“Return to the Lord, your God…” Joel 2:13
Ash Wednesday: the day of the church year (other than funerals and Good Friday) when we deliberately remember that we are finite creatures – dust and water molded together and created human by God. (Gen 2:7) “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the words announce as ashes are rubbed on our foreheads.
Ash Wednesday is also the gateway into the trials and growing pains of Lent as we enter a wilderness of struggle and transformation into deeper faith. We often try to coax such transfiguring experiences out of Lent by giving something up or taking on a new discipline. Sometimes it helps; sometimes it falls flat.
I remember one year giving up chocolate for Lent only to get three boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mints delivered two weeks into the season. I suffered but didn’t grow much in my faith besides learning to time my cookie buying more effectively.
“Return to the Lord, your God…” Perhaps this is what we ought to do for Lent this year: Return to God. Leave behind the anger, hate, and injustice, let go of the fear, anxiety, and blaming and “Return to the Lord, your God.”
The prophet Joel describes what he believes “returning to God” means: “fasting, weeping, mourning, rending our hearts and calling a solemn assembly in which the preachers cry out in front of everyone, ‘spare your people, O God.’” Certainly we could do with some prayer-filled lamenting over God’s perceived absence during this past year of suffering.
David in Psalm 51 returns to God through a deep repentance for sins he committed. “Do not cast me from your presence and do not take your holy spirit from me,” he cries. “Instead create in me a clean heart.” We too, if we’re willing to take an honest look at our behaviors, could benefit from sincere confession in these days of division and violence, trusting in the joy of God’s salvation and forgiveness.
Or perhaps “returning to the Lord, our God” this year means simply doing what God asks the disciples to do during the transfiguration on the mountaintop: “Listen to him!” From the heavens, God proclaims, “This is my son, my beloved. Just listen to him.”
“Returning to God” is certainly about listening to God. An active, consistent, deep listening that doesn’t merely hear words on Sunday and then ignore them at the council meeting or in the grocery store.
“Returning to God” is listening to Jesus’ call to love God with our whole self and loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s listening to Jesus’ reminder to do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves. It’s listening as Jesus tells us he wants us to love our enemies and welcome those who are hungry, thirsty, stranger, unclothed, sick, in prison, or vulnerable and oppressed in some way. (Mt 25:31-46)
And then “returning to God” is doing it. If we are truly going to return to the Lord, our God, we must not only listen and understand; we are called to actually DO IT. Returning to God means following Christ’s call to love and serve in all we say, think and do.
Take for example the governor’s recent statement regarding “personal responsibility” as he removed the mask mandate. For followers of Christ, this does not mean doing what the culture says about personal responsibility by saying “I have the freedom to be responsible only for me and mine; others can take care of themselves.” That’s the self-indulgence Paul warns us against. (Gal 5:13)
Jesus teaches a different kind of “personal responsibility” that is centered on the neighbor, not the self. And it’s actually what we’ve been teaching all along – loving our neighbors. Being “personally responsible” is being responsive to our neighbors’ well-being and personhood. It means using our ability to respond by taking care of them, loving them and serving them even if we have to wear masks until Christ’s Second Coming!
The season of Lent is not about self-centered actions that pile up treasures for ourselves in this world. No season of the Church is about that, even Christmas. Lent is about returning to the Lord, your God, to listen to God…for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
As we wander through the wilderness of Lent this year, let us return to follow Jesus Christ into the never-ending love and forgiving grace that God gives you and me on the cross. And let us return to the new and abundant life God gives in the “already, not yet” resurrection.
For though we may be dust, in Christ we are and shall be the resurrected dust of the universe, filled with the eternal life of Christ and God-beloved forever.
In Christ, Bishop Laurie
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod