Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

Text: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17


The word “Lent” derives from the Old English word “lencten”, which means “the spring,” and was applied to March in which the greater part of the Fast from Ash Wednesday to Easter fell. Then the word came to be applied to the Fast itself. As we begin Lent, the Scripture lessons call us to a time of fasting, prayer, repentance and inner renewal. Just as a house needs spring-cleaning, because of accumulated dust and dirt, so Lent is given us by the Church as an opportunity for spiritual spring-cleaning and renewing ourselves before God.


As we read the news, or watch and listen to news of current events in the Church and the world, there is much that gives us cause to be sorrowful over the sinfulness of mankind. The prophet Joel issues God’s call to the whole land, not just to the priests. The blowing of the trumpet, or shofar, was intended to warn a whole city of impending attack and imminent battle. At the beginning of this second chapter of the Book of the prophet Joel, God’s warning is sounded to all the people of the land: “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand.” [1] Ash Wednesday may seem like a fast day observed only by a small part of the universal Church, and yet, if we keep it in a way that embodies sincere repentance in our lives, we may find ourselves setting an example to the rest of the Church, and to our nation, since everyone in Church and nation needs to examine himself in humility, and approach the throne of God to ask for mercy and help in time of need.


The Lesson from the prophet Joel is a dramatic and urgent call of all God’s people to repentance. The passage in Joel 2 between verse 2 and verse 12 has warned Israel of the coming Day of the Lord, a time of terrible judgment on sin. The Judgment is portrayed in terms of either a destructive locust plague or the invasion by Assyrian armies like a plague of locusts. Though the Day of the Lord refers to the ultimate Day of Judgment for the whole world, in Israel’s prophetic writings, the “day of the Lord” can mean any future day of judgment, in which nations are punished for their sins in various ways. The verses previous to the start of our passage describe the earth quaking, the heavens trembling, the sun and moon being darkened, and the stars failing to shine, the Lord executing his word, and then we find the statement, “For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; and who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11)

In view of all this, God calls his people to turn to him with all their heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning: to rend their heart and not their garments, and to turn to the Lord God, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” (Joel 2:14)

This, in a nutshell, is repentance, and the most radical of actions we can undertake as Christians. When we do this, we are acknowledging that none of us has by any means gone far enough in obedience to God. The Revised English Bible (1989)’s translation of Hebrews 12:4 clearly states the faithful’s reluctance to resist sin: “In the struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” We fall far short of God’s standards. By nature, man has turned himself away from God, indulging his own selfish will, as Isaiah testifies [2] , “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way….” Our sin has affected the natural world around us, since sin is not limited to the individual who sins, but affects family, church, society, environment and nation.

It is not surprising, then, but characteristic of God, who yearns to show mercy to mankind, to issue this call to all people: “Turn ye even to me with all your heart,…” The very One whom people naturally turn away from calls them to turn to Him!

But how must we turn to God? Not with compromise, not with self-satisfaction, not with pride. No rather, God calls us to turn wholeheartedly to him (“with all your heart”), that is, with all our will, our firmness of resolve to do His will. This turning to God will be accompanied by genuine sorrow for our sin, shown in fasting, weeping and mourning.

But lest anyone think that external signs of repentance are sufficient, He adds “And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God.” Normally in Israel’s tradition, the externals of repentance had been accepted as such, but in the prophetic tradition, we see the call for genuine repentance, as, for example through Isaiah, the Lord calls [3] for genuine fasting. Through Hosea, the Lord addresses Israel and Judah, “O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? For your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.” [4] The call to “rend your hearts and not your garments” is a call to genuine turning away from all sins, and to authentic obedience to God. Today it is still a clarion-call to a society that places more value on material things than on knowing and loving God and preparing for eternity.

Now there is a very significant reason to turn to God, and this reason appears in the words “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” This is the nature of God, that if we repent, He shows his kindness and stops the retribution that will come upon us when we continue steadfastly in our sins. At the end of the Litany, the Officiant prays a prayer which asks God to “turn from us all those evils that we most justly have deserved; and grant, that in all our troubles we may put our whole trust in thy mercy, and evermore serve thee in holiness and pureness of living, to thy honour and glory.” [5]


What will you do to turn to God this Lent? There various ways in which you can turn to God wholly this Lent. Begin by reading your Bible every day and spending more time in prayer daily. Then be led by the Holy Spirit to make the changes in your life that He is calling you to make.

[1] Joel 2:1b

[2] Isaiah 53:6

[3] Isaiah 58

[4] Hosea 6:4

[5] p. 59, The Book of Common Prayer, 1928.

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