A Season to Remember: An Ash Wednesday Message to the Anglican Communities of Charlotte

Joel 2:1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Many of us instinctively feel the need for seasons. We can look at my own state of North Carolina as an example.  Sociologists call this the “J Curve” effect. New Yorkers head straight down 95 to Fort Lauderdale for early retirement. Then after so many years—or months—of “no seasons,” they make the curve and head back up, but not all the way. They end up making a “J” and land in North Carolina. Why? They feel the need for seasons. They may not miss scraping ice off of their windshields, so they don’t make the full loop back up to New York, but they miss the starkness of winter that gives way to the vibrant colors and budding new life of spring. They miss the summers of fireflies at night, and blue hydrangea, that changes to the foliage of autumn, with its quilt work colors of orange and reds yellows and browns, and that first northern wind that signals winter. They miss the rhythms of time, the cycles of life. With all due respect to Florida, I think that’s why North Carolina is growing in population! Seasons.

A lot of Christians feel the need for seasons also—seasons of the Christian year. Many of us have traveled down the I-95s of life, leaving behind frigid ceremonialism, to which we never want to return, and discover the perennial sunshine of evangelical preaching and worship. Yet after a while, we intuitively miss the rhythms of Scripture, the life of Jesus forming the community of the redeemed, the changing of Advent to Epiphany, Epiphany to Lent.

We are creatures made by God to live in cycles; if we fall out of the Christian cycle, we will invariably fall into the rhythm of the world, which is fast and can be harmful, leaving many of us feeling detached and empty. Some, indeed many, have left their homes for more seasonal climate churches. Others are recovering the liturgical seasons in their home churches.

We must remember the seasons of life and faith. There must be a season in our lives, not just to celebrate, but to think, to mediate, to recount our failings and Christ’s perfection, to acknowledge our sinfulness and the Lord’s forgiveness, to remember our need of Jesus Christ. If you don’t pause to observe the seasons of life, God will “pause” you Himself! This day of ashes is a day to remember and to reflect, something that is sadly forgotten in our fast-paced digital lives.  But Ash Wednesday, if it is a sincere day of remembrance, is stark, bare, unplugged, analog, vintage, ancient, different, anachronistic, and desperately needed in order to move on to the next season.

This is what God had called for in what appears from the text to be the Southern Kingdom with the prophet Joel. We don’t know much about Joel from the text, but as Peter quotes him on Pentecost and says that his words were being fulfilled on that day of divine visitation, we can say Joel was surely “a man for all seasons:” a Word from God for the season of ancient Israel, for the Day of Pentecost in AD 33, and for our day. In the reading from Joel we learn that the elders were to

“Blow the trumpet is Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation…” (Joel 2.15-16a).

Coming together in sacred assembly, in 2 Corinthians we are called to remember:

For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

Because of the sins that so easily beset us, the propensity to get caught up in the rhythms of the world rather than the rhythms of God, and because we must never forget the pressing demands of Jesus Christ to live life before Him, to respond to Him as His people and not to leave Him behind in a our fast-moving world, we need a time to remember.

As we consider this Scripture, let me share three things I encourage you to remember in this Lenten season.

1.  In this season, let us remember God’s call.

A sacred assembly had to be called by the elders to gather the people—young and old, we are told—to hear not just the judgments of God, but also the promises of God. In 2 Corinthians, Paul has had to write a very difficult letter to a church in conflict and an assembly led by antagonistic ministers, infested with false teachers and undisciplined immorality. His word to the Corinthians was a Word from God to stop them in their tracks, as it were. They had received the grace of God, he says in 6.1, but lest they receive it in vain, they must stop and remember that this grace needed to be recovered to deliver them from themselves.

“Behold now is the favorable time; behold now is the day of salvation.”

The context for this familiar quote of St. Paul is not an evangelistic rally at Mars Hill, but a message of warning to the Church.

They needed what we need and what we seek: to remember to remember. And that takes a trumpet; a call.

We need to remember who we are, who we were, and how God saved us. To do so is to stir the up the love of Christ within us.

Through the years, as a pastor, I had a peculiar marriage counseling methodology for couples facing a loss of love. I often found there needed to be a trumpet sounding and a call for sacred assembly, a word to remember that today is the day of renewal. The way I did it was to ask the couple, “What was your song when you were courting?” Sometimes the befuddled husband would look at me as if I had asked him a great existential, philosophical question. “Song? What song?” The wife might poke her benumbed husband in the ribs at that point. “You know! Our song!” “Oh, yes,” the husband would say, as he recovered from the stunning elbow of his wife. But he really had no idea. “Well, go on, tell the minister what our song was!” I finally asked a series of diagnostic questions until I got it out of him. “Oh, yes, I remember now,” he would say (sometimes they say this even if they don’t know, but it is safer than not knowing; it is also, in part, the reason that they are in martial conflict). Well, I would respond. “Sing it.” The husband would look at me like I am crazy. “You mean…?” “Right,” I would complete his sentence. “Sing your song, the song of your romance, when at first you fell in love with her. With some hesitation, and understandable awkwardness, the poor fellow would begin to sing, usually off-key, and barely audible except when the next elbow came from the “director of music” wife:

“Longer than…

“No, I don’t want to do this!”

His wife looked at him and would begin to sing again.

“Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean; Higher than any bird ever flew; Longer than there’ve been stars up in the heavens; I’ve been in love with you.”

Many times this song, this time to remember the season of God’s grace in their marriage, was enough to recover the joy of their marriage. I have seen broken marriages healed by the Lord, using the music of old songs. It all starts with a call to come home.

We all need to remember God’s call: the song of salvation in our lives. Do you remember the music of the Holy Spirit that swept over you as child when at first you heard of Jesus’ forgiveness and love? Do you remember the time of the lifting of burden, the sense of new life and hope that was given to you when your life was falling apart? Do you recall gripping that pew, perhaps when in your little country church, you were asked to step out and come kneel and commit your life to Christ? Do you remember Confirmation and the “renouncing of the devil” and public embracing of Jesus as Lord and Savior? Do you remember, with tender gratitude, walking into a bedroom to see your father on his knees praying your name before God? We need to remember. But more than remember, the remembering is a call to sing the songs of repentance of sin and faith in the life and death of Jesus our Savior once again.

Blow the trumpet. Call for a sacred assembly. Today is the day to sing the romance of the Gospel again in your life. Remember the call.

2.  In this season, let us remember God’s Grace.

The Sacred Assembly in Joel is to come and repent and to enjoy the healing of the Lord.

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2.12-13).

The centerpiece of this entire passage is a wonderful Hebrew word, hesed, or “steadfast love.” This is the unconditional, covenant love of God who would do for Israel what Israel could not do for herself: provide a life lived, commandments kept, and an atonement to take away sin. Theologically, in the New Testament, this covenant love is called grace.

Jesus Christ is the fullness of this passage.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1.14

Jesus Christ is the One, also, that Paul commends to the Corinthian church, as they are languishing in sin and bitterness and even moral impurity. Likewise, the urgent message of Paul to the Corinthian church is to remember,

“Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6.2).

It was only possible for Israel to return to God in penitence and true faith because of his grace. To know the grace of God, the steadfast love of God, is to be moved to return to Him and to love Him and to keep His commandments.

I was orphaned when I was a boy. My Aunt Eva reared me. The way she disciplined me was two fold: peach switches was one. I feared the peach switch that she would break off (or worse, would force me to break it off and give it to her) and strike on the back of my leg when I disobeyed her. Looking back I know that her discipline in that way would keep me from harm, even eternal harm. But the other way, the most powerful way she disciplined me, was with her love. She loved me unconditionally. When I did wrong, as a little boy, I just wanted to get up in her lap and tell her I am sorry for breaking her heart. She always received me back again. She was full of grace.

But as tender as the grace of our mothers or fathers may be, it cannot equal the grace and love of Jesus. This is why we hear his call and return to Him.

This is why we confess in our hearts and turn from our sins and come to Christ; the world has never known such love. It is a steadfast love, and oh what good news: the favorable time for you to know that love is today. Now is the day of salvation.

3.  In this season, let us remember God’s Justice.

The great force behind all of the events in our readings, behind the call to hear God’s grace in Locust ravaged Israel was God’s love; the call to stop, listen and learn that the day of salvation long hoped for, that “favorable day,” had come is, also, God’s love. But for God to show His love God had to show His justice. Thus we read in 2 Corinthians 5 those words that stretch the imagination of the most studied theologian and which defies everything we know of justice:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5.21).

Israel would not work to gain God’s favorable day. Nor could the Corinthians do anything to right the wrong of their sin. Nor can we. It takes love: a love like no other; a love that requires divine justice.

This justice was arranged before the world ever began when the Father made a covenant with Son attested by the Spirit that, in love, God would send the Second Person of the Trinity to become man without ever ceasing to be God. And this Christ would not only come in an ignoble and mean and low estate, He would be born amidst talk of shame. His own family would call him crazy. He would have no place to lay his head. Not only would this One be rejected by His own, but would be betrayed by His own, and God would not only be crucified by His own Creation, but Paul goes beyond that to say that in order for us to be saved Christ not only took our sin but became sin! Is there anyone here who can explain this? For the earth shook and the sky darkened at the sight of this inexplicable scene!

The question is: what must you do as you enter this sacred season?

The answer:  simply rest.

There is a story in Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, where the author, on a spiritual pilgrimage in a Benedictine monastery, immersed herself in the liturgy of the hours and of the cycle of prayer, work, study and play. She wrote about how at the end of a day, she went to Vespers. After a full day of work, she discovered that she was tired. She confessed that after dinner, as she worshipped, in the silence between the Psalms, she would often begin to fade and get nod towards sleep. She confided, with a troubled heart, about her fatigue at the end of the day to a monk, who responded with wisdom,

“For my part, when I see a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knee and let him rest.”

That, my friends, is what the Lenten season is really all about: remembering that in the gracious cycles of God’s grace, there is a time to lay our burdens down, to turn from our sins, to remember that we are but sinners saved by grace. Called. Pardoned. Justified.

Rest.

“The Party Has Only Begun”

(1) God’s call, (2) God’s grace, and (3) God’s justice, that sets us free to rest forever in Jesus Christ.

As a young man, I worked as a salesman in New Orleans. I remember the day after Mardi Gras, walking down Canal Street on my way to the office. Often I would see disheveled men and women wearing mismatching clothes squinting in the bright morning sun through bloodshot eyes.  These otherwise well-to-do businessmen and women would sometimes catch my eye. Do you know what I would see? Amidst dark circles below, there were smudges of fresh ash in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. Though I knew all about Ash Wednesday—you can hardly grow up in Louisiana and not know—I asked a young man, who looked exactly as I described, what those ashes meant to him. He smiled through the pain of his hangover and said, “Well, I guess it means the party’s over, man.”

What I have learned in the intervening years, is that when we honestly rend our hearts and not our garments, when the ashes or the Communion or hymn-singing means more than just going through the motions,  but is the heartfelt response to a personal call—I have learned that the party is not over. Far be it, for in Christ, it is just a beginning—the old season of sin is over. The real party has only begun.

This is what C.S. Lewis was getting at in The Last Battle

When Peter, Edmund, Lucy, Eustace, and Jill walked through the grim door that led them to discover that they were to stay in Aslan’s country, the new Narnia for all time. It is then that Aslan told them, “The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

As it was for Israel and Corinth, it is the morning; a time in our lives to remember that the Gospel of Jesus is leading us to a place we could only dream of. It starts with repentance. It leads to new life. And in Jesus Christ, this season is a season to remember.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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