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Sermon Illustrations for Ash Wednesday (2019)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Joel proclaims the word of the Lord, reminding us that darkness is coming and yet, God’s call is to return to God with all our heart. How many of us will go to worship this day, have ashes placed on our foreheads and think the task is done? Joel reminds us that our responsibility is more significant than that. “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12-13). It is not the actions of going to worship, of the administration of ashes, that is important, Rather the importance lies in our turning back to God, rending out of our hearts all that separates us from God and yes, perhaps fasting, weeping and even mourning the actions of our past. God seeks a change in our hearts. Whether or not we go to worship, fast, grieve, weep or just reflect on that which separates us from God, what God truly desires, as Joel proclaims, is to open our hearts for newness and grace, to repent and turn back in the direction of God. We can do that. We are called to do that, every day, but especially this day.
Bonnie B.

* * *

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
This opening verse sounds something like the warnings we get from our government about North Korea. Some of them are spreading darkness and gloom.

God’s answer to our worries is not to build a bigger army, but to come to him with all our heart.

It may be easier to do this as individuals, but it sounds like God is calling the whole country to return to him.

The president sounds like we are not Christian unless we come through him.

How will we ever have a national fast. The farmers and grocers would be up in arms for their loss of income.

We have to make America great.. That sounds like one job for pastors.

We don’t  want the whole world to ask us where our God is?

Are you packed and ready to return to the Lord? It is not easy to get ready to go to him. It takes fasting and weeping and mourning. Why?

If I were going back to my Lord, it is encouraging to know that he loves me. Whatever I may have done that may hurt him he is compassionate. So I don’t have to worry.

I just came back from a trip on a cruise ship, which is a great experience. I am happy at my home and I love being on the ship but don’t like the uncomfortable flights back and forth.

It sounds like coming to the Lord, which we will enjoy when we get there, but involves an uncomfortable way like death to get there.

People around us shouldn’t have to ask where you are. You are coming soon. Even Jesus had to suffer before going back to his father.
Bob O.

* * *

Joel 1:1-2,12-17
Ash Wednesday with its call to repentance reminds us to get moving, to get off the dime. It’s urgent we repent this night, for the dust from which we are made is returning to the dust. Every day, every hour, gets us closer to that casket in the ground with our names on it. Modern Jewish Anthropologist Ernest Becker put it well: 

The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.

The Prophet calls us to repentance, to do it urgently with our own destruction in view, and then we will really live fully. John Calvin warned that we need this urgency because “We are at first torpid when God invites us, except He applies His many goads.,.” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol.XIV/1, p.62). Procrastination is, as famed modern theologian Karl Barth once put it, a function of imprisonment by anxiety and care about the hopelessness of the future (Church Dogmatics, Vol.IV/2, pp.471-472). But as Calvin once observed, God is alluring us to repentance, helping us realize that it is “now no time for taking rest...” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol.XIV/1, pp.44)
Mark E.

* * *

2 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10
Every Amish home has a copy of a massive book known as The Martyr’s Mirror. It’s often given to young couples as a wedding present. The book catalogs in gruesome detail persecution and martyrdom over the centuries, beginning with the early church and continuing to the seventeenth century, at the time when their Amish and Mennonite forebears were brutally and publicly executed in an attempt to wipe them out in Europe. Their “crimes” seem to have been adult baptism, Bible Studies in private homes, refusal to belong to the state church of whatever region they lived in, and refusal to take up arms against their persecutors. The signal story is that of Dirk WIllems, who escaped from his captors, crossing an ice covered river, but who turned back to rescue one of his pursuers who fell through the ice. As a result he was burned alive at the stake in a botched execution that took an agonizingly long time.

The purpose of persecution was to wipe out opposition, but it had the opposite effect. Instead the group grew and flourished, and prospers today in several locations in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Books like The Martyr’s Mirror inspired new generations to stand up for their faith, no matter what the cost. This calls to mind the paradox of Paul’s suffering as outlined in this scripture and the good that comes out of it.
Frank R.

* * *

2 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10
In the job description for a United States Ambassador, I found these words. “An ambassador serves as a personal representative of the President of the United States. Stationed in a foreign country, this position runs a U.S. Embassy that's typically located in the capital city. Strong communication skills, an understanding of governmental relations and the ability to manage complex situations is essential for this job.”  

I thought about that as I read through today’s text. An ambassador represents another kingdom and leader in a different country. He or she takes up residence in a foreign land and attempts to present and highlight the principles, values and interests of his/her home kingdom. That’s what Paul says he and his companions are. They are ambassadors for Christ. They represent the kingdom of God in a foreign place. Paul uses “strong communication” skills for this message: be reconciled to God. He then goes on to tell those in Corinth what Jesus has done and elaborates on what he and his companions have endured to bring this message. For us, the message is clear. Whether you are in a recognized leadership role in the church or not, you are an ambassador of Christ, with the extraordinary privilege and responsibility of representing Jesus in this world. You are God’s representative on earth. Through you God makes his appeal for others to receive his forgiveness, love and grace.
Bill T.

* * *

2 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10
Susan “Suze” Orman is a financial advisor and motivational speaker. Her television presentations began in 2002 when her program The Suze Orman Show began airing on CNBC. She once reflected on what she thought was the most influential place in history. She recalled Sutter’s Mill, where gold was first discovered that began the California Gold Rush. Orman said, “The home of the American Gold Rush – amazing stories of hope and discovery. How I wish I could have been there!”

Sutter's Mill was a sawmill owned by John Sutter. It was located on the bank of the South Fork American River in Coloma, California. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall, a carpenter originally from New Jersey, found flakes of gold in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, California. At the time, Marshall was working to build a water-powered sawmill owned by Sutter. During the next seven years, approximately 300,000 people came to California, half by land and half by sea, to seek their fortunes from either mining for gold or selling supplies like food, clothing, burros, lumber, picks, and shovels to the prospectors. The California Gold Rush spanned the years from 1848 to 1855.
Ron L.

* * *

Matthew 6: 1-16, 16-21
Appearances matter. This is the word of the world. Who we are, who we present ourselves to be, and our status are all very important to the world. Some of us even take those same worldly expectations with us into the church, into our spiritual life. We compare how spiritually developed we are, how pious, how well we practice the tenets of our faith. We are overtly pious. This Jesus rails against.

Once again it is not the outer piety of our public actions that concern Jesus or God. In fact, Jesus warns us that to proclaim our individual piousness is to be a hypocrite. God rather wants the change in our hearts, the change in our private moments and reflections and prayers. It’s’ not that worship is unimportant or that community isn’t a good thing. Rather, the actions of our spiritual expressions in private are the most important. How we interact with god, seek the presence of God, worship Go in our heart of hearts, that is what God seeks. This is an important message for us every day, but maybe most especially during Lent. May our private hearts and expressions of faith connect us to God in these days.
Bonnie B.

* * *

Matthew 6: 1-16, 16-21
When I give my offering at church or to a charitable organization, does my name appear for everyone to see? The only place I would like it to appear is at the IRS office. In some cases it is impossible to hide our name even if we are not trying to brag.

I have to ask myself “what if I can’t help a needy person without those around me seeing it?” Should I only help when it can’t be seen?

When we  fast do our friends notice that we are losing weight? My wife doesn’t like it when I don’t eat all of her delicious meals. It hurts her feelings.

What treasures should we store up? Aren’t we supposed to save for our future so others won’t have to support us? I think that the last part of that verse is most important. My heart is not with the treasures I save. I also save so that I have money for my kids when they grow up and need it.

I know some wealthy people who buy the most luxurious car they can find, and eat at the fanciest restaurants. Is it so that others may see it?

We should try to find the spirit of those verses in our heart. That is true of many of God’s words.
Bob O.

* * *

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
We often like to take credit for our faithfulness. As Martin Luther once put it:

It is incredible how common this blasphemy and vice is in the world... how few people there are who do good works without seeking the honor or favor of the world this way. (Luther’s Works, Vol.21,p.132)

There is an insidious side to our religiosity and to be known as one interested in others. French author Blaise Pascal well described our misery, our need to keep busy and butting in on projects that really don’t matter:

What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition... but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. (Pensées, 136)

All our life passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles; and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement. (Ibid.)

These dynamics explain why we do not give until it hurts and that explains why the poor are still among us (12.3% as recently as the end of 2017 according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Our hearts are not in the good things we do, and so we don’t do them enough. This is why in the midst of our aimlessness we need hearts in the right place. John Calvin nicely explained that we need hearts set on fire, and Jesus’ forgiveness of us does that. He wrote:

Those who have been mercifully recovered from for their falls will feel inflamed by the common law of charity to extend a helping hand to their brethren. (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol.5/1, p.302)
Mark E.
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