[Listen to the sermon here.]
“Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).
Those ancient words from the prophet Joel go to the heart of the reason why we gather on Ash Wednesday. And that reason can be summed up in one word: repentance.
Repentance. That’s a word that may make some of us nervous. Perhaps it conjures up images of televangelists or street preachers hammering home fiery messages of condemnation while wielding big black Bibles. Talk of repentance may evoke feelings of guilt or shame. And we may wonder why anything like repentance is necessary in the first place. After all, doesn’t Jesus love us just the way we are?
And yet, it is Jesus himself who stresses the need for repentance. In his first appearance in the first of the Gospels, his first proclamation includes the exhortation: “Repent.” And the call to repentance remains central to his message thereafter.
Ash Wednesday confronts us with the stark truth we may try to whitewash or deny: that we are sinners who need to repent of our sins. Beneath the surface of the image of having it all together we project out into the world, we are desperate cases. We have a problem that no amount of education, therapy, or will power can eradicate, a predisposition to seek our own wills rather than the will of God, even when doing so causes pain and grief to ourselves and others. It’s a sickness unto death that goes to the very core of our being, distorting and at times severing relationships with God, with other people, even with all of creation. Again and again, we fail to do the good we know we should by falling back into the very patterns of thinking and behaving we know we should reject. And we are powerless to cure ourselves.
The call to repent is a call to healing. And the first step on the journey of healing is to take a hard look at the sin sickness that infects our hearts. The “Litany of Penitence” we will shortly pray serves as a mirror in which we can really see this truth about ourselves. It’s not a pretty picture. It shows us just how much cleansing and healing needs to happen.
That’s not about piling on guilt and shame. That’s about right diagnosis. For without the right diagnosis – without a true account of our condition in the presence of the One before whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid – we can’t take even the first step back home to God.
It’s only after seeing our true condition for what it really is – and just how deeply each one of us needs the healing of God’s grace – that repentance comes in. For repentance is about acknowledging the reality of the sickness that infects our hearts. It’s about admitting that we need change and transformation. Repentance is about turning away from paths that lead to death back to the way of life. It’s about forsaking self-destructive habits and behaviors. It’s about letting go of the futility and despair of trying to fill the emptiness of our lives with money, pleasure, power, or “getting it right.” And it’s an admission that we are not self-sufficient, that we can’t do any of this by our own strength, that we cannot cure ourselves.
We need help. We need someone we can completely trust to direct our lives along the paths of wholeness and righteousness. We need someone who sees inside our hearts, someone who knows the truth about who we really are and yet doesn’t turn away, someone who loves us so much that He’s willing to give his life that we may live, someone who has the power to touch, cleanse, and heal us.
We need a Divine Physician.
We need a Savior.
We need Jesus.
My friends, the season of Lent is about going back home to a gracious and merciful God. But in order to get there, we first have to come to terms with the path that takes us back to the Father’s house. That path is the way of repentance – the way of honestly admitting our sin sickness and turning our lives over completely to the One who alone has the power to heal us. That One is Jesus Christ.
To paraphrase St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Jesus is the physician who comes to the sick. He is the redeemer to those who have been sold, a path to wanderers, and life to the dead. Jesus is the One who casts all of our sins into the depths of the sea and who heals our diseases. And when our strength fails and we cannot carry on, Jesus is the One who carries us on his shoulders back to the source of our original worth.
During this season of Lent, may each of us encounter Jesus anew. May his healing love, mercy, and grace empower us to do the work of repentance. And as we make the journey back home, may our Lord set free us from the bondage of our sins, creating clean hearts and renewing right spirits within us, that we may come to know the joys of new and abundant life.