Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on Ash Wednesday 2/17/2021. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 7pm, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Ash Wednesday Bulletin
“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.” Joel 2:12-13
“Rend” is not a word we use very often. It has to do with tearing something apart, sometimes even violently.
To rend a garment, then, means to rip it open. In a moment of great affliction, sorrow, shame, or repentance, someone would tear at their clothes, exposing their heart.
This outward action is supposed to be a reflection of what is happening in that heart. The one rending his garments is undone, torn apart, and ripped open, even violently. Again, the idea is that what is happening on the outside is also happening on the inside.
So why does God invite a contrast? Why does God draw such a distinction between rending hearts and rending garments?
Lutherans are usually pretty good at answering this question. And yes, it’s true: there is every chance that the repentance being expressed by rending garments is… Fake. Phony. Bogus. False. Counterfeit. Hypocritical.
If for a moment on this Ash Wednesday we can fast forward to Holy Week, let us consider the high priest in Matthew 26. There Jesus is on trial in front of the Sanhedrin. And there, mockingly, the high priest said to him:
“I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest [rent] his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?”
They answered, “He deserves death.” verses 63-66
Was this man who rent his garments returning to the Lord his God? Was he rending his heart in repentance?
This is why God makes a distinction, saying to rend your hearts and not your garments.
We’re not likely to do that anyways, I suppose. Few people know how to sew anymore, so, rending our garments sounds wildly inconvenient and impractical.
But there is another penitential custom that we’ve managed to bring back. Like the rending of garments, the ashes are supposed to be a mark of something happening on the inside.
When Tamar was violated by Amnon, she doused herself with ashes as a sign of her grief. Job famously covered himself in them as he mourned his many afflictions. For Daniel, they were an accompaniment to his heartfelt prayers as he suffered. The prophet, Jeremiah, told Jerusalem to cover herself in ashes as disaster drew near. You get the idea.
The ashes are the outward expression of a bleeding and pleading heart, one that has been rent by sin and by sinners. But covering ourselves in ashes is probably never coming back into fashion either. We’ll likely stick with a well-curated dab once a year. So, what does all of this rending and ashing mean?
It means to repent. It means to return to the Lord with all your heart; with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; with hearts ripped apart from the pain and weight of your sins, which are many and serious.
Hear my voice as a trumpet in Zion, the Church:
Consecrate a fast.
Call a solemn assembly.
Gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation.
Assemble the elders.
Gather the children, even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.
Between the vestibule and the altar, let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep, and say,
“Spare your people, O Lord,
and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” verses 15-17
What God’s Word is commanding here is not merely complaint or lament. The unbelieving world has been tearing its garments for the last year. They are covered in the proverbial sackcloth and ashes. They are in pain and agony. They weep and they mourn, and it is fitting to show them pity and mercy in any way you can; for example, be generous and merciful with the money you save from fasting. But don’t be confused.
The high priest was mourning when he rent his garments. He was contrite (sad), but he was not repentant. And the difference between those two things – between contrition and repentance is faith.
You are a holy people. You who are but dust and ashes have had the Holy Spirit poured onto you in Baptism. You are those who by grace through faith cling to Christ.
Do not mourn as the world does. Do not grieve as those who have no hope. Do not cover yourself in ashes and pretend that’s all there is to it. Do not rend your garments and leave your hearts intact.
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. verse 13
Your ashes are not like the ones covering the unbelieving world. Your ashes are cross-shaped. Like you, like your life, and like your death, your ashes are cruciform.
A reminder that there is one Christ and one cross, and every Christian is eventually pressed into it.
The ashes, then, are a marker of your sanctification. By the crosses you bear, by the things you suffer, God will shape you and train you, as he did to David.
This day is a call to examine your lives. How does your suffering differ from that of the world? Are you grieving like those who have no hope? Are you being trained in righteousness? Or are you resisting that training? Are your ashes just ashes? Or are they cross-shaped?
It is not too late. “Even now,” declares the Lord. Even now He welcomes your return. Even now, Christ is risen. The temple curtain is rent. Heaven is rent. The grave is rent. The power of hell is rent.
Repent, return, and rejoice.
Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. The Lord answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.” verses 18-19
How much more all of you? You have not been anointed with plain oil, but with the Holy Spirit. You receive not mere bread, which will leave you hungry again, but the Body of Christ, which will satisfy you forever. The drink God sends you is fortified, strengthened, and made more potent by the Blood of His Son, that you would thirst no more.
And you will be satisfied; and [He] will no more make you a reproach among the nations.