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Ash Wednesday: February 21, 2007.

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

First Reading

Both Jesus, in the reading from Matthew, and the prophet Joel are calling for people's hearts to be turned toward God. The context of Joel's message is a locust infestation that, like other natural crises in the Old Testament, has brought at least the prophet, if not the people, to the realization that they have strayed from God. "Hearts turned to God" is a call for repentance. In Matthew, Jesus is teaching the crowd about the motivations and manifestations of faith. Practices like prayer, giving, and fasting arise from "hearts turned to God," not people concerned about themselves and their standing in the world.

The text from Joel begins with a prophetic announcement. The trumpet blast, the alarm, is a call to all the people. The prophet declares that the "day of the Lord is coming near" (v. 2). Joel follows the lead of Amos (5:18) and other prophets in portraying this day as something to dread rather than embrace. The prophetic word continues through the verses skipped by the lectionary, reiterating the prophetic declaration. This prophetic word turns to a priestly invitation in v. 12. Cultic acts and the proclamation of God's grace open the possibility of redemption. In v. 15, the prophetic announcement is renewed regarding the coming day of the Lord. However, note the change in tone. Where destruction was the key of the trumpet sound before the priestly verses, now a note of hope is sounded. This is not a transactional movement where the repentance of the people causes God to relent. However, without hearts turned to God, how will the people see the redemption if and when it comes?

Jesus' instructions offer a way to avoid the meaningless ritual Joel warns about in v. 13, "rend your hearts and not your clothing." Public displays of piety, in Jesus' day and ours, are often a means of public attention and heightened status. The end result is rewards that are both superficial and penultimate. This is what Jesus means by saying "they have received their reward" in v. 2. The end pursued by means of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving is to be eternal, aimed at the eschatological vision of the kingdom that pervades Jesus' preaching. When we aim toward the wrong goal, we miss the mark.

"Piety," as the Greek is translated in v. 1, refers to a healthy manifestation of righteousness, or God's justice. It is not filled with the negative connotations the word can bear for us today. This kind of righteousness is a common theme in Matthew. We can recall that Joseph, way back at the beginning of Matthew's story, was a "righteous" man--a pious man, in the best sense of the word.

Matthew's construction of the message of Jesus has a dual focus. Certainly, the strained relations with the synagogue in Matthew's world make this a bit of a polemic against conventional Jewish piety as practiced in a Roman culture. However, Matthew also aims the polemic at the constant temptation to this kind of heartless piety in his congregation (and ours).

The reading from 2 Corinthians connects with the other readings in its call to act as "ambassadors of Christ" (5:20) and its call to authenticity of action beginning in 6:4. Here, the character of piety is outlined. It produces hardship (vv. 4-5) and participates in God's character (vv. 6-7).

Joel calls for hearts turned to God through repentance and openness to God's ways. Matthew calls for our piety to flow from hearts turned to God and God's future. Paul knows that hearts turned to God will manifest God to the world.

Pastoral Reflection

Preaching from these texts on Ash Wednesday always seems strange. Talking about faith practices in a world that sees faith as a possession perhaps provides material for a book on preaching that could be titled People Are from Mars, Preachers Are from Venus. The obvious homiletical approach is to reintroduce, again, the rather foreign concept that faith is practiced. Growing data point to faith practices as means and marks of congregational vitality.

The practice Joel lifts up is repentance. It is brought about by a stiff dose of reality: locusts cover the land. As we look around the world today, signs of plague and destruction are all around. High doses of reality are available to us if we will but look. To speak of repentance meaningfully, we need to wrestle with the complexities and realities of the judgment that comes in the shape of locusts, or perhaps terror attacks, or, on this night, the ashes that speak of the certainty of death.

Joel sees the locusts as a reminder that destruction is real, that the world is beyond the control of mere mortals. Are the locusts punishment? Joel seems to think that they are--in the first part of the announcement. But he also sees them as an opportunity to turn to God, to repent, to set aside all hubris and pride and allow God to bring redemption through the locusts. Locusts can befall the faithful as well as the sinful. Only the repentant will be able to see how God will turn the devastation to new life.

Ash Wednesday, with its proclamation "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," brings us face to face with reality. It is a judgment. Repentance, as a practice, turns us over and over to the One who can make life from the dust and ashes. Perhaps this is a way of talking meaningfully about how hurricanes and the towering emptiness in the New York skyline after 9/11 are acts of judgment. They force us to admit we are not God, that destruction is what we humans are best at. They force us to turn hearts to God and repent that we might see what God will do. Note that Joel does not call only people he thinks are "evil" to repent, blaming them for the pests. It is an opportunity for each and every one of the people to reflect, turn, stand before the Lord in humility, and see what God will do.

What God will do is at the heart of what Jesus teaches us about prayer, fasting, and giving. These are not acts done to promote ourselves. We don't give away money at a press conference or while looking for a plaque to be raised in our honor. Instead, we practice now what is to come. In anticipation of the end of hunger through God's righteous hand, we experience the hunger that will be overcome. We pray "Your kingdom come" to remind ourselves that this is our goal and hope. We give to the poor because God's reign will bring an end to the unjust distribution of all that has been given to us.

Paul too sees the practice of faith as something that participates in the character of God. He also testifies to the reality that really practicing what we preach leads not to acclamation in the public square but to hardship and affliction, to a cross-shaped existence that is a paradox. We give away money in a world dedicated to accumulation. We pray in the face of hardship, relying on a faith that cannot be proved. We fast, denying ourselves the pleasures the world seeks. TVO
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Title Annotation:Preaching Helps
Author:Olson, Timothy V.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Dec 1, 2006
Previous Article:The Transfiguration of Our Lord: February 18, 2007.
Next Article:First Sunday in Lent: February 25, 2007.

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