Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Truth Will Set You Free

February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday
© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

“You look tired,” I said to a classmate of mine in seminary. She was a good friend—the kind of friend you stay up late with, drinking wine and talking about theology and politics and how our class of aspiring priests would solve all of the church’s problems that the generation ahead of us had left behind. When I said that she looked tired, I said those words out of love and concern for my friend, but, before she had a chance to respond, another classmate of ours interrupted and said, “Evan! Don’t ever tell a woman that she looks tired! Ever!” I was taken aback. I hadn’t meant any real criticism by my comment. I wasn’t trying to point out that she looked tired as much as I was trying to let her know that I cared for her and that I sensed that she might be having a tough week. I apologized.

In fact, she did look tired. She even admitted it later on when the other classmate wasn’t around to hear it and I apologized yet again. I understood what the other student was trying to do. It is rude to tell someone—man or woman—that he or she looks tied. It’s rude to say that someone looks like she or he has gained some weight. It’s rude to say that the years are really catching up with someone quickly. It’s rude to say that someone isn’t as sharp as she used to be or as good at something as he once was. It’s rude to tell someone that his jokes aren’t funny or that her breath smells bad. It’s rude to admit that you think that someone’s pot roast is terrible or that you find her constant whining really annoying.

Most of the time, it is impolite to tell the truth. Even when our words are spoken out of friendship, love, and genuine concern, they are not welcome. We’d rather pretend that it’s not as bad as it is—that our hair isn’t that gray, that our pants aren’t that tight, that our jokes aren’t that bad—than hear someone tell us the truth. We only want to see the very best in ourselves, and we expect others to enable us to live under that delusion. But God knows that something is wrong, and so do we.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” That was God’s way of getting everyone’s attention. Like us, people back then had been ignoring the truth for generations, and the day of judgement was coming. Those in positions of authority had abused their power. The priests cared more about taking bribes than offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. No one wanted to hear the truth, but the integrity of the nation was crumbling. The armies of their enemies were amassing at their borders like a swarm of locusts preparing to devour a field. No one wanted to admit it, and no one wanted to listen to a prophet point it out.

We don’t need a prophet to tell us that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Look around. Children are hungry. Addiction is rampant. Violence spills out in our streets, in our schools. Suffering has no end. People die before their time. And, for the most part, people like us are insulated from it. That sounds a lot like life back in the time of the prophet Joel. Those things may not feel like they are our fault, but they are symptoms of the sin that infects us all. The question is whether we are willing to confront it and, if so, what good it might do.

A month ago, at 8:07 on a Saturday morning, cell phones and televisions and radios in Hawaii alerted people that a ballistic missile was on its way and that people should immediately seek shelter. To everyone’s horror, the alert made it clear that it was not a drill. Of course, we now know that it was a mistake—that a state employee involved in the warning system mistook a test for the real thing. In hindsight, however, the false alarm has raised some important existential questions like whether people should be warned ahead of a devastating attack if there is nothing that they can do about it. Would you rather spend the last ten minutes of your life blissfully ignorant of the inevitable destruction that is on its way or fighting through an inescapable panic? Those Christians who put up billboards on the side of the highway that make us feel like waiting for Jesus’ return is like waiting for a ballistic missile attack might ask themselves such questions about the day of the Lord, but Joel makes it clear that that’s not the issue we face.

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Our God is a forgiving God. Our God wants to welcome us back with open arms. Our God waits to take our brokenness upon himself and make us whole. But how will we ever know the limitless love of God if no one ever tells us the truth about our need for forgiveness and if we refuse to admit the truth of our sin to ourselves?

Today is a day when we not only acknowledge the truth of our brokenness but actually wear it on our foreheads. Usually, we sit in church pretending that we’re humble while also pretending that we’re not completely desperate. But today is the day when it’s ok to strip away all the pretense and admit how much we need God. Today, we all come together—old and young, even infants at the breast—to say to one another and to God that our lives aren’t the way that they could be and that our only hope is in God. Today, we tell ourselves that truth not because we want to convince God to accept our repentance but because we are convinced that God will. We are not here to pretend that we are miserable in order to make God happy. Instead, we are here to confront the magnitude of our brokenness—our need for God’s help—in order that we might find the help we need.

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