Heart to Heart: Sackcloth and Ashes to Robes of Righteousness
Topic: Biblical Verse: Joel 2:12–2:19
February 14, 2018
Joel 2:12-19 and Revelation 7:9-14
“Heart to Heart: Sackcloth and Ashes to Robes of Righteousness”
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day season of Lent that prepares us for the joy of celebrating Christ’s resurrection at Easter. Besides being Ash Wednesday, today is also Valentine’s Day, something which doesn’t happen very often. But wait – there’s more! Easter Sunday this year also falls on another unusual day – April Fool’s Day, April 1. No joke! Easter last fell on April 1 in 1956, but Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day and Easter Sunday on April Fool’s Day has not happened since 1945 (https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/columnists/jim-stingl/2018/01/12/stingl-its-rare-not-since-1945-have-ash-wednesday-and-easter-landed-valentines-day-and-april-fools-d/1026681001). By calendar coincidence, this day of ashes and repentance falls on a day that focuses on love. Maybe the two are not as far apart as we might think. Love, if it truly be love, must include repentance; turning away from self-centered thinking and living. Love must be willing to sacrifice. And so we come to the theme for our Lenten journey this year, which begins today. “Return from Exile” is that theme, which will focus our preaching for both midweek and weekend worship services. At its core, Lent is about returning, as the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Joel tells us: “’Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:12-13). Love moves us to repentance, and repentance is always accompanied by a return. All of us have wandered away from our heavenly Father. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our sin has placed us in exile; away from the joy, the peace, the blessing of life with God. Lent is a call for each of us to return from exile and return to the Lord. That returning begins today. The theme for this Ash Wednesday sermon is “Heart to Heart: Sackcloth and Ashes to Robes of Righteousness.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
People generally fall into one of two categories: those who love shopping for clothes and those who do not. I fall into the latter category. I really dislike clothes shopping, so when I have to do this, I just want to get in, get what I need, and get out again. But clothes are necessary, of course. Besides keeping us warm, they express our individuality. But the truth is that our clothing is really a cover up, covering up our nakedness. Way back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1ff.). They discovered that they were naked and tried to cover up their shame by sewing fig leaves together – the world’s first clothes. They were trying to cover up more than their nakedness; they were trying to cover up their sin and disobedience. They were trying to deceive God. It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Try as we might to sew our own fig leaves together and hide the truth from God, God is not fooled. If the desires of our heart were laid bare for all to see, we would indeed be ashamed: evil thoughts, thefts, murders, adulteries, addictions, selfish wants, jealousy, strife, anger, idolatry. We can only say with Scripture: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy rag” (Isaiah 64:6). This is the condition of our inner being, our heart, that we seek to hide not only from others, but from God. We may indeed fool others, but we do not fool the Lord. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks upon the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7b).
In ages past, people would put on sackcloth as a sign of grief and repentance. Think very large potato sack – shapeless, rough, and itchy. In mourning and loss, people would sit in dust and ashes wearing sackcloth. Within the life of Israel, people would also express their sorrow and distress by tearing their clothing; an outward sign for inward turmoil. But the prophet Joel calls on the people of his day to something different: “rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). A torn garment only reveals the problem: a corrupt and sinful heart. A torn heart, a heart that is broken and contrite before God because of sin (Psalm 51:17), is the first step toward healing. Our healing from the ravages of sin begins with acknowledging the truth that we heard earlier: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is where our return from exile begins. As somber as this is, let us not lose sight of the fact that the ashes on our foreheads are in the sign of the cross, reminding us that the Lord “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13a). We, who can do nothing, have a God who has done everything in our behalf. Ashes remind us of our sin and mortality, but ashes in the sign of the cross remind us that we have a God who is able to bring life from death. We have a God who did not withhold the life of his only begotten Son, but freely gave him up for us all.
The cross – an instrument of torture and death, but the means by which God has given life to the world. At the cross God has cleansed our hearts and exchanged our garments. At the cross Jesus has taken our place, bearing in his body the penalty and punishment for our sin. At the cross, Jesus was stripped of his clothing and was left to hang naked in our stead. People were crucified completely naked, adding shame to the execution. Jesus who was without sin became sin for us. “For our sake [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We attempt to cover our sin and shame and nakedness, but Jesus exposes it all in himself there on the cross for us. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4a, 5). A gracious and merciful God has offered up the life of his only Son so that the sin which exiled us from his presence might be cleansed and we might be restored. This is where our return from exile begins, but where does it end?
Our return from exile doesn’t end with sackcloth and ashes, sin and shame. Our return to the Father through Jesus our Savior ends with this glorious vision from the final book of Scripture:
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, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 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, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9-14).
No fig leaves or sackcloth here! No filthy rags or ashes in sight! Only white robes that have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb! By faith in Jesus, this is what we look forward to. And so on this Ash Wednesday as our Lenten journey begins, we begin our return from exile “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, scorning the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Amen.