Yesterday I emailed you an invitation to join me in the church’s 3 disciplines of Lent – repentance, fasting, and works of love. We can and do have our own journey’s, our own decisions to make, each of us, as a person of faith. But there is more. We have our corporate and public responsibility to return, as church, ekklesia, as the people of God, as well. They are not divorced from each other. It's often said that, in the end, we can only be responsible for our own choices, and we can’t force the other person to, do the right thing, or any thing! But God comes to save the whole world, as the gospels so often say, and not just individual souls. And so what does it mean for us to return, or repent, as a community?
The prophetic decree, “Return to the LORD, your God,” was a call to the whole community, and assembly, of Israel.
If you were hear 4 weeks ago, you heard God's call to return, from the prophet Jonah. Jonah reluctantly gave in, like a pouting teenager, or spurned adult. After he ran away from God, was thrown overboard and swallowed by the whale, entombed for 3 days, was spit up on dry land, Jonah is still not willingly repentant! He will go, as God has asked, and proclaim to his arch enemy, the Ninevites, to repent. But his heart is not in it, he does only the minimum required, which is clear in the brevity of his message, the shortest prophetic warning call in all the OT! And even before that, he complains to God: “I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” That’s why Jonah doesn’t want to go. He acccuses God of all that goog stuff because he doesn’t want to give the Assyrians even the chance, to return!
Jonah, it turns out, copied the same creed, that Joel uses in our 1st Reading. In fact, it appears like this 8 times throughout the Hebrew scriptures: 3 times in Psalms, and once each in Exodus, Numbers, Nehemiah, Nahum, and of course, Jonah. They all recite this belief that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing!” In each, God invites us to return as the whole assembly. There is still time – that's the prophetic good news. God’s nature is to relent and make room for our return. God is merciful, like the love of a mother or father for their child, and is gracious, as a person who holds power over an inferior, but who uses that power for forgiveness.
So, what if we do want to return! What do we return from? And where do we return to? Joel’s plea to Israel, was to return from exile in Babylon, and to return to their home in Judah. The clue to our return may be found in the words of our Confession tonight. We confess that we, like Jonah, have run the other way from God, and have not kept the great command of Jesus, 'to love God and to love our neighbor,' but instead have turned to ourselves, “our self-indulgent appetites and ways,” and so we are reminded that we need to return – return to the LORD, our God.
We start there, with our own personal turning. But the whole assembly is then called to return, from “our exploitation of other people,” as the confession states, “our indifference to injustice and cruelty,” and “our waste and pollution of [God’s] creation.” Israel was once the military and economic power of the world, and the reason God brought the nation down and sent it into exile was for it's “exploitation of other nations,” and its “indifference to injustice” at home. Not until a cleansing of 2 generations had passed in Exile, did God return them home.
We are on that precipice now, of military and economic world power. By some measures we are still number one. But since 911, a Great Recession, and our heavy responsibility for climate change, we are holding our breath, trying to figure out who we are. We have not yet been exiled, but still, we are in dire need of returning.
God shows us the way, and invites us to it – through grace and mercy, slowness to anger and a great abundance of faith and love, and a postponing of punishment. That’s how we are called to return, for returning is nothing if not a process, a journey that comes in the “the gifts of God's grace in baptism and communion.” And so on our journey in Lent, we return to the font, from which God first turned us around, changed our identity, and branded us with a tattoo, that cross on our foreheads. In Lent we also return to the table, where we gather each time we are together, to be fed with the broken body of Christ, our LORD. On the night in which he was betrayed, God relented of our punishment, while Jesus gave us a new command, to love one another. Jesus went from death to life, that we may know the hope, of our passage too.
On this day alone, we add a very specific tattoo alongside the cross of our baptisms, which is the cross of ashes. When God spoke to Adam and Eve, the first humans, who represent all humans, God reminded them of their mortality, and their dependence on grace and God's relenting from punishment. Remember that “you are dust and to dust you shall return,” God said. We receive this reminder of our human condition tonight, knowing that we also have been blessed with the promise of new life.
We begin our journey in Lent then, as a people who are able to squarely face up to our fate, and the truth which claims us. As we make the journey from death to life, let us “Return to the LORD, our God,” as the church, the whole people of God.