Reading 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10

A reading for Ash Wednesday: 2 Corinthian 5:20b – 6:10

The verse that I find myself mulling over is 6:1.

“As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.”

Greek exegetes can get into the nitty-gritty about word choice and translations, but using the NRSV, I find myself asking, “What does it mean to accept the grace of God in vain?”

My favorite online etymology site, tells me that the phrase “in vain” comes from the Latin and means, more or less, “to no effect.” In other words, to accept the grace of God in vain is to be given grace but to have nothing come of it. It is to remain the same, unchanged. It is to do nothing but simply to go along the way you have been.

I think of a plant in our house. It does not like the spot it is in. The cold is hard for it. The light is not right. But we keep trying to nurse it along. When its leaves fall and it gets droopy, we water it, and it springs back to life. But, at last, we did it in. Water no longer worked. We can pour out water on the poor dead thing, but it is — to quote the Scripture — in vain.

Paul is writing urging the Corinthians, for whom Jesus Christ became sin and died (v. 5:21), to not only bask in the grace of what Christ has done, but to actually be transformed by it. His scripture quotation in 6:2 calls to mind the great Wesleyan preaching line Isaiah 55:6.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;

Ash Wednesday starts us on a journey toward Good Friday and Easter beyond. It calls us to prepare our hearts to receive that grace shed upon the world. It calls us to not receive that grace to no effect, but to life.


Reading Psalm 51:1-17

A reading for Ash Wednesday: Psalm 51:1-17

This Psalm leaves us nothing to stand on. We bring nothing to the table with God but a broken spirit and despair over our own state. We have not a single word of self-justification or pride.

You, God, are just when you destroy us, the Psalmist sings.

W.B. Yeats has a poem about the failure of poetry, when all his powers of invention had deserted him. He speaks in the last line of lying down in the rag and bone shop of the heart. The Psalmist, I think knew what Yeats meant. They were both poets, after all.

And although Americans tend to be suspicious of poetry and poets — neither one gets much done — I think the Psalmist’s biggest outrage is that he does not give us a program by which we can fix ourselves. He offers no sure fire plans. He has nothing to sell us. He simply holds out his hands and says, “please.”

Please wash me of my sin. Please give me a new heart. Please put a new spirit in me. Please. Please. Please.

Sylvester Stallone never got famous acting like this.

Our churches will not be full tomorrow for Ash Wednesday service. Being told you are going to die does not makes us feel very good. Better to stay home and let the TV tell us that everything will be alright if we just work hard enough or refuse to give up.

Reading Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

A reading for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God. The day of the LORD is a day of darkness and doom. He comes leading his army, which in the skipped over verses from the reading is a devouring fire that destroys everything in its path.

Here is why so many Marcionites don’t like the Old Testament. But here he is. Behold your God.

In the later verses, I love this phrase in the NRSV: Rend your hearts and not your clothing. It is such a powerful, poetic phrase reminding us that religion is not about outward show or ritual, but about the human heart. God does not lay a bunch of duties on us that we can grudgingly perform, like the chores our mother’s used to make us do around the house.

He wants our hearts.

Weep and mourn over the way we have rejected God. Gather together and offer prayers to God: Do not forget us, LORD. Do not destroy us. Do let the world point and ask, “Where is the God they said would rescue them?”

A church in my town ran a column in the religion section of the newspaper. It said it was observing Lent by going on a carbon fast. As far as I could discern, this meant it would encourage people to reduce energy use and it would have worship service with no paper bulletins or worship materials.

Somehow, against the thundering voice of the prophet, this just does not seem like a robust response to the summons to “rend your hearts.”

Last Sunday, I used the typical mainline Protestant language with people to stop some activity or forgo some luxury to make room for God during Lent. Today, that seems rather tepid in the face of Joel’s words.

Rend your hearts. These words I will carry around with me today.