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Ash Wednesday – Series “Return From Exile: A Lenten Journey”

Text:  Joel 2:12-19 & Revelation 7:9-14

Title: “Heart to Heart: Sackcloth and Ashes to Robes of Righteousness”

Date: Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Pastor Steve Bocklage

We do love our clothes, don’t we? It is no accident that there is one clothing store after another in the malls and the shopping centers…shop after shop that offers more than one style of garment. These stores and shops are scattered throughout our towns and cities. Can you imagine if there was only one clothing store selling only one style of clothing intended for all people? Such a thing would cause a rebellion. How would we express our individuality? How would we strut-our-stuff?

         Yet, the bigger questions are: What lurks beneath the coverings, garments, and clothing? What are we covering up? The easy answer is that we are covering our nakedness because we are modest and proper. However, there is more to it than that. In the Scriptures, coverings, garments, and clothing that cover nakedness are in reality covering our shame. Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, and then they realize their nakedness. Suddenly, they know their sin, and because of that knowledge, they are ashamed. So, they sew together fig leaves for fear that the Lord God will see their shame…for fear that He will discover their sin when He walks through the garden. It doesn’t work...because it’s the wrong kind of garment.

         You and I wear our nice, comfortable clothes to hide our nakedness. Our sinful nature believes we can deceive God and He will not notice our shame. Yet, our man-made garments are but filthy rags and what they attempt to cover is even worse. Your heart and my heart are filled with sin and shame. If the desires of your heart were laid bare for all to see, you would indeed be ashamed. Evil thoughts, improper sexual desires, selfish wants, impure motives, jealousy, anger, envy, drunkenness, strife, idolatry…need I go on? This is the condition of our heart…of our inner being. We human beings are not capable of hiding the truth from God. You may fool those around you…and you may be fooled by those around you…but the Lord God sees the condition of all hearts.

         As you well know, you and I are born into this world as sinners, and our journey is back to the ground…back to dust. “From dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” All of your attempts to cover up your sin, every effort to pay up always results in the same destination: dust. Born to die, you and I are dust…and to dust we shall return. It’s into such a sorry spiritual state of affairs that God’s prophet Joel speaks. The people of Israel have wandered away from their God. They have been unfaithful in what they say and do. They have sought other gods and played the harlot…the adulteress. So the Lord will turn them over to disaster. They will be oppressed and downtrodden…and they will suffer want, and will weep in their distress.

         Therefore, Joel calls out: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” The ancient tradition was to express terrible anxiety and distress by tearing your garments, thereby revealing your state of sorrow. But Joel knows that the rending of garments will only reveal the problem of a corrupt and sinful heart. A torn garment shows the problem…a torn heart begins to heal the problem. Rend your hearts and not your garments! Put on sackcloth and ashes. Repent! Return to the Lord! In Psalm 51, King David tells us: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” Repent! Return to the Lord. Yes, it is a journey, a Lenten journey, a return from exile. Our sin has separated us from our God. Sin is the dividing wall of hostility that destroys the relationship between God and humans. He has seen our sin and shame…and that sin and shame have exiled us from the presence of God.

         Return to the Lord with repentant hearts. You and I have gathered here tonight and put on ashes to repent of our sin. You know your sin, and it is always before you. You know the sorry condition of your blackened heart. You know that you, of your own strength and power, cannot return from your sin-stained exile. You know you cannot return to the presence of our God. The ashes remind you and me of our sin and the condition of our hearts. But ashes in the sign of the cross remind us of a gracious and merciful God.

         You and I, who are helpless and hopeless sinners, are told: “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” (Joel 2:13) You have a God who has willingly done everything. Ashes show your sin…and ashes in the sign of the cross show you and me the true nature of our God. The cross is an instrument of torture and death, and the means by which God cleansed our hearts and exchanged our garments. The cross is the place where Jesus is raised up in our place, stripped of His robe, and all of our sins are revealed as He hangs naked. For He who knew no sin became sin for you and me. You and I attempt to cover our sin, but Jesus reveals it so that it might be washed away by His blood. Yes, He bears our griefs and carries our sorrow.

         A gracious and merciful God has offered up His only-begotten Son so that the sin that has exiled you and me from His presence might be washed away and we might be restored to His presence…which is a return from exile, a Lenten journey. And where does this journey end? Not at the cross, not even at the empty tomb. The journey ends in the courts of heaven! Listen to the words of St. John in Revelation 7 as he describes those who are gathered around the throne of the Lamb in His kingdom: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”” (vv. 9-12)

         See the great multitude who wave palm branches as they worship their Savior! Note that they are clothed in white robes and not wearing fig leaves. They are not adorned in filthy rags. They are clothed in robes that have been cleansed…robes washed in the blood of the Lamb of God. (cf. Rev. 7:14b) Their garments of sackcloth have been exchanged for robes of righteousness. The sackcloth and ashes have been exchanged for Christ’s journey to the cross to wash away our sin and cleanse you and me from all unrighteousness. In doing so, you and I are redeemed and returned to the presence of our God.

So, the exile is over. The journey is finished. Our hearts are restored and our sackcloth and ashes are exchanged for garments of salvation and robes of righteousness. Truly, “salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:10b) Amen.

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