Come Back to Life

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In the season of Lent, our merciful Lord invites us to return to him so that he can help us. God desires that we come back to life, back to loving and back to our best selves in the community of faith.

After two full years of pandemic difficulties, a thirty-second commercial ran across the United States. The narrator said, "We need to come back to feeling our best selves again ... Back to loving ... Back to life." The message was positive, upbeat and almost spiritual. But it was not a religious organization that was sponsoring the commercial. Instead, it was the Jamaica Tourist Board, inviting people to come back to the island for a vacation. "While everyone has been impacted by the pandemic," said the minister of tourism, "we want to let everyone know that Jamaica is good for the spirit."1

The prophet Joel delivered the same sort of message to the people of ancient Israel. He lived in the time of a great locust plague, which was every bit as devastating as the coronavirus pandemic. Joel saw the plague as the beginning of the judgment of God, and he called for the entire nation to repent and come back to the Lord. "Yet even now, says the Lord," through the prophet Joel, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment." God wants his people to come back to him, not because he wants to punish, but because he wants to offer mercy. God desires a complete return, not just with fasting and morning, but with a change of heart: "rend your hearts," says the Lord, "not your clothing."

This is an attractive offer. Our gracious, merciful God wants us to return to him so that he can help us. "Come back," God seems to be saying. "I can offer you something infinitely more valuable than a week in Jamaica. Come back to loving ... back to life ... back to feeling your best self again. All you have to do is return to me, return to me with all your heart." It is not just the island of Jamaica that is "good for the spirit."

Change is difficult

But will we return to God? We do not hesitate to go online and book airline tickets to Jamaica, but we have a difficult time answering God's invitation to "come back." T.S. Eliot begins his poem "Ash Wednesday" with the words, "Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn ...." Eliot is stuck. He doesn't feel he can turn or change. He doesn't even have hope that he can move in a new direction. For him, and for all of us, change is difficult.

Eliot goes on to say, "I rejoice that things are as they are and / I renounce the blessed face / And renounce the voice / Because I cannot hope to turn again."2 The poet's complaints are familiar to us. "What does it matter?" he wonders. "Whatever happens in this particular time and place doesn't really have any ultimate significance. Things are okay the way they are ... not great, but okay. Why bother changing? Why even worry about hoping to change?"

Back to our best selves

Change is certainly difficult. No doubt about it. But if we learned anything during the pandemic, it was that things are not okay the way they are. Our sense of community was shattered by the shutdowns of churches, schools and businesses, and our return to normal has taken far longer than anyone predicted. "Blow the trumpet in Zion," says Joel; "consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast."

Our Christian community depends on calling assemblies and gathering people. We cannot be the church unless we "assemble the aged" and "gather the children, even infants at the breast." In the New Testament, the Greek word for church is ekklesia, which literally means "the called-out ones" -- a group of people who have been called out to a meeting. When you say you are going to church, you are really saying that you are going to an assembly, a gathering, a meeting. In colonial America, New England churches were often called "meetinghouses," which captures this idea of the church being a gathering or an assembly.

The prophet Joel knows that we cannot be our best selves if we are living in isolation. When we gather as the church, we are much stronger as a community than we could be as individuals. We are able to offer each other support, and to hold each other accountable. We rejoice "with those who rejoice" and "weep with those who weep."3 Meeting as the church, we are able to be the body of Christ in the world, acting as the hands and feet of Jesus. "We need to come back to feeling our best selves again," says the Jamaica Tourist Board. Yes, that's right. But we don't experience our best selves on an island. We experience it in church.

Back to loving

Joel goes on to say, "Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy." The prophet is saying that everyone needs to gather and be part of the community that returns to God. There should be no exceptions: It does not matter if you are a senior citizen, an infant or a newly married couple. When we come back to the Lord our God, we are returning to a God who is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love."

When we come back to God, we come back to loving. This is not a return to the romantic love portrayed in the Jamaica commercials and celebrated on Valentine's Day, which is the holiday competing with Ash Wednesday this year. Instead, we come back to the strong and determined love that begins with God. When Joel speaks of "steadfast love," the original Hebrew word is hesed. This is a word that communicates a love that is much more than a romantic or sentimental feeling. Hesed is often translated as mercy or kindness or lovingkindness.

There is eagerness and intention in hesed. It is a choice that God makes, to show mercy and kindness and steadfast love to us. And it is a choice that we are asked to make in our relations with one another. God does not want us to show judgment and cruelty and hatred toward one another. Instead, God wants us to act with mercy and kindness and steadfast love.

These sorts of actions are so important in the eyes of God. And they are so different from the ways in which people tend to treat each other today, both online and face-to-face. If you feel tempted to criticize someone or lash out at them, it would be good to ask yourself, "Am I acting with mercy and kindness and steadfast love?" If not, hold your tongue. Stop typing on your phone. Follow the guidance of Joel and come back to loving.

Back to life

Ash Wednesday is a good day to come back to our best selves, back to loving. It is a day to stand with the priests and ministers of ancient Israel and say, "Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery." On this day, we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We ask for God to show pity on us, and to forgive our sins. We realize that we are completely dependent on God for faith, for life and for salvation.

The tagline for the Jamaica campaign was, "Come back to the vibe that comes alive." The minister of tourism said that it was on the island that people can "realize their most valuable human potential."4 But this is only partially true. Our most valuable human potential is realized by coming back to God. It is released when we love the Lord our God and love our neighbors as ourselves. It is fully experienced when we gather in Christian community and share the grace, love and justice of Jesus with the world around us. We become the very best versions of ourselves when we return to God. When we come back to God, we actually come back to life.

During the season of Lent that lies before us, let us find new life by bonding with God through daily prayer, seeking Christian formation for ourselves and for our children, showing love and support to persons enduring hard times, making worship a priority and reaching out to people both inside and outside the church.

Lent is a time of tension: Not between birth and death, says T.S. Eliot, but between "dying and birth." In a kind of prayer, he concludes his poem "Ash Wednesday" with the words: "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still / Even among these rocks / Our peace in [God's] will."5 May we each find peace in coming back to life, back to loving, back to our best selves and back to God's will.