It’s all a bit old fashioned. 

The Text: Joel 2:1-2; 12-17

Christmas is over.  The holidays have passed.  The recurring waves of heat ofgarth late summer and early autumn have well and truly set in.  It’s back to the daily grind of work.  And to top it off, Lent is here.  That church season of the year where it’s all a bit gloomy.  Lots of focus on Jesus’ passion.  The readings speak more of trial and suffering than joy and fulfilment.  And if we are not careful, we either sit around miserable because either we have convinced ourselves we should give up something we really like… or because we feel just a bit guilty that we are not as good as all those other Christians who have. 

On Ash Wednesday we hear a reading from the prophet Joel. What do we make of it? It’s a sort of ‘angry God’ reading typical of the no nonsense Lenten season.  It implores people to tremble, it speaks of a day of darkness and gloom, of clouds and blackness.  It tells us to fast, weep and mourn.  It’s not uplifting… indeed, many people in our world would say this sort of thing is the very thing that turns them off of God.  And many Christians would say “It’s best if we don’t spend too much time on this sort of thing – too much fire and brimstone is not good for getting people into God”.  “Besides”, they might go on to say, “it’s all a bit old fashioned.  We know a bit better now”.

Do we?  If we focus on that side, have we really heard the text?  I don’t think so.  So tonight we are going to explore this text, especially what it says about God’s work of repentance.  Why? Because  God’s work of repentance brings us back to life. 

In the text the prophet Joel speaks on God’s behalf at a ‘knife edge’ moment in Judah’s history.  The nation has just suffered an extensive locust plague.  This evil seems to be a result of their sin.  The plague is so extensive they don’t even have their grain and drink offerings to worship God.  So they are cut off from what they think will bring them back.  And worse is to come if they don’t repent.  More trembling, darkness and gloom.

But to stop and hear just that from this text would be an example of how good we are at hearing the law.  It would be to caricature God as angry and out to get humans.  In the same way, to treat Lent as a season in which we focus on a punishing God is to fall into a similar mistake.  But to treat Lent for what it is – a special season for self-examination, repentance and growth in faith and grace – is to find who God really is.  He is God for us.

 Our text from Joel draws us into this ‘God for us’.  For after this plague God calls his people to repent.  His call itself is super important.  That’s because it is our first hint of his grace working through repentance – grace found in the fact that it is God calling… In this call he is reaching out to us and making the first move.  Listen carefully to what the text says:

Even now declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart.  (Joel 2:12)

And did you hear   who the call is made to?  The call goes up to ‘consecrate the assembly’; that is, make everyone holy.  To make sure it   lists everyone from the elders to the tiny child suckling from its mother (v16)… even the bride and groom in the very process of getting married.  So encompassing and important is this call, everyone is to hear it and act.

And what are these acts?

 The word used for repentance literally means ‘to turn’.  Turn away from self and toward God.  God is asking the nation – and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, us – to turn onto his path.  But it’s not just a quick 180 like we do in our car when we realise we are going the wrong way.  It has a quality dimension to it as well.  This is because God is speaking of an action required of the heart.  He says “Return” – repent – “to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12b). 

And this is the crucial point.   The OT notion of the heart is so much more than just emotions and feelings.  It is also mind, intentions and will.  So let’s substitute those words into our text where the word heart appears.  It then reads: ‘Return to me with all your mind, intention and will’.  God doesn’t just want our sentimentality.  He asks us to hear his call and turn all our intentions and   our desires, to him.  God and his ways are to call the shots.  Not us.

Now it’s here that two things happen in this text.  There is the call for an outer and inner response. 

You’ll be familiar with the outer responses.  The sackcloth and ashes of Nineveh in Jonah is the classic outward sign of repentance.  Here in Joel, God calls the people to repent with fasting, and weeping and mourning.  We are physical creatures.  Doing things in practice helps reinforce what is needing to happen in our hearts.  This is why Luther can say in relation to fasting and other outward signs that they are fine preparation for communion , but that, nevertheless, faith is the more important.

And it’s here we come back to the heart.  God tells us in Joel to:

Rend your heart and not your garments (2:13)

Remember how the heart means ‘mind, intention, will’?  So here the Lord is reinforcing that we are to tear up our own mind, intention and will.  And he is contrasting it against tearing garments.

Rend your heart and not your garments (2:13)

In the Old Testament a sentence like that still means that it’s ok to rend the garments— it’s not excluded—but more important to tear up the old agenda and plans and turn to the Lord.

This is about going God’s way.  It is about trusting him.  This is about exercising our faith muscles… through his guidance and trusting in him.

God is more interested in whether our hearts have really inclined to him rather than whether we just look like it to outsiders.  Our gospel account tonight of Jesus teaching from the sermon on the mount showed that.  He said:… when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what it is doing (Matt6:3).

… when you fast… do not … disfigure [your faces] (Matt6:16)

But then, the question comes up… why tonight would we put Ashes on our head?  Isn’t it just another outward show of repentance that God isn’t interested in? 


Importantly, the imposition of the ashes signify something different to repentance, even though it is related.  They are an admission that God is God and we are created by him.  They are an admission that we know we will die, and that without him, we would be lost.  They represent that we are mortal.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  But they also represent that as his created beings we have put our trust in him.  In our deaths, when we return to the earth, we will return to him in every sense.  We will enter his steadfast love eternally.  And how do we know this?

Well let’s come back to Joel.  Despite the risk that we can make God out to be angry and stingy, based for example on a poor reading of texts like this one in Joel, in fact mostly this text is about God’s generosity.  For it goes on to say:

Return to your God for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love… (v13)

These words are God’s very self-identification.  They are spoken throughout the OT.  For example, remember when God passes in front of Moses on Mount Sinai?  This is exactly how he proclaims his name – his identity.  And God’s identity is ‘what he does’.

We have already seen how in this text we have a loving and gracious God that initiates repentance and includes everyone.  Here he is promising his steadfast love.  You might know this steadfast love by its other titles: his ‘undeserved love’, or simply, ‘grace’.  It is this generous God to whom we repent.  Not the angry and foreboding God.  For his actions show He is way more about mercy than anger.  They show he is patient.  Did he not give the Ninevites 40 days? Did he not give Judah 500 years between King David and the exile to Babylon?  That’s hardy impetuous is it?

No.  God is patient.  He is abounding in compassion.  As our text tells us, we have every reason to turn to him  because God himself turns around… For our text says he relents from sending calamity.

In fact, as history has shown, he has indeed relented from sending calamity.  Rather than sending calamity he sent his Son.  And in his son he has demonstrated his love for us.  St Paul declares in Romans:

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  (Rom 5:8)

So use this Lent as time to return to God.  Ask what it is in your will and intention you need to turn from.  Know that it is the Lord’s steadfast love and slow angering nature you are trusting in.  Of course, if you want to follow the practice of giving something up – for Christ gave up his life for us – use what you go without as a reminder to turn your intention and will to God.  Rend your heart and not your garments.  And if want to take something up – for Christ tells us to pick up our cross and walk – ask how whatever you take up will build your faith in him who saves. 

Whatever you do, bask in God’s grace as you “Rend your mind, your intentions, your will, and not your garments…” and hear clearly his promise through Christ that “he relents from sending calamity”. 

And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Ash Wednesday

Be merciful to me


The text for tonight’s message is based on Psalm 51.  dhuffUnder the heading of this psalm there is sub-heading.  “For the director of music.  A psalm of David.  When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba”.  Ouch!  That seems a bit blunt putting that kind of a heading on a song that was used in the temple for worship.  It says that David wrote the psalm and now every worshipper was reminded of his sin whenever they opened their hymnal scrolls to Psalm 51.  Can you imagine the worship leader saying to his congregation, “Let’s now sing the hymn that was inspired by the king’s confession to murder and adultery”?  In certain periods of history saying something like that would certainly have meant “off with his head”.

David had become the greatest king that the land of Judah and Israel had ever seen.  He had defeated the enemies both within and outside the land and brought wealth and prosperity.   

One day David caught sight of the beautiful Bathsheba from his palace roof, began an affair that led to a pregnancy, and to the death of Bathsheba’s husband.  The prophet, Nathan confronted David with his transgressions, telling a parable of two men, one rich and one poor.  The rich man, who had many lambs, took the poor man’s one lamb and slaughtered it to put on a feast for his friends.   David was furious, and then Nathan said to him, “You are the man!”  This revelation led to David’s act of repentance that is expressed in Psalm 51.  The psalm opens like this –

1 Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love.
Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!
2 Wash away all my evil and make me clean from my sin!
3 I recognize my faults; I am always conscious of my sins.
4 I have sinned against you—only against you— and done what you consider evil.
So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me.
5 I have been evil from the day I was born;
from the time I was conceived, I have been sinful.

These words are not some casual throw away lines that David rattled off to ease his conscience – perhaps a prayer that he has prayed many times as a kind of ritual that has lost its significance.  Rather this prayer expresses deep anguish and repentance. He looks into his own heart and at his life and the way he has acted and he only sees evil. 

I use the word ‘evil’ deliberately because it gets across the idea of perverse wickedness and sinfulness that is so opposed to what God wants and expects of his creation.  We are not talking about mistakes or errors or slipups or blunders that can easily be dismissed with an excuse or explanation or something like, “I can’t help it” or “Oops!” as if that makes everything go away. 

David is talking about ‘transgressions’ here.  He has gone to places where he should not have gone.  He has stepped over the line coveting another man’s wife, being overcome with lust, plotting and carrying out a man’s murder to get her – this is evil at its worst and David knows it as he says to God, I have sinned against you—only against you— and done what you consider evil. So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me”.

He offers no excuse.  Not even his words, “I have been evil from the day I was born; from the time I was conceived, I have been sinful” are an excuse as if to say, “Look, God, I can’t help it because I was born this way”. He is simply saying that he is a sinner through and through even from moment when he was first given life and not even conscious of the world around him yet.  There is no part of him that is not a sinner and there has never been a time when he has not been a sinner.

It’s true that many of us would say that we haven’t done anything as wicked and horrible as David did but the prayer that David speaks here in Psalm 51 doesn’t pick out the ‘big sins’ to bring to God in repentance.  He is talking about all sin, all transgressions. Whether big or small in our eyes they are all sin in God eyes; they are acts of stepping over the line – transgressions – or trespassing into places we ought not go.  That’s why he even includes the sin he wasn’t even aware of when he was a new born child, even the sin that was part of him while still in his mother’s womb. 

Sin isn’t a matter of individual acts; it is a condition; it is broken relationship between God and us.  We may not even be conscious of the sin in our lives and yet it is still part of us.  It is part of our being.  We are all tainted with sin.  It is something that has been handed down to us from generation to generation from Adam and Eve.

This inbuilt desire to sin becomes clear when we say and do things that are so wrong, so far away from the way God wants us to speak and act. 

The apostle Paul doesn’t beat about the bush and calls a spade a spade when it comes to sin.  In Galatians (5:19-21 CEV) he writes, “People’s desires make them give in to immoral ways, filthy thoughts, and shameful deeds”.  He then goes on to describe how sin causes people to hate one another, to be hard to get along with, to be jealous, angry, selfish, argumentative, say harmful things, lie, and so on.  He concludes, “No one who does these things will share in the blessings of God’s Kingdom”.  Paul makes it quite clear that a sinner cannot stand in the presence of God and cannot expect to inherit eternal life.

In Psalm 51 David poured out his heart to God. He knew that sin had taken control of his life.  In this prayer he admits that his sins are always there and that he can’t fix them.  He can’t hide them.  He thought he could because no one noticed what he had done.  But even though no one else knew what had happened, God knew.  God could see into his heart and knew that David, the one who was supposed to be a model to the whole nation of what it meant to be one of God’s people, had committed some terrible things.

We might be led to think the same thing.  Because no-one else sees our sin it’s okay.  It’s hidden away and it doesn’t matter.  But nothing is hidden from God and it does matter to him because sin destroys the happy relationship that God intended for us to have with him and the world he created for us and the people he placed in our lives.  He wants us to be happy and for us to be happy he has to deal with the evil in our lives.

With such terrible guilt weighing him down and knowing how much he had let God down and being aware how angry God must be, how come David has the nerve to approach God in the way that he has?  Why is David so bold in his prayer after making so many disastrous choices?  We see the answer in the opening line of his prayer where he says,
Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love.
Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!”

Caught up in sins of jealousy, lust, adultery and murder he had forgotten God but now he had come to his senses and realised anew what a powerful love God has for him and it is only in that love that he can even dare to come before God and own up to his sin.  Because of this love of God he can pray with confidence and without fear, Create a pure heart in me, O God, and put a new and loyal spirit in me”.

David’s prayer expresses very well our need to be made clean, to be washed and be made whiter than snow.  David knew that even though God is a holy and righteous God and is opposed to sin of every kind, he also knew that God is merciful and his constant love for even the worse sinner never flickers, dims or is extinguished.  David’s confession of the evil in his life is actually a response to the grace of God.  When we confess our sin before God we do so confidently because we know how much God is committed to us and is faithful to us. 

When we see the bleeding, dying Jesus we see what the grace of God has done for us and to what extent God was prepared to go to make things right again between us and himself.  Through his dying in our place the guilt of our sin was removed; we have been made new and clean and fresh again – holy and spotless in the eyes of God.  David uses the words “wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” to illustrate the total removal of the stain of sin and the renewal of our lives with God.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation leading up to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. As we begin this journey we do so knowing that even though we are sinners “God is gracious”.  Without this knowledge we despair.  With this knowledge, we have the confidence to continue the journey, knowing that God’s steadfast love is ever present with us.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy.

Ash Wednesday

Jesus tells us, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.”

(John 6:29 NLT)

Through the Scriptures, we are witnesses that Jesus entered humanity and took our sin to the cross so that we can be in a new relationship with God.


  A relationship that is characterised by God’s forgiveness of us and our acceptance of God’s love. Today, as we gather on this Ash Wednesday, may the grace and peace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, be with us always.  

Let’s join in a word of prayer: God our loving Father, on this occasion, we gather to remember the life and teaching of Your Son who was born into humanity for our salvation.    By your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to the words of our Saviour, as we experience your love for us demonstrated every day of our lives. Gracious heavenly Father, hear our prayer for the sake of our risen Lord.  Amen.

Jesus tells us, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.” Jesus affirms that many would come to Him in faith, because of the Father’s grace.

The weakness we experience in our lives and our faith from time to time will never keep God’s grace from working. When we come to Jesus, we find that God does not turn us away, nor cast us aside.

One young lady, Charlotte Elliott, learned an important lesson about Jesus one sleepless night in 1834. She was an invalid, so when her family held a bazaar in Brighton, England to raise money to build a school, she could only watch from afar.

That night she was overwhelmed by her helplessness and could not sleep. But her sadness turned to joy when she realized that God accepted her just as she was.

Her experience inspired these well loved words: “Just as I am, without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”  

(Source: from Dennis Davidson, “What Bread Are You Seeking, 7/27/08)

When we begin thinking that we are unworthy of God’s care and concern, we are approaching dangerous temptation. It is probably the most dangerous thinking that leads to the temptation to doubt God, and his love for us.

For a person to stand before God and say, “I am not worthy of your love”, it’s incompatible with our Christian faith.  And yet we know from Scripture that we are only worthy of God our Father’s grace and love because of the faith that we have in the one whom God has sent to us.   

It’s pretty clear to us that a Christian is someone who stands before God and says “there’s everything wrong with me. But your Son, Jesus Christ my Lord,  has overcome all that is wrong in me.”   The only work God wants from us: “Believe in the one he has sent.”

Once again on this Ash Wednesday, we confront all that is wrong with each of us and all that is right about God’s love for us expressed in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The message of Ash Wednesday is all about turning our attention away from our self-centred thinking that we are unworthy to focus on God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  On the wondrous gift to us that removes every doubt and fear; that gives us courage to live in the protection and love God our Father has for us:   Jesus Christ our Lord.

The message of Ash Wednesday is also about turning our attention away from our spiritual weakness and helplessness to the power and authority of the Holy Spirit.

The message of Ash Wednesday is about turning our attention away from our misguided actions and attitudes, to focus on the life, teaching, and sacrifice of our Savour, Jesus Christ.

For us tonight, we hear the words of Jesus Christ “To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” We hear his words, and we receive an uplifting of our faith in a Saviour who loves us, accepts us, and forgives us.

For us tonight, we also discover the wisdom of Paul to the Church at Corinth, ‘We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’

Yes, tonight, we set our hearts to refocus our attention during Lent.  To focus on God’s Son who has made all that is wrong in us to be a witness for our need of a Saviour.  To allow the Holy Spirit to work in us to overcome all that is wrong so we can be more and more like Jesus. 

We turn away from our sins of fear, anxiety, and doubt to accept the forgiveness received because of God’s own sacrifice. 

And then we focus on Jesus.  Filling our lives with acts of faith, of hope, of kindness, with joy in our hearts that God our Father is so kind to us.

The ashes of our celebration tonight remind us of the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives.  Each time we touch our forehead and feel the grit of the ash we remember the sin that brought Jesus to sacrifice himself.  We also remember that we have the sign of Jesus over us.  We are his and he is ours.  We live under the banner of our faith with words, actions and attitudes that line themselves to the will of God our Father.  An outward sign of the inward repentance and renewal received by God’s acceptance and forgiveness. 

So we receive the ashes on our forehead in the sign of the cross to be a sign to us and to each other that we are accepted and forgiven by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross of crucifixion.

Throughout the journey of the next 40 days leading to Easter, we will focus on all that Jesus gives us, that makes all the difference in our lives. 

The grace and peace of God keep our hearts and minds in the calm assurance of eternal salvation in our living Lord, Christ Jesus.   Amen.

David Thompson.