Return to the LORD, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Amen.
So, those of you who were here this past Sunday, when our guest preacher Lyn Westman from Mercy Ships preached on the Transfiguration, may remember that on the last Sunday of the season after Epiphany we hear stories from Hebrew scripture and the early Christian community of people withdrawing from the ordinary rhythms of community in order to focus their attention on God’s movement in the world.
From the book of Exodus we heard how the LORD invited Moses to come up the mountain in order to receive the law, God’s promise to be faithful to the people of Israel. Moses climbs Mount Sinai and enters the cloudy heights and spends forty days and nights in God’s presence. But when he descends to rejoin the people of Israel at the base of the mountain, he finds them worshipping a golden calf, and idol made of gold. Moses destroys the idol, and intercedes on behalf of the people to their God, who is angry and heartbroken over their faithlessness. So God calls Moses up the mountain again, telling him to bring with him two stone tablets so that he may once again bring the people evidence of God’s covenant of love. When God meets Moses this second time on the mountain top, God proclaims,
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation. (Ex. 34:6b-7)
When Moses descends from the mountaintop this second time with the tablets of the covenant his face is shining with the glory of the LORD, a light so bright that it frightened Moses’ followers and he had to wear a veil when he would meet with them.
And also, from the gospel of Matthew, we read early on that before Jesus began his ministry of teaching and healing, before he ascended up the mountaintop to deliver the Sermon on the Mount that we have been hearing and studying these past two months, he also went into the wilderness for forty days and nights, where he fasted and was tempted with alternate visions for what his ministry might be about. But when he returned from those days of dedication in the wilderness he was unwavering in his message of God’s priority for the poor and the peaceful, the merciful and the meek. After preaching that gospel throughout the countryside, and as he approached the end of his life, Jesus too retreats from the rhythms of his daily life for a time of prayer during which he is transfigured and shines with the glory of God that is within him.
The relationship of these two stories of retreat and transformation are the bridge that bring us to this night, which marks the beginning of forty days and nights for each of us. We are on one side of a wilderness journey that will offer us plenty of opportunities to see the alternate visions for life together on God’s good earth to which we have fallen prey, to repent of the idolatries that have held us captive, and to return to the LORD our God with faith that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
On this side of the wilderness journey we are summoned to walk this path together. The prophet Joel cries out,
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near –
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, [who] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. (Joel 2:1,12-13)
But then Matthew’s passage for this evening begins,
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. (Mt. 6:2)
To sound the trumpet, or not to sound the trumpet – that appears to be the question for Ash Wednesday. Not to get caught up in too small a detail, but let’s just think for a moment about the function of the trumpet in both of these instances.
In Joel’s pronouncement, the trumpet serves to call all of God’s people together – to pray together, to confess together, to lament together. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is warning those who will listen about calling attention to their piety as a way of separating themselves from the rest of the community. The kinds of prayer and almsgiving he denounces are the forms of spirituality that are, in the end, self-serving instead of serving others.
And that is the kind of spirituality that lands the people of Israel, the people in Jesus’ time, and we ourselves in trouble in the first place. When our hearts’ desires are fixated on our own prosperity without care for the needs of others, then we have taken our place alongside every other age that worships the golden calf and we need to repent and return to the LORD our God.
When our public actions are calculated to earn the respect and admiration of others, but our private behavior is oriented only towards our own gain, then we have taken our place alongside every other age that worships the golden calf and we need to repent and return to the LORD our God.
When our charitable giving, or the money we loan a friend in need, is offered as a way of gaining an advantage over another or building a reputation for ourselves, then we have taken our place alongside every other age that worships the golden calf and we need to repent and return to the LORD our God.
But, the point is, tha
t we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. We all mistake our priorities and concerns for God’s, and we all need to repent and return to the LORD our God.
The invitation, this side of the wilderness before us, is to use these forty days and nights to draw closer to God, to find disciplines of prayer, fasting and self-giving that move us from preoccupation with self to caring concern for our neighbors.
This is not an individual marathon. The challenge is not to set a goal that will push you to the point of perfection, which would only further reinforce our sense of self and draw us away from others. The point, these forty days, I think, is to find disciplines of prayer, fasting and self-giving that will remind each of us that we are deeply connected to each other and to the entire world.
So, perhaps these forty days you will choose to give something up – chocolate or coffee – as a form of fasting. But, if you do, then I’d ask you to consider taking the money that you would normally spend on those beverages and give it to a charity supporting those who struggle daily with hunger or thirst. Here at St. Luke’s we’re inviting people to give the money they would usually spend on coffee or soft drinks to our clean water campaign, which will go toward helping to build a well in parts of the world where clean water is not a given. This combines fasting with self-giving.
Or, perhaps you were thinking of devoting an extra period of time each day to prayer and meditation during these forty days. If so, I’d invite you to consider also taking the time to call or visit those for whom you pray, or to volunteer with an organization that serves the communities for which you are praying. This combines prayer with self-giving.
As we do this, as we each find the disciplines that will help us remember our deep interconnectedness, we pray that we will find ourselves becoming less preoccupied with self and more joyfully aware of our ability to be a part of God’s healing and restoring work in the world. As we do this, we are actually crossing the wilderness of these forty days and making our way past the cross, the place where God shows God’s solidarity with all the world’s suffering.
As we do this, we are knitting ourselves together, we are re-membering the body of Christ, born in baptism and sustained by grace, so that on the other side of these forty days we can join with all the people of God in every time and place as members of the living body of Christ. On that day it will be we who come down from the mountaintop, shining with the glory of those who have seen the glory of God’s love, God’s mercy and God’s justice in the faces of those God calls us to love and serve – even as we ourselves are loved and served by neighbors God is sending to tend to our own needs.
On this day, marked by the final long nights of winter, aware of our sin and our mortality, we begin a journey that we will take together. When we arrive on the far side of this passage we will know again what has always been true. That we were made in love, for love, by our God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.