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Sermon Illustrations For Ash Wednesday (2020)

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 
With the Presidential Primaries starting to shift into high gear, it is time for Americans to get serious about politics and the future of our nation, to seek to right the nation’s wrongs. For John Calvin this lesson is a message of urgency that we need.  He wrote:

The object of the narrative then, is to make the people sensible, that it was now no time for taking rest... (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol.XIV, p.44)

We need this warning, Calvin claims, because we tend “to delay the time, as the profane and scorners are wont to do, who trifle with God from day to day...” (Ibid., p.56) Fortunately, though, we are not left on our own to deal with the new realities and our past mistakes. God will bring us around, lure us to repent and to do the right thing. Again Calvin says it so well:

Hence the Prophet now [in v.13] represents God as merciful, that He might thus kindly allure the people to repentance. (Ibid., p.55)

God will find a way to get you and me to repent and change. This is the night to have it happen.
Mark E.       

* * *

Isaiah 58:1-12
Justice is on the minds of a lot of us as the presidential primaries move into high gear. Our lesson calls us to practice real justice, and not just personal gestures of holiness. Are we doing that with the way in which we deal with illegal immigrant families? Have we done much more than practice fiery, “pious” rhetoric or call for walls to keep the poor out of America?        

A study conducted by Evangelical Christian Credit found that 82% of the budget of an average congregation in America is spent on keeping the church running (salaries and maintenance) and only 1% on benevolence programs for the poor! What famed 20th-century Christian Ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1961 is still so relevant:

The real problem is not how much or how little we possess, but the number of things or advantages and security for our family that we have over against what our brother has. (Justice & Mercy, p.66)   

Time to repent.
Mark E. 

* * *

Isaiah 58:1-12
My friends will tell you that I am something of a Social Issues pastor. Social issues like immigration, education reform, health care, elder care, care for the environment all speak to my heart. I believe I could anchor my activism in this scripture. Isaiah says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

These verses seem to be a call to social justice and activism, to caring for the least among us, with compassion, kindness, generosity and love. Acting in the ways of justice moves people into deeper relationship with God. As Isaiah proclaims, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am…The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail….” For me and my house, we seek the living water of living in justice, acting with mercy, and loving the least.
Bonnie B.

* * *

2 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10
Fanny Jane Crosby was born on March 24, 1823. Because of an improper medical treatment, she became blind at six-weeks of age. She was later educated at the New York School for the Blind. She then became a teacher at the school from 1847 to 1858. She left the school that year when she married Alexander Van Alstyne, who was a respected teacher of music at the school. Until she was in her 40s, Crosby had always written secular music. When she was introduced to the well-known church musician W. B. Bradbury she began to write only gospel song lyrics. She sought the help of others to put the lyrics to music. When Crosby began to write gospel music, she said she became the “happiest creature in all the land.”

Crosby never began writing a hymn text until she first got on her knees and prayed for divine guidance. She was also characterized by the little American flag that she always carried along with her Bible.

One day in 1875 Crosby desperately needed five dollars, but had no way to obtain the money. As was her custom, she got on her knees and began to pray about her destitute situation. Within a few minutes a stranger appeared at her door and gave her five dollars. Of the incident Crosby later wrote, “I have no way of accounting for this except to believe that God, in answer to my prayer, put it into the heart of this good man to bring the money.” After her prayer, the first thought that came to her was how wonderful it was that the Lord leads her. With that inspiring thought she immediately wrote the lyrics for the hymn All the Way My Savior Leads Me.
Ron L.

* * *

2 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10
Our Daily Bread in October of 1992 shared this story. During the Spanish-American War, Clara Barton was overseeing the work of the Red Cross in Cuba. One day Colonel Theodore Roosevelt came to her, wanted to buy food for his sick and wounded Rough Riders. She refused, however, to sell him any. Roosevelt was perplexed. His men needed the help and he was prepared to pay out of his own funds. When he asked someone why he could not buy the supplies, he was told, "Colonel, just ask for it!" A smile broke over Roosevelt's face. Now he understood--the provisions were not for sale. All he had to do was simply ask and they would be given freely.

“Just ask for it.” That statement was true for Roosevelt and is even more powerfully true for those who would come to Jesus. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). Paul is referencing Isaiah 49:8 when he notes, ““At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you” (6:2). He then adds in that same verse, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” 

Will you simply ask for that which can change your eternity?
Bill T.

* * *

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
In this passage the apostle Paul speaks in a series of paradoxes. The Oxford English Dictionary defines paradox as “A statement or tenet contrary to received opinion or belief; often with the implication that it is marvelous or incredible; sometimes with unfavorable connotation, as being discordant with what is held to be established truth, and hence absurd or fantastic; sometimes with favorable connotation, as a correction of vulgar error.”

Paul’s statements are contrary to what most people believe. He lists a series of sufferings that should be a sign that God is against him. If some treat him as an imposter as a result, yet he is true. If some think him nobody, he is well known. He is somebody. Dying, he is alive. Punished (and punishment often resulted in death) he is alive. Rejoicing in sorrow, his poverty makes others rich, and in having nothing he has everything. Certainly this is incredible, and if considered unfavorably by some, it is marvelous to those who know him – and know Jesus.

Paradox is a word with Greek roots, so it’s worth noting that “paradoxos” was the title given to some famous athletes, musicians, and artists. It could be translated as the title “the Admirable,” and there is certainly something admirable about Paul.

There is something paradoxical about Ash Wednesday. Wearing the mark of ashes, a reminder of our death, is a sign of our eternal life. And of course Lent is about the journey of Jesus through death to resurrection.
Frank R.

* * *

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Americans like to praise themselves for their generosity, to tell themselves how good they are. 

According to a 2017 LifeWay Research poll in 2017, 33% of Americans do not think that they are sinners, and nearly three quarter of us (74%) don’t think sin leads to damnation (so apparently our little foibles don’t really matter).  The problem is that we tend to think of sin just in terms of doing bad things. A poll of the religiously unaffiliated conducted by theologian Linda Mercadante revealed that many of them view sin simply as what violates the authentic self, what is good for the individual (belief without borders, pp233,131).  But sin is also about why we do things we do. We need to confess our selfish motives that pollute even the good deeds we do.

John Calvin teaches us why we are blind to sin understood in terms of such selfishness. He once wrote: “But as hypocrisy is always ambitious, we need not wonder that it is blind.”  (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol.XVI/1, p.312) We are so saturated with pride and self-seeking that there is no escape on our own; all of what we do gets polluted. It is as Martin Luther once wrote:

Therefore no one can do a truly good work unless he is a Christian [in grace]. If he does it as a man, then he is not doing it for the glory of God, but for his own glory and advantage. On the other hand, if he claims that it is for the glory of God, that is a lie that smells to high heaven.  (Luther’s Works, Vol.12, p.134)

Elsewhere Luther explains how God makes it possible for us to do good and avoid the false piety Jesus critiques in our lesson:

The Spirit came pouring into their hearts, making them different beings, making them creatures who loved and willingly obeyed God... He wrote in those hearts His pure and fiery restoring them to life and causing them to respond with fiery tongues and efficient hands.  They became new creatures, aware of possessing altogether different minds and different tendencies.  Then all was life and light; understanding, will and heart burned and delighted in whatever was acceptable to God. (Collected Sermons, Vol./42, p.331)
Mark E.

* * *

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Humility is something humanity has difficulty with. We like to be recognized for our accomplishments, earn rewards, be seen as experts. Our accomplishments are not necessarily, in most cases, designed for our self-aggrandizement, but we surely like being recognized.  Yet, this gospel lesson reminds us that there is no value, no real value, in that recognition. Matthew reminds us that God does not revel in our recognition. Rather God wants us to act as the faithful, but not make a big deal about it.

Matthew reminds us to pray in the quiet, to offer alms with discretion, to wash our face and not make a big deal about spiritual fasting or sacrifice. It is not the human display and recognition of our actions that pleases God, it is our efforts to be in right relationship with God, to have our hearts in the right place. May that be our goal, especially this Lenten Season.
Bonnie B.

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