Instructions for Lent

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ash Wednesday
March 2, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : The prophet Joel offers guidance that fits Ash Wednesday perfectly: Return, learn, gather and pray.

The instructions for life are easy to find, if you are interested in playing the board game called "Life." On your turn, spin the wheel and move your car forward. Move the number of spaces on the spinner. If your space is occupied, move on to the next open space. Choose whether you want to start your career or start college. Get married. Have babies. Buy a house.1 Those are the instructions for life -- if you want to play a board game.

But maybe you are looking for something that is more inspirational. The poet Mary Oliver once created a very short set of instructions for living a life: "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."2 Those instructions are useful for the lives we actually live, as opposed to the life that's found in a board game. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

Such guidance is nothing new. Long before Mary Oliver was born, the prophet Joel offered the people of Israel a set of instructions for life. He wanted them to be prepared for the coming day of the Lord, which he described as "a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!"3 He connected this day to a destructive locust attack that was afflicting the land, one that covered the mountains in a black swarm of insects. The locusts were eating vegetation like a hungry army, leaving nothing behind but destruction and desolation. In response to this threat, Joel asked the people to change their ways and return to God with fasting and mourning.

Specifically, Joel challenged them to return, learn, gather and pray . In a time of difficulty and danger, the prophet gave the people these instructions for life. They remain good goals for us today, especially on Ash Wednesday, as we begin the season of Lent and try to move closer to God. You could call them "Instructions for Lent": Return, learn, gather and pray.


Although we may not be dealing with a locust attack today, we face plenty of threats to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. The challenge for us is to shift our focus from the outside to the inside, from the physical to the spiritual, and to follow the guidance of Joel. First, we return to the God who says, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning." To return to God is to repent -- to turn around and go in a new and opposite direction. Novelist Ron Rash tells haunting tales of the American South, especially the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. "Evil always rises up," he says. "And yet there are always people who fight against it. I am fascinated by the war between what is best in our natures and what is worst."4 When we repent, we fight against evil, return to God and turn toward what is best inside us.

Although the word "repentance" is often understood to mean sorrow for sin, it really means turning yourself around and going in a new direction. When you repent, you cease doing evil and begin doing good. If you have been walking away from God, you turn around and return to the Lord. If you have been chasing the idols of money, power or prestige, you do a 180-degree turn and begin to pursue the ways of God. Repentance is all about returning to what you know is best. Returning to God with all your heart is the first step toward changing your life for the better.


After returning, we learn about the nature of our God, one who is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." These are the words used to describe God after the people of Israel sin by making a golden calf: God is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."5 Merciful, not wrathful. Slow to anger, not quick to condemn. Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, always working for good in our lives.

Lent is the perfect season to learn more about the nature of the God who sent Jesus to us. For the next six weeks, each of us can set aside time to read a book on the Christian faith, study scripture and deepen our understanding of God's grace, mercy and love. If you have always wondered about the basics of the Christian faith, spend some time with a book such as C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity . If you have grown up thinking of God as stern and judgmental, read the Bible and discover that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."6 Discovering that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and full of love is a critical step in personal transformation.


After learning about God, we gather as God's people, knowing that a transformed life must be lived in community. "Gather the people," says Joel, "Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast." Gregory Boyd is an introverted pastor who has discovered that he really needs to be with others. He is now part of an extended group of about 30 people that meets once a week. "We are made in the image of the triune God, whose essence is loving community," he concludes. "We are created for community."7 Such a community is not meant to be made up of people of one point of view or generational perspective, says the prophet Joel, but instead of senior citizens, middle-aged folks, children and even infants.

Each of us is made in the image of the God who is -- in God's own self -- a sacred community made up of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One of the symbols of the Trinity is a set of three interlocking circles, each of which represents one of the persons of the Trinity. Each is a distinctive circle, but each one connects to the other two, representing the close and loving relationship that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have with each other. Just as God experiences love in the community of the Trinity, we are invited to experience love in community. Every time we gather, we have the potential to grow closer to God and to each other. If we fail to gather, however, we run the risk of losing our connection to the God who experienced best in community.


Finally, after returning, learning and gathering in community ... we pray . Between the vestibule and the altar, Joel calls for the ministers to pray, "Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery." Such a prayer is called an intercession -- asking God to act in the lives of others. In Joel, the ministers are asking God to spare the people, but other intercessions can request healing, strength, peace or help.

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says that intercessions should "be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity."8 At the end of the day, we are supposed to pray for ourselves and others, asking for God to heal us and help us. As Henry Brinton writes in his book The Bible's Greatest Hits , we "pray for God to transform us into the people that God wants us to be."9

So often, we fail to pray for God to do the work of transformation in our own lives, in our communities and in our nation. We might not pray for politicians because we do not approve of their positions. We might fail to ask God to work for peace and justice in our communities because we fear that these requests sound too political. We might forget to pray for healing for ourselves or for a neighbor, because we put our hope in modern medicine. But intercessions should be made for everyone, because such prayers create a peaceful and godly life, and they help to transform us into the people that God wants us to be.

A great deal of positive change can happen in the season of Lent, because God is at work in the life of anyone who is willing to return, learn, gather and pray. The word Lent means "spring," so this season is meant to be a springtime of our souls -- a time of change, new life and spiritual growth. With God's help, we will walk with Jesus on the path to the cross and the empty tomb. The cross of ashes that is put on our foreheads today is a reminder that we are moving toward death and resurrection, on a journey that will help us to grow in faith and in understanding.

The promise of Joel is that if we follow his instructions, God will respond with mercy and love. Joel says that when the people of Israel returned, learned, gathered and prayed, then "the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people." This is our hope as well, as we begin this springtime of our souls. If we follow these Instructions for Lent, then we will experience real change in our lives -- change for the better.


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