn’t that just speak volumes to our lives?
One of the most prolific theologians of our day, Walter Brueggemann, writes:
“This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.”
I think that’s especially significant today, when we gather here on the first day of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, with the unfortunate risk of only coming halfway.
And how do we come only halfway to God?
Well, we fail to understand the full significance of why we’re here today.
The ashes harken to Genesis 3.19:
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken;
you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It’s a morbid thought, to think about our very ends.
And it’s rough to consider that we risk coming only halfway to a God who created us and command us not to come only halfway.
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
That’s halfway. Lukewarm — neither hot nor cold.
And what was it that the prophet Joel (or Jo-El — the Lord is God) tells us in our reading today?
Joel is addressing Judah, which has become lukewarm.
Judah, which has only come halfway.
God’s people, suffering now in the Promised Land.
Being spit out by God.
James Crenshaw, in his biblical commentary in the NRSV, tells us:
“…insincere worship; religious syncretism, excessive ritual and cultic self-sufficiency, breach of covenant, failed leadership, presumption rising from election, and reluctance to be identified with a powerless deity.”
Does any of this resonate with us?
Does any of that sound a whole lot like what’s happening in our world today?
And even in our churches?
We could take Crenshaw’s outline systematically and compare what Jesus teaches and what we believe as our Creed against how we actually live in this world and how we treat one another and all of God’s creation.
We are here this morning, brothers and sisters, taking our first step into the wilderness.
Forty days, forty years, I don’t know…
But I feel pretty strongly that if Jesus went halfway in his wilderness, or halfway in his ministry, or only halfway to the cross, today would be a whole lot different.
You see Joel is calling all of Judah to turn away from that kind of spiritual apathy.
To repent. Literally means to turn away.
He’s calling Judah to remember their covenant with God.
How God called them out of slavery to be God’s chosen people.
And they forgot.
They took it for granted.
They became complacent.
They went halfway.
In Brueggemann’s words: “…half turned toward you, half rather not…”
But Joel tells them to gather all the people.
Let them pray to God.
“Let them say ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.’” Verse 17.
There’s still hope, Joel says.
As long as we go the distance.
That’s why we’re here today.
We’re called to go the rest of the way.
And in so doing, to consider our context.
Because we can’t possibly know how far along we are if we don’t consider what’s behind us and what’s ahead.
Our location matters here.
Some of us, perhaps, are going to start fasting for these 40 days.
We’ll give up something or take something on.
Whatever it is, take it to God first.
Whether it’s forgoing chocolate or french fries.
Whether it’s a change of heart.
Whether it’s spending an hour in prayer and devotion to God each morning.
Whether it’s giving of your time to those who need it most.
Know that your location is much bigger than these 40 days.
That God calls us all to run with great endurance that race set before us.
That we recommit ourselves to God each and every day.
We recommit ourselves to our families, to our churches and to our communities.
That we recommit ourselves to working for justice and standing in true solidarity of those who we’ve forced onto the margins.
To not run out of Sunday by Wednesday.
Joel tells us:
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.”
“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (2. 12-13)
Today is that time to recommit ourselves.
Let the ashes that we wear remind us that we have come only halfway,
and there is much work and much distance before us.
The people of Judah to whom Joel pleads have walked around with eyes half-opened for too long.
Let our prayer, too, be that our eyes be once again opened wide,
that we can see the work that we must finish,
the problems and challenges in our world that demand our whole attention,
our very half-built hearts that need edification to fully grow into all that God calls us to be.
Let us not walk out of these doors today half-heartedly.
Let these ashes remind us aways that between the dusts our existence, we are led by a wonderful, loving, caring and eternal God,
who through the blood of his own Son and the power of the Holy Spirit went the whole distance for us
that we truly can go the whole distance and expand God’s kingdom for all people, always.