06 MAR 2019
Ash Wednesday Sermon, First United Methodist Church of Luling
Pastor Bill Knobles
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and Luke 18:9-14.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. 2:1 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-2:2 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. 2:12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 2:13 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. 2:14 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?
Luke 18:9-14. He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
By 70 A.D. Rome had had quite enough of the rebellious Jews of Israel. There had been battles and skirmishes throughout Judea. Entire Jewish cities had been destroyed and the people killed. And now, the Roman army had laid siege to Jerusalem. They had built ramps up to the walls and put their siege engines into position. Battering rams pounded the gates. Jerusalem did not stand a chance. It was a rout and the panic and killing seemed to be without end. The temple was plundered. All of this was chronicled by Josephus, the Jewish historian in his “Wars of the Jews”. And in the end, Caesar ordered the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem. That no trace of the temple be left. It was to be an object lesson for other provinces with a rebellious streak.
Then, years and years went by. The fighting continued periodically, even as the city was slowly rebuilt. The Romans, Persians, the Jews, the Christians, all loosely wrapped into the Byzantine Empire continued to fuss over the city. But in 636 a.d., the Muslim Caliphate laid siege to Jerusalem and captured the city. They laid claim to Temple Mount and built a mosque where the temple used to stand.
Then came the crusades and the world wars, the creation of the state of Israel and then 1967, the Six Day war when Israel took Jerusalem once again. And the Jews began the excavation of the Western Wall. It was all that was left of their beloved temple. Its probable location had been known for a long time, but years of garbage and junk piling up, haphazard building, had all but buried the wall. Now, it was unearthed and exposed once again.
The Western Wall of Temple Mount is not a wall to keep people in or out. It is simply a retaining wall to create a flat surface for Temple Mount. But it is a holy site to the Jewish people and they come to the wall to pray. In olden times, it was called the Wailing Wall, because the Jewish people came there with their desperate prayers, their cries, their lamentations over the destruction of their Temple. Now, people from all over go to the Western Wall to reverently seek God. To slip their written prayers between the stones. To open themselves to Lord God in a place where they feel that he is near.
Not too far from that wall, Jesus told a parable about two men praying in the temple. One man, a Pharisee, was congratulating himself at how good he was. How generous he was. How faithful he was. How pious he was. The man was self-satisfied, and his prayers were shallow. He asked nothing of God because he believed he had need of nothing from God. He was not convicted by his sin. He felt neither the wrath nor the love of God. He might as well have been standing around the coffee pot chatting with his friends.
But there was another man. A desperate man. A man who knew his sin and it was ever before him. He could not even look up to heaven as he prayed. He felt unworthy and so he prayed away from the others. Tax collectors in Jerusalem were compromised people. They were in league with the Roman tyrants. Their contract was to collect a set amount of taxes for Rome and they could keep any excess. It was a system fraught with abuse. The Romans suspected them, and the Jews hated them. And sometimes, the tax collectors hated themselves. And if they were people of any faith, all they could do was to pray to God for mercy. To repent and plead to God for forgiveness. To try to turn their lives around and extricate themselves from the web of deceit and excess and abuse that they had gotten themselves into.
Such a life was hard to get into and even harder to get out of. It still is. We find ourselves in messes and we wonder how we got in so deep. This season of Lent will be a good time to lay out our prayer life and examine what we find. To see what we have gotten ourselves into.
Among our prayers will be those of praise. Of thanking God and celebrating his goodness. That will probably be a large, orderly stack of prayers right in front.
Over here, we have our prayers, our vows, to serve our God. It is not a real large stack, but the prayers are well intended.
But over here are our prayers of supplication. Our prayers for others. For the neighbor who is fighting cancer. For the child who is wandering. For the friend who is lonely. For the world that is in chaos. For the church that is struggling. This stack is not orderly but is a little scattered. The prayers seem incomplete. Some are even dampened by our tears. Wrinkled by our heartache.
Then, over there is a crumpled mess of prayers for our self. Our hurts. Our shortcomings. Our sins. Our confessions. Our repentance. Our pleas for forgiveness. They are a sodden lump of prayers, anointed by our weeping; baptized by our fears. Some prayers have but a single word of “help!”. On others, there are no words at all. Just a sound of our groaning.
These are our desperate prayers. Prayed while we are under siege. Prayed while our temples are torn down. Prayed while our loved ones are scattered. I think that when God hears our prayers, these are the ones he turns his attention to first. These are the prayers which are like an emergency room. They need some attention now, and not later. We are not distracted when we pray these desperate prayers. No, these hurts have our full attention. These needs are urgent. Our sin is ever before us, accusing us and trying to curse us. These are not prayers for around the coffee pot. These prayers are not for show. These are prayers from the gut, offered to God with trembling hands and on the knees of our hearts.
Paul wrote about such prayers.
In the 8th chapter of Romans, verse 26, he wrote Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
What does God do with our desperate prayers? Jesus said that the tax collector went down to his home justified before God. Justified is a rather curious word here. In common English, it means that a person’s actions are proven right and reasonable and just. But that definition does not hold true here. The sinner is not declared right, but forgiven. In the Christian sense, justification is an act of God. It is an act of God not based on the work of the sinner, but on the work of Jesus on the cross. And it is that work, through our faith in Christ, which is imputed to us. Claimed by us. Grasped by us and held tightly by us. Received by us through faith. And by which God declares that we are no longer guilty of our sin. We are released from its penalty. And restored as righteous before God. In a right relationship with God.
Some might think, even believe, that it is too late for them. That they are too far gone for forgiveness and restoration. That their desperate prayers cannot be heard by God. And they would be wrong. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart. These are the words of the prophet. Even now. After the sin. After the recriminations. After the heartbreak. Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing
Even now. That “now” has come in this time of Lent. And the now is the taking of the ashes. Ashes of repentance. I am asking folks, if you were in Jerusalem, at the Western Wall, what would be your prayer? There is a prayer wall in the Narthex. Fashioned after the Western Wall, with places to add your prayers. Slips of paper to write on. Cracks and niches to receive them. There is no need to sign your name. They will remain personal to you. I will read them and pray over them. We will do this throughout Lent. Paul said that we should pray without ceasing. So, we will all add prayers, joys, concerns, prayers of celebration, prayers of heartbreak, even desperate prayers all through Lent. But as we prepare for this time of deep prayer in the church, we first take on the ashes of our repentance. (and we continued worship with the litany of the imposition of the ashes.)