Ash Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 103 or 103:8-14
II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Saint Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Background: Penance

The practice of penance, a repentance of sins, hovers around several interpretation among Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans. The controversy that surrounds the use of “good works” and the role of “faith” among catholic and protestant theologians is the cause for the inexact identification as to its sacramental or non-sacramental nature. Amongst the orthodox, Confession is seen as an admission to Christ about one’s state of sin, with the priest serving as a witness and advisor. Anglicans have long had rites that allowed for confession and absolution in the Book of Common Prayer. It was not without controversy, however, especially during the latter half of the nineteenth century with the reaction to the tractarians and their restoration of “catholic” practice. Lutherans see in repentance an act of contrition and an act of faith, while in the Roman Catholic Church the idea of penance embraces a number of different acts – including the sacramental act of Penance. In the church’s year, the seasons of Advent and Lent both have a focus on penance and on penitential acts, although the penitential nature of Advent has been largely diminished in the liturgical reforms of the latter part of the twentieth century.

First Reading: Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near--
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
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.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, "Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
`Where is their God?'"

There is an aspect to Joel that is utterly Lutheran, and that is its two major emphases, the first being Joel’s announcement of God’s judgment on human sin, and the second being an announcement of God’s grace and mercy to those who have sinned. The book was written in a relatively quiet time in the life of Judah, when it was largely a backwater of the vast Persian Empire (ca. 500 – 350 BCE). The second temple exists, and becomes of setting for some of the oracles. The reading for this day consists of three pericopes, the first being “The Day of the Lord” (2:1-11), the second being two small passages (2:12-14) “What Might Have Been”, and the third being “The Call to a Fast of Lamentation” (2:15-17). The greater part of the first pericope has been elided by the Lectionary, and focuses on the Day of the Lord, which is introduced by the prophet in the first chapter (1:15). It is both introductory and descriptive in nature, and leads us on to more substantive material in the later verses.

The section from the second pericope focuses on the history of Abraham and his people. It is a call for contrition and repentance, and like the latter prophets calls for a more spiritual understanding of repentance, rather than a real “rending of garments.” The theme is best expressed here, “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?” There is a conditional hope centered on God’s mercy and kindness. This possibility prepares us for the third part of the reading, the actual return of the people to God. We see it in the temple ceremony “between the vestibule and the altar.” Here we see the results of the trumpet blown in Zion, and of the announcement of the great penitential act. The people have gathered, and now make their prayer, “Spare your people, O Lord.”

Breaking open Joel:
1.          What kind of hopes do you have of God?
2.          What do you do with the sorrow in your life?
3.         What do you do with your emotions when you’ve done something wrong?


Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
"Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

In this reading, one of the later Isaiahs describes to us “Fasting that is pleasing to God.” Again, we see a spiritualized understanding of the act of fasting with some rather real expectations of what it should actually encompass. Verses 6-7 describe these acts in detail, the freedom that comes with true penance, and sharing that must happen amongst the forgiven community. What follows in the latter verses of the reading are promise that follow the community’s true fast. Israel will not longer have a silent or absent God, but rather one who answers and guides. The ruined community, not just its buildings and walls, will be restored by these acts, and the people will have a new name, “repairer of the breach”.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.     Do you ever abstain from something for spiritual benefit?
2.     If you do not, why not?
3.    What benefits do you hope to have from fasting?

Psalm 103 or 103:8-14 Benedic, anima mea

     Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
2      Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and forget not all his benefits.
3      He forgives all your sins *
and heals all your infirmities;
4      He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
5      He satisfies you with good things, *
and your youth is renewed like an eagle's.
6      The Lord executes righteousness *
and judgment for all who are oppressed.
7      He made his ways known to Moses *
and his works to the children of Israel.]
8      The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
9      He will not always accuse us, *
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
10    He has not dealt with us according to our sins, *
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
11    For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
12    As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
13    As a father cares for his children, *
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
14    For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
[15   Our days are like the grass; *
we flourish like a flower of the field;
16    When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *
and its place shall know it no more.
17    But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who fear him, *
and his righteousness on children's children;
18    On those who keep his covenant *
and remember his commandments and do them.
19    The Lord has set his throne in heaven, *
and his kingship has dominion over all.
20    Bless the Lord, you angels of his,
you mighty ones who do his bidding, *
and hearken to the voice of his word.
21    Bless the Lord, all you his hosts, *
you ministers of his who do his will.
22    Bless the Lord, all you works of his,
in all places of his dominion; *
bless the Lord, O my soul.]

There is an intimacy and a foundation in the first verse that helps us to see the fundamental nature of what the psalmist is saying here. The word “soul” slips off our tongue too easily, and so we miss the intent of the verse. It is our very being, or essential self that is called upon to bless the Lord. What is the perspective of the psalmist here – why such an extravagant call to worship? Perhaps this psalm of thanksgiving is the result of a delivery from illness or a grave problem. It doesn’t really matter, for the psalm becomes applicable to a God who repairs, forgives, restores, dispenses mercy. And it is not focused only on the details of an individual situation, but has a broader almost cosmic scope of thanksgiving. “Bless the Lord, you angels of his.”

Breaking open the Psalms:
1.         How is God a part of the essence of your life?
2.         What is an outstanding moment in your life when God seemed to intervene and help you?
3.        How did you give thanks?

Second Reading: II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

"At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you."

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

The theme here is reconciliation. It is Paul’s vision of the Day of the Lord. Unlike Joel, it is seen solely as a day of salvation. “We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.” So there is no reason why the Christians of Corinth cannot be reconciled to the God who has redeemed them. Paul guises himself as God’s friend and their friend as well – a friend who has offered himself up in so many ways: afflictions, hardships, etc. Paul shows the contrasting nature of what it means to follow Jesus, indeed to be Jesus (“made to be sin, who knew no sin.”) And so we continue in that vein, sorrowful/rejoicing, poor/rich, having nothing, having everything. Life in Christ is lived in such a context and confusion.

Breaking open II Corinthians:
  1. When have you been reconciled to someone else?
  2. What was the cause of the parting and then of the reconciliation?
  3. How have you been reconciled to God?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Today’s reading is a continuation of the Great Instruction that Jesus offers as a part of the so-called Sermon on the Mount.  It is comprised of four separate pericopes: “Almsgiving” (6:1-4), “Prayer”(6:5-6[7-15]), “Fasting” (6:16-18), and “Wealth” (6:19-21). The overarching methodology here is a comparison to the hypocritical behavior of unnamed others in the synagogues and in the streets. The followers of Jesus are to be distinguished by their own public behaviors, which keep these things private. Thus  the giving of alms, praying, and fasting are to be interior practices. The final pericope on wealth seems unconnected to the concerns of the first three, but asks that there be a distance from the things of this world in favor of an intimacy with the things of the kingdom. The real implied wealth here are the spiritual benefits that accrue from the practices that Jesus points to in his instruction.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What acts of goodness do you do?
2.     In what ways do you keep them private?
3.    Why do you keep them private?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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