“Hearts and Ashes” (Joel 2:12-19)
Today is Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is a day for sending your love a box of candy and a Valentine’s card. Something like this:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue;
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.
Yes, it’s a day for hearts and flowers.
But by coincidence of calendar, today is also Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is a day for recognizing our sinful heart, repenting of our sin, and remembering our mortality:
Roses are red,
Ashes are gray;
Remember you’re dust–
You’ll return there one day.
But Ash Wednesday is also a day for returning to the Lord and receiving his grace from his heart of love. So this is a day, as we’ll hear now, for “Hearts and Ashes.”
Hearts and ashes. Let’s start with our hearts. When I look at my heart, what do I see? I see a heart of darkness, a heart full of sin. I see a man who does practice his righteousness before others, in order to be seen. I must agree with St. Paul, when he said, “For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” I must agree with King David, when he confessed to the Lord: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” So I cannot trust my heart, if it tells me: “Oh, you’re not so bad. You’re better than most people. God does not know your sin. You shall not surely die.” Those are lies of the devil.
But the fact is, we do die. It’s been that way ever since our father Adam bought into the lies and fell into sin. Death followed as a result. The wages of sin is death. The Lord placed a curse on Adam, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And this death sentence, this dust sentence, is echoed throughout Scripture. Psalm 90: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’” Psalm 104: “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” Ecclesiastes 3: “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”
Death is the great equalizer. It doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, powerful or a nobody. We’re all gonna die of something. John Donne, an Anglican minister of the 17th century, once wrote: “The dust of great persons’ graves is speechless; it says nothing, it distinguishes nothing. As soon the dust of a wretch whom thou wouldst not, as of a prince whom thou couldst not look upon will trouble thine eyes if the wind blow it thither. And when a whirlwind hath blown the dust of the churchyard into the church, and the man sweeps out the dust of the church into the churchyard, who will undertake to sift those dusts again and to pronounce, ‘This is the patrician, this is the noble flour, this the yeomanly, this the plebeian bran’?”
The rock group Kansas summed it up like this: “All we are is dust in the wind.” Brothers and sisters, like our father Adam, we too have believed the lies of the devil and our own deceitful heart. The prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” But the truth is, we have sinned. We too will die. And so we too have heard those words, once again tonight, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Hearts and ashes. Thus come the ashes on this Ash Wednesday. Ashes are a sign of our sin and our mortality. We mourn our sin, and we realize that death awaits us, a return to the dust. Hearts and ashes. We recognize that our hearts are sinful and deceitful. We wear the ashes to remind ourselves of that. St. John writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
But then John goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” David knew this too, and so he prayed: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” And again, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
This is our confession and our prayer too. So Ash Wednesday is a time for repenting of our sin, returning to the Lord, and receiving his grace from his heart of love.
Listen to the prophet Joel: “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.’”
Here there are more hearts. Return to the Lord with all your heart. Rend you hearts and not your garments. In other words, let your repentance be deep and genuine, not just a going through the motions. Realize your sin and mourn it. Turn from your sins. Confess them, do not deny them.
But then take heart and return to the Lord in faith and receive his great mercy and forgiveness. Rejoice in his wonderful promise: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
It is the Lord’s heart that is the big thing tonight. It is his heart of grace and mercy, forgiving our sins. It is his heart abounding in steadfast love. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 1 John 3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”
And this is why the ashes are placed on your head in the shape of a cross. For that sign reminds you that Christ took your sins and took your death when he died on the cross in your place. Now you are forgiven, by the power of the holy precious blood of the very Son of God. The cross is the sign that was placed on your forehead and upon your heart when you were baptized, buried with Christ into death and rising with Christ to walk in newness of life. You have been washed clean of your sins. You will share in Christ’s resurrection.
Hearts and ashes. We wear the ashes, but the ashes are in the shape of a cross. You are forgiven. You are baptized. You will live with Christ Jesus our Savior forever.
Behold, Ash Wednesday is a favorable time; behold, Ash Wednesday is a day of salvation. And so tonight, dear friends, remember these words from the prophet Joel: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Beloved, this is the Lord’s message to you tonight. Tonight the Lord is sending you a great big heart-shaped Valentine that reads like this:
Return to the Lord,
His mercy is true;
His heart full of love
Is here now for you.