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Duration:14 mins 1 sec

“Return to the Lord”

Homily for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

March 2, 2022


Today marks the beginning of Lent, the beginning of our forty-day journey of wandering with Jesus in the wilderness, walking with him as he draws ever closer to the cross.  This is a sober day, because here we are called to confront our sins, to admit the truth that we all are sinners, and with that acknowledgement, to face the fact that it was for our sake, because of our sin, that our Savior laid down his life and took up the cross.  It is a harsh reality to face, to admit that, as the familiar prayer in our Book of Common Worship says, “we sin by our own fault in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”1

            And yet that admission of sin is our opening the door to the knock of God’s grace.  In an article in the February Christian Century, Debra Dean Murphy wrote, “To enter the season of Lent is to walk through an open door. Corporately we ritualize the traversing with the imposition of ashes—the black, sooty smudge a sign that death is the last threshold we will cross. In the liturgy we are asked to medi­tate on that truth. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. The sojourn in Lent, if we are able to abide it, is 40 days of contending with our mortality such that we might come to know more fully what it means to live.”2 

            Walking through that door is a hard thing.  Coming to terms with our mortality, means coming to know who we are and who God is, to understand that we are sinners in need of God’s grace.

            Arthur Miller’s well-known play, Death of a Salesman, tells the sad story of the life and death of a man named Willy Loman.  Willy had a vision of himself and his family that was not true to reality.  At his funeral, one of Willy’s sons said, “The man never knew who he was.”3 

            Ash Wednesday reminds us who we are.

            Central to the season of Lent is examining our hearts and lives and repenting of sin.  The word “repent” in Hebrew is “shuv,” which literally means “to turn.”  Shuv is a 180-degree turn away from one thing, toward something else, turning 180 degrees away from sin and toward God.  Turning away from what takes life to what gives life.

            In this passage from Joel that is the traditional lectionary text for Ash Wednesday, the prophet starts by speaking about the day of the Lord, a dark and terrible day when the people would be held accountable for their sins. But the prophet does not end there.  No, he goes on in v. 12 to bring this word from the Lord:  “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning . . . Return to the Lord, your God.” 

            The word “return” in this passage is from that word “shuv,” repent, so it means literally a re-turning, recognizing when we are going in the wrong direction, stopping in our tracks, turning around, and heading the opposite way—toward our God.

            Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets urged the people to repent of their sins, to put on sackcloth and ashes, to fast and mourn.  The early church used sackcloth and ashes for the same symbolic reasons—to show sorrow and remorse for wrongdoing.  Christians used ashes as a symbol of penitence for hundreds of years, until it finally became formalized as a practice to mark the beginning of Lent.  Today we continue that ancient practice, marking ourselves with ash to acknowledge that we are sinful people.  But the ashes are marked upon us in the shape of the cross, to remind us that Christ did not leave us in sin, but in love, lifted us from the dust of sin to the light of redemption.   

            We may not have committed the same kinds of sins that the prophets railed against.  But God does not rank sins, with some being better and some worse.  Sin is sin; it is that which separates us from God and others.  We have committed both sins of action and sins of the heart, sins of selfishness, arrogance, greed, envy, judgment, hard-heartedness.  Try as we might, we cannot make ourselves “good” or pure of heart.  Even with the best intentions, we fail.  But the good news is that we do not do this on our own.  As the Ash Wednesday Epistle text says, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God...See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

            The late Elizabeth Achtemeier was a brilliant Old Testament scholar as well as a Presbyterian minister.  She told a story about something that happened when she and her husband were graduate divinity students in Germany, shortly after World War II.  During a university vacation, they rode their bicycles from southern Germany up to Denmark.  She said that all through Germany, city after city still lay in ruin from the bombings.  They stopped to eat lunch beside the road and realized they were sitting next to the shattered stone ruins of a church.  “Only one wall of the church remained,” she said, “and on the place where the altar had been, someone had nailed together a wooden cross.  But on that remaining wall, an unknown German had chalked the words, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’”

            Achtemeier was struck by the truth that in the rubble and ruin of our sin, there we find the mercy and grace of God.  She concluded her story by saying “When we cast ourselves on the mercy of our Lord; when we trust [God] with our eternal lives; when in the midst of our imperfect days with all of our blunders and wrongs and forgetfulness of God marring even our finest moments; when we nevertheless turn to our Lord Christ and plead his grace and surrender our wills to his loving guidance—then, friends, then our redemption begins to draw near.”4

            On this Ash Wednesday, when we take that painful step of admitting the brokenness in our lives, then we are able to turn in the opposite direction, turning to the God who loves us so much that God did not leave us in the dust of sin, but offers us grace upon grace.

            Let us trust in that unfailing word of God from the prophet, Joel, that we should return to the Lord with all our hearts, “for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Amen.


  1. PCUSA Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018).
  2. Debra Dean Murphy, “Lent Beckons Like an Open Door,” Christian Century, February 24, 2022.
  3. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, published in Anthology of American Literature.
  4. Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Sure Promise,” Pulpit Digest, November/December 1995, p. 11-13.

Rev. Dawn M. Mayes

Manassas Presbyterian Church

Manassas, Virginia

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