Remember Who You Are 2-14-18

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, taken from Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 I explore the prophetic call to turn back to the Lord. This is a fitting idea to recognize on a day when we are reminded of our mortality, and yet are given the promise of God’s claim upon our lives.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/remember-who-you-are-2-14-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

There are two actors that arguably have the greatest voices ever. Their voices are utterly distinct and carry a gravitas that cannot be matched. Now one of them is Morgan Freeman, an actor who has perhaps becomes synonymous with a mental image that we have of God…he’s even played God in two different movies. And his voice is amazing.

Now the second actor is James Earl Jones…and he has lent his voice to some pretty amazing projects.  He’s the voice of Darth Vader…for years his dulcet tones announced “this…is CNN.” And he’s the voice of Mufasa from one of my favorite movies…The Lion King. (pause)

Now it occurs to me, that The Lion King must be pretty much the perfect movie…and apparently its chock full of scenes and dialogue and images that fall into the Theological realm…because as I’ve looked back I’ve found several different sermons where I referenced this movie…and I’m gonna do it again tonight…admittedly, I’ll probably use it again in the future as I’ve come nowhere close to exhausting the different references from this gem of a movie.

Now there’s a scene about 3/4 through…quite of the bit of the story has already happened…Simba, the hero, has gone off on his hero’s journey…Mufasa, his father and the former King lion has died…and Simba encounters the wise old sage Rafiki…a baboon who carries a stick and knows Kung Fu…seriously, this movie is perfection.

As Rafiki and Simba talk to one another…Simba is starting to come around, knowing he needs to return home, and he says “If I go back there, it won’t be easy…I’ll have to confront my past.” And WHAM!!! Rafiki knocks him on the head with his stick. “OWWW…what did you do that for?” “It doesn’t matta…its in the past.” “Yah but it still hurts.” “Ahh yes, the past can hurt…but the way I see it, you can either run from it…or learn from it.”

Now the “past” that they/re talking about includes the death of Mufasa…but just before this back and forth…Mufasa, who seems to take a page out of God’s book from some of our recent scripture lessons, and he has appeared in a cloud to Simba…they talk and forth and then as Mufasa is disappearing we hear in his amazing voice…Remember who you are. (pause)
It would seem throughout this scene…and these different encounters, that the main character needs to come to grips with the truth of his identity…and then he has a choice to turn away from it, or to turn back to it. And this is where we connect into tonight’s reading from Joel.

Now Joel is one of the Minor Prophets…a batch of short prophetic writings toward the end of the Old Testament…a batch of guys that we don’t know a ton about. We can’t put a pin exactly in what period of Israel’s history that Joel was active, we don’t really know…but the best guess places his ministry in the range somewhere between about 400-350BC.

Now what we do know is this…in the first chapter of Joel…he describes an utterly devastating plague of locusts that has descended upon the land…destroying everything. Now I’ve never seen a locust swarm…but I’ve heard it described as being so thick that it will literally blot out the sun as they fly over…an image that connects pretty well into the way that our reading starts tonight…the day of the Lord is coming…a day of darkness and gloom…of clouds and thick darkness, like blackness spreading over the mountains as a great and powerful army comes. (pause)

Now lets think about this for a moment. A plague of locust, might be just that…or it might be prophetic imagery, because he also talks about this great army that comes…and now let’s think back in our history to this point where we think Joel was active. By this period late in the 4th century before Jesus, the Babylonians had already laid waste to Israel and hauled them off into exile…that was actually a couple hundred years prior…and then the Persian empire had risen up and taken over…and they let the Israelites return…Jerusalem had been rebuilt including the temple…but now there’s a new empire on the rise…the Greeks, which soon would be led by a famous guy named Alexander the Great…who led an incredible army that would eventually conquer all of the known world…an army that would spread over the earth like locusts perhaps?

That’s just a glimpse of what’s going on in the history…but all imagery aside, whatever it is that Joel is describing…it doesn’t seem good does it? Not a lot of positivity in these opening couple of verses…Blow the trumpet…get EVERYONE’S attention, because judgement and wrath are coming…something the ancient Israelites understood to be the day of the Lord. (pause)

Now we’ve got a gap in the reading, and through this gap we hear more of the same…destruction and death…war and anguish…all pointing to the same thing, this day of Lord…and it ends by saying “Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed, who can endure it?”

Doesn’t sound very peachy does it? Sounds like something you’d want to avoid…something you’d want to run away from if it was possible…to hear this prophetic imagery points us to something that will hurt to say the least…but Joel doesn’t stop there…and when we pick back up in verse 12 we hear this.

Yet even now says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…with fasting, with weeping, with mourning. Rend your hearts and not your clothing…then we hear it again. Return to Lord your God.

Joel talks about offerings…he talks about fasts and sanctifying the assembly…of gathering EVERYONE, the young and the old, infants and children, even the priests and ministers…Joel talks about rituals that they need to do…all aimed at the same thing…bringing everyone together to return to the Lord…to turn back to the one who is gracious and merciful…the one who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…the one who relents from punishing.

There’s a word for this…this returning…this idea of turning back…the word is Shoov…it literally means turn around…to go back…might as well use it for Simba as he gets smacked on the head and decides its time to return home.

This is what Joel is calling the people to do…to gather for a ritual aimed at turning back to God…a ritual aimed at repentance for the way they have lived…for the way that they have walked away…for the path that they have taken.

Now I can’t help but think that this sounds familiar…here we are on Ash Wednesday, a day when we practice a ritual aimed at recognizing our own limitations…our own brokenness…our own sinfulness…and the consequences that come with it.

As we hear the words tonight, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…we come face to face with our mortality…with what can perhaps be best described as the darkness that looms at the ending of each of our lives…that unknown barrier that rests out there.

Its not quite the same thing that Joel is describing for the people to gather and do together…but its not far off either…for both are a call to turn back…to see the darkness that lies before us…to acknowledge not only the brokenness of our past, which can and does hurt, but to also acknowledge the brokenness that lies right here in front of us…and then to turn back to the one who is able to do something about it.

And as we hear from Joel…we are not the only ones who turns back…who Shoov…but we hear that the Lord will turn back as well…that the Lord will turn from punishment and wrath because our Lord is merciful and gracious.

This is what I love about Ash Wednesday…and why I find this worship service to be among the most powerful that we participate in throughout the year.  For in just a few moments, we will come forward one by one…and we will each hear those words again. Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return…words that speak of our death…but immediately after you hear those words you will also hear the body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.

We acknowledge our brokenness and the consequences of it…but we also hear the promise that the one who is able to do something about it has already done it. We hear the words of promise that we have been claimed by the one who will ultimately get the last word in the story of your existence. The one who has claimed you. (pause) Mufasa told Simba remember who you are…and with a slight tweak we do the same…Remember WHOSE…you are. (pause)

Now I can’t help but laugh tonight as I consider the date. Today is Ash Wednesday…but its also Valentines Day. A day that celebrates love overlapping with a day that acknowledges brokenness and death. But maybe putting love and death right up next to each other isn’t the worst thing in the world…because the Love of God is shown to each one of us through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…love is found as life meets death.

You might notice that there’s a plant sitting down here on the piano tonight…its small palm plant…one that I was given about a year ago and it sits back in my office most of the time. Now, you’ll walk past it right after you’ve received the ashes and communion and as you do I’ll invite you to take a look at it…I’ve been watching a couple new leaves develop over the past couple of weeks and which are just now starting to open up…and as I was looking closely at it, I realized that there’s one leaf that’s mostly dead right next to that new leaf that’s forming…death and new life, all wrapped up together…and this is what we recognize within ourselves tonight.

We acknowledge our own death…something that creates the ultimate separation…but we hear a word of promise from the one who claims us…even beyond the point of death…and so we turn to the one who has already turned to us…

Tonight we remember who we are…But more importantly we remember…WHOSE…we are. Amen.

 

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