Revised Common Lectionary: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Narrative Lectionary: Jesus Turns to Jerusalem, Luke 9:51-62 (Psalm 5:7-8)
The prophet Joel warned of the day of the Lord, the day of judgment in 2:1-2, 12-17. This is the time, the prophet called out, for the people to change their hearts, to take on fasting and mourning as outward shows of remorse and repentance. If they turned back to God, perhaps God would not bring about destruction, and God would hear the cries of the people and the sincerity of their heart. Joel called even the priests to participate in the mourning and fasting, to gather the people in a solemn assembly and seek God’s mercy. The prophet called the people to appeal to God, for surely God would want to be known to the world, and how could that be if God wiped out the people who worshiped and knew God?
God declared to the prophet Isaiah what a true showing of humility and penitence was in 58:1-12. Those who declared themselves humble did so to show off, and those who fasted so others could see were not truly repenting before God. Rather than a showy display of sackcloth and ashes, God desired a loosening of the bonds of injustice and letting the oppressed go free. To turn God’s anger, the prophet suggested feeding the hungry, bringing the homeless indoors, and satisfying the needs of those who were suffering. God will restore what has been broken, and those who are faithful to God in this way will be called “repairers of the breach” (58:12).
Psalm 51 is attributed to David, written when he recognized his own sin of adultery and murder. Whether it was written by David or not, the psalmist has recognized that what they have done has separated themselves from God and they long to make this right. They come before God understanding they have been a lifelong sinner, and desire for God to purify them, to have a new heart and spirit before God. The psalmist pleads with God to not turn them away because of their sins, but instead to deliver them from their wrongdoing and be restored in relationship with God. The psalmist recognizes that no ritual act will make this right; they must turn from their sinful ways and turn their heart to God.
Paul urged the church in Corinth to be reconciled to God in 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. Paul used his ministry as an example—he and his companions suffered, but no one could complain they were not living into Christ’s ways because of it. Paul urged the church in Corinth to do the same. He and his companions told the truth, shared the Gospel, cared for one another. Some thought them to be false witnesses of the Gospel, but there was nothing that Paul and his companions did that could be disputed or used against them.
Jesus warned against making one’s faith practices for show in Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, because then it wasn’t about drawing closer to God but looking better in front of others. Instead, Jesus taught a practice of humility, of not drawing attention to one’s self, but instead to give in secret, to practice fasting and private prayer that gave attention to God.
The Narrative Lectionary focuses on the shift in Jesus’ ministry to turn to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51-62. When Jesus’ disciples encountered a Samaritan village that refused to welcome them because Jesus was going on to Jerusalem, James and John suggested raining down fire on the village. However, Jesus rebuked them. The Samaritans, who did not view Jerusalem’s temple as the only temple to worship God, did not agree with Jesus’ desire to go there. James and John, called “Sons of Thunder” in Mark’s account (Mark 3:17), were known for their temper. Instead of calling down fire from heaven, they moved on to another village. Others wanted to follow Jesus, but they were all concerned about worldly things. When Jesus told them that to follow him, they had to leave everything behind, many could not.
In Psalm 5:7-8, the psalmist sings of entering God’s temple to honor God, as opposed to those who follow the ways of violence and are dishonest. The psalmist prays for God to lead them in the way of righteousness, to make their pathway clear.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the forty days before Easter, excluding Sundays. Sundays are seen as mini-Easters, a time of breaking the fast and celebrating the resurrection. During the season of Lent, Christians are reminded to draw closer to God. Traditional practices of fasting and prayer and giving to those in need can help us draw closer to God, as long as that is their intention. If we practice them so others take notice, we’ve drawn attention away from God to ourselves. However, there are many ways to fast and pray. The prophet Isaiah, like Amos, noted that God prefers our actions that bring justice for the poor and help those in need to traditional practices of sacrifice and piety. In contrast, the prophet Joel reminds us that collective fasting and mourning as a people can show God our communal need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. There are many ways to observe Lent. With the practice of marking our foreheads with ashes, we are reminded of our own death, as Jesus began his journey toward Jerusalem and his death, and that death does not have the final word. We are marked with ashes as a symbol of repentance, turning back to God who made us from the dust of the universe, and makes us new again.
A simple service for Ash Wednesday
Call to Worship (from Psalm 51:10-12, 6)
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Prayer of Invocation
Holy One: we are always in Your presence. In this moment, may we be aware of You as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We were created in Your image, born as You were, and we know that death awaits us. In this brief span of time, may we turn back to You in a spirit of repentance and renewal. May we remember that we are Your beloved children, and we belong to You, in life and death. Holy One, make Your presence known to us, now and always, as we worship You. Amen.
Hymn: Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days
Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Creator God, we come to You on this Ash Wednesday, remembering that You made us from the stardust of the universe, and to dust we return. In this brief moment of time, our lives are a gift from You, but we have squandered that gift. We have turned to the ways of the world, seeking wealth and notoriety, worldly comforts and desires. We have turned from Your commandments, Your ways of love, justice, and mercy. We have turned to selfishness and greed.
We now enter a time of silent confession of our sins:
We repent, O God. We repent of our worldliness. We repent of the systems and structures humanity has created that exploit others to create wealth for a very few. We repent of the worldly measures of success that pit us against each other. We repent of white supremacy that has manifested in our lives as privilege for those with lighter skin and oppression for those with darker skin. We repent of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and all the ways we despise, hate, and reject our siblings in You. We repent of genocide and colonization. We repent of the mechanisms of wealth that create poverty, hunger, and homelessness. We repent of our fears that stigmatize those with mental illness. We repent of ableism. We repent of our sin, our complicity in the systems around us. We repent to our very bones, made of the stardust You created the universe with. Wash our hearts, O God. Make us clean. Turn us back to You. Transform our hearts to love with the love You have for us, O God. In the name of Jesus, who bore the cross for us and calls us to deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him, we pray all things. Amen.
Scripture: (one of the readings above)
Imposing of the ashes:
These ashes remind us that all things come to an end, and all things begin again. Stars are born, and then they die. The dust from exploding stars becomes the building blocks of planetary bodies, written into our DNA, our very bones. We are born and we breathe, and then we die, ceasing to breathe. But we will become a new creation. These ashes remind you that You are God’s beloved child, made from the dust of the earth, the dust of the universe, and you will return to God’s care at the end of your days. These ashes are a symbol of your turning back to God’s ways, and renewed trust in the Creator of the Universe.
Impose the ashes with these words (they can also be imposed by one’s self during Covid restrictions):
(Name), You (I) have come from the stardust of the universe, and to the stardust you will return. Repent, and believe in the good news.
Blessing (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24):
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and will do this.
Closing Hymn: I Have Decided to Follow Jesus