Ash Wednesday: In the Desert

Readings: Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17 and Ezekiel 37: 1-14

Lament has fallen out of favor. Ash Wednesday loses place to Valentine’s Day. We’re better at celebration than lament.

When we are personally in a time of lament, people want us to “get over it” or tell us “it could be worse.”  At church, there are fairly regular complaints about doing detailed prayers of confession –“ it’s just so negative.:”  It’s as if, especially when the world seems so very troubled and injustice is the order of the political day, that we want to come to come to church like little blue Smurfs skipping down the aisles and singing “I’ve got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in my heart.”

We want Fat Tuesday – parades, costumes, lavish feasts –  without the fasting and prayer of Ash Wednesday. We would rather buy chocolate – without talking about the child slavery involved in picking the  beans, thank you very much – than talk about Repentance – or Dust & Ashes to mark the beginning of Lent.

The irony is that we have worn ourselves out trying to put a positive spin or a good face on our lives.  Our Facebook feeds don’t tell the real story.  Life is hard – and sometimes it seems impossible.  We’d like a way to chuck it all and leave the world behind while we hide out on a desert island until further notice.

Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones seems eerily familiar.

11 The Lord said:

Ezekiel, the people of Israel are like dead bones. They complain that they are dried up and that they have no hope for the future. 

We wonder where the hope is.

— At work, the expectations of things to do, reports to write, people to see and places to go seem to stretch so far into the future that we’ll never get it all done.  We find ourselves working longer days and even trying to cram in emails and calls while driving, in the store or waiting at the doctor’s office.  Where is the hope?

— In our families, our children would rather come get meals when they get to the end of their conversation or computer game than eat together as a family.  Virtual friends seem to have taken the place of real friends to hang out with.  And our relationships with our mates seem to have degenerated into sitting and watching the Olympics and a goodnight kiss.  Where is the hope?

— At church, there is always more need for help than helpers.  More need for funds than available funding.  And there are more discouraging words than words of encouragement.  Where is the hope?

We’re so far into being dried up and burned out that we are WAY worse off than the cat that climbed up too high and in tree and doesn’t know how to get down.

Dust and ashes.  That is actually how we feel.  Dry as dust and burned to a crisp. If anybody finds that desert island – sign us all up!

The odd message of Ash Wednesday is that hope begins with Lament. Hope begins with honest confession about the state of our lives and confession of our brokenness, our weariness, and our sin that has separated us from God and from each other.  It is into our moments of desolation that the prophet Joel speaks:

12 The Lord said:

It isn’t too late.  (The good news is that it isn’t too late.)
You can still return to me
with all your heart.
Start crying and mourning!  (Lament!  — in the imperative. It’s an order!)
Go without eating.   (Fast.  Stop gorging yourselves.)
13 Don’t rip your clothes  (Rend your hearts and not your garments.)
to show your sorrow.  (Extravagant gestures and show mean zip to God.)

This is where we need to focus on the dust and ashes part of the story – we come from dust.  Our bodies return to the dust.  We should not think so highly of ourselves.

Rend our hearts:  Confess to God our failures, our brokenness, our disappointments.  We’re going to do that with our burning.  Write it all down – and then set it on fire and let it go. Use the time of silent prayer to Cry out to the one who made you. Cry out to Jesus who came to show us God’s love.

Cry Out to Jesus by Third Day

To everyone who’s lost someone they love
Long before it was their time
You feel like the days you had were not enough
When you said goodbye

And to all of the people with burdens and pains
Keeping you back from your life
You believe that there’s nothing and there is no one
Who can make it right

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
And love for the broken heart
And there is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing
He’ll meet you wherever you are
Cry out to Jesus
Cry out to Jesus

For the marriage that’s struggling just to hang on
They’ve lost all of their faith in love
And they’ve done all they can to make it right again, still it’s not enough

For the ones who can’t break the addictions and chains
You try to give up but you come back again
Just remember that you’re not alone in your shame
And your suffering

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
And love for the broken heart
And there is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing
He’ll meet you wherever you are
Cry out to Jesus

When you’re lonely
And it feels like the whole world is falling on you
You just reach out, you just cry out to Jesus
Cry to Jesus

To the widow who suffers from being alone
Wiping the tears from her eyes
And for the children around the world without a home
Say a prayer tonight

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
And love for the broken heart
And there is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing
He’ll meet you wherever you are

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
And love for the broken heart
And there is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing
He’ll meet you wherever you are

Lament. Cry out our pain and despair. Cry out our brokenness and shame. Healing begins with confession and lament. Go deep into misery and shame and open a door for God to enter in.

And then there’s more. And the word of invitation comes along with the instruction:

Verse 13 continues:

Instead, turn back to me
with broken hearts.
I am merciful, kind, and caring.
I don’t easily lose my temper,
and I don’t like to punish.

Come home….return to God. God claims us – broken and dirty as we are. We can stop putting on a show and trying to do things by ourselves.  We can Stop arguing that we haven’t made mistakes  — or that our mistakes aren’t serious compared to someone else’s. That gets us nowhere.

And listen:  God is God.  We don’t have to try to be God.  Oh come on, we all act like we are in charge of the known universe from time to time.  If we’re honest, that’s part of what overwhelms us.  On Ash Wednesday we remember that we are just dust and ashes – broken, dusty, dry bits of God’s creation – and it is God who is the Lord of us all.

Deep Wells is our focus for Lent — because we are thirsty souls – and we long for Living Water.  We will be on a Journey together to find it – real water. Living water. The stuff that quenches our deepest thirst for meaning, for significance, for MORE.

Water from a well in the desert – beckoning us to come and take all we need.

Water in a lake to wade on a hot day

Water that surrounds us as we swim or surf

Water that goes deep, deeper than we imagine

Deep water – life-giving water.

MOVE CLOSE: The invitation is for us all: Come, all who are thirsty, come to the waters. Come and take what you need. Be refreshed and made whole.  There’s a way out of the dry as dust life we’re leading.

Ash Wednesday names us as the dried up and burned out broken bits of creation that we are.  And then gives us permission to grieve, lament, cry out to God about the things that are deep down wrong in the world and in our lives. And reminds us in this nitty-gritty sign of a cross that God is working.  Even on us. Let the ashes pull us into Lent – a time when we can admit that we need some living water. Rather desperately.


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