When I was nine years old I was sick, out of school for several weeks with a virus that just would not go away. Two interesting things happened to me during those weeks. First, I got to witness history unfold: I watched the very first episode ever of “All My Children,” and had my first glimpse Erica Kane, who was then just a scheming high schooler. And second, in the midst of my infirmity, Ash Wednesday came around, and I went into a complete panic about the fact that I would not be able to receive ashes.
You might wonder: what interest did a nine-year-old girl have in putting a black splotchy cross on her forehead? Especially since—there was no one much around to take note? I feel confident I did not have a real appreciation of the meaning of the ashes, but that didn’t matter to me. All I knew was: I wanted those ashes. I needed them. That’s all there was to it.
Ashes are a symbol of sorrow and death and repentance. In the stories of God’s people found in the Old Testament, ashes are put on like some sort of strange anti-makeup when circumstances are dire, terrible. Job covers himself with ashes after all his children are killed. The people of Nineveh put on ashes when they realize God is serious about destroying them as punishment for their wicked ways.
Christians, from the very earliest times, wore ashes as a sign of their repentance from sin and embracing a new way of life. And so we, too, wear ashes on this day, the start of Lent, a forty-day season (not counting the Sundays!) of immersing ourselves in the life and teachings of Jesus. Lent is a time when we too repent. But just like that nine-year-old girl who wasn’t a hundred percent sure what the ashes she needed actually meant, we aren’t sure, it seems to me, of what repentance means.
That’s where our story from Joel comes in. I wonder if you caught what was going on in the first eleven verses of that reading... listen again to just a couple of verses:
Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. ~Joel 2:2b-3
It’s subtle, but can you hear it? The army? The army Joel is describing is a swarm of locusts. They leave behind them “a desert wilderness.” It’s a terrifying description, all the more so when you get what exactly is being described. In the face of this uncontrollable force of nature, the people of the ancient world would have covered themselves with ashes because it was crystal clear to them: only the help of God could save them. They needed God.
And then, in verse 12, the whole tone of the passage changes.
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. ~ Joel 2:12-13
The prophet tells us that God says, “Turn to me,” and that’s it, the definition of repentance, in a nutshell. Turning to God. Sometimes we wonder exactly what we’re repenting of. Oh, some of us have an excellent idea of what our sins are. When I was a nine-year-old I made lists, and carried them into the confessional with a flashlight... until it dawned on me that the light illuminated my face as well as my nice, detailed list. But some of us wonder what we’re repenting of. We feel that we are basically good people... and we are, we’re wonderful people, every single one of us! So... we don’t need to repent, right? We’re already on the right track, so... put away the ashes. Right?
But that’s not what repentance means. “Repentance” doesn’t mean that we have a long laundry list of offenses, with or without flashlights to read them by. Repentance means something fairly simple, something that the murderer and the person who frets because she didn’t smile broadly enough at the check-out clerk have in common. Repentance, turing to God, is our acknowledgement that we need God. When we repent, we are saying, “I need God.”
I need God. To fill my lungs with air, to help me get out of bed in the morning, to keep me honest about how I spend my days and nights. I need God. This is the essential character of the human being: we stand in need of God, we can’t do it (whatever “it” is) alone. And the really, really good news for us is that the essential character of God meets that need. God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” as the prophet tells us (Joel 2:13). “Steadfast love” is what makes up the essential character of God. And we can turn to God in repentance, not because we have successfully enumerated our sins, or because we know exactly the right prayers to say, or because we have finally figured out the secret of how to be really, really good people. We can turn to God in repentance—saying, “I need you”—because the very nature of God is to love us faithfully, to forgive us extravagantly, and to long for our wholeness even more than we long for it ourselves.
So repent and believe the gospel—the good news that we need God and God is love and faithfulness. And wear your ashes like a sick fourth grader... the end of the story is that my mother brought them to me in a little envelope, and she applied them to my feverish forehead. And I needed them, I didn’t quite know why, but putting them on filled me with an irrational joy. Wear your ashes like that. Thanks be to God. Amen.