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February 21, 2007 (Ash Wednesday)—“Alleluia to Auwe”
Interim Pastor Steven Jensen
Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21
Have you given much thought to the symbolism of our use of the palm fronds from Palm Sunday for the ashes we use tonight? What transpired in such a short time that would cause the people of God such a dramatic shift in attitude and behavior? Are you able to appreciate the feelings and images and spontaneous celebration of the faithful of that day when Jesus entered the Holy City? Do you remember what life was really like for the Chosen People at that time?
What would it have been like to be a conquered people trying to retain a sense of identity as the chosen of the one true God? How difficult would it be to try to live with foreigners on the one hand having the power of life and death over you, capriciously meeting out punishment, taking what little you had, treating you like scum? And on the other, the leaders of your own faith holding you accountable for rules and regulations—often of their own design or interpretation—to maintain their positions of authority and power, taking more from you and giving little spiritual sustenance in return?
In the midst of great tribulation and despair comes Jesus. He makes the scriptures come alive for these people but often turns the traditional meaning upside down. He introduces a whole new relationship with the God they have worshiped their entire lives—a God feared and revered and sacrificed to now described as one of presence and caring and forgiving and hope and healing and new life. The God of Moses who would not reveal his name beyond “I am who I am” is through Jesus so approachable that he calls him “Abba” (Daddy).
The ancient prophecies handed down are spoken again amidst his miracles, amidst his breaking of bread with the outcasts, amidst his tears shed for God’s people—and it is proclaimed that they are now being fulfilled in Jesus. What is it that now stirs in their hearts, their souls. It is a feeling unlike any other they have had or dared to hope for. Could it be that their prayers and those of their ancestors are being answered now, today, in their lifetimes? Oh, if only it were true that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah.
What would that mean for God’s people, for me? “It probably means we can return to a time like when David was our king, a time of greatness, a time when we conquer and rule others, a time when God protects and provides for his people.”
“So I guess all of my sacrifices in the temple and my following the formula for praying and my obedience to the commandments were done correctly and well. God is giving me what I asked for, and I now have only to join the procession of the Messiah to the palace and watch as he brings down fire and death on Herod and the Romans and all the people who have made my life so miserable. Hallelujah! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Here, I’ll throw down my tunic in his path. Hey, hand me one of those palm branches so I can honor our new king! Here he comes! Hosanna, hosanna to God in the highest!”
“Wait. Where’s he going? Why’s he heading into the temple? Oh, well, I guess I can wait a minute while he gives homage to God—but don’t make it one of those big shows like the priests and Pharisees and the others who like to hear themselves pray. We can do that after he takes the throne, after he exterminates our oppressors, after he declares God’s rule.”
“What’s taking so long? What’s all the commotion? He’s doing what? Turning over the tables of the moneychangers, scattering the animals and birds sold for sacrifice, chasing out the temple’s purveyors? Whatever. Just get back out here, get back on the donkey, and let’s get to the palace. We’ve waited long enough for God to show the world what it means to be his chosen people. Let’s get on with it!”
“What do you mean he’s not going to the palace? That’s it? I got all excited for nothing? He has the nerve to claim he’s the Son of God, to get my hopes up, to pull me out of survival mode and now thrust me back in it? That’s worse than if he’d never come here. He’s just another nut job. Then again, he’s worse. He’s messing with my faith. He’ll pay. Just wait. He’ll pay. What am I doing with this stupid palm in my hand? How am I ever going to find that tunic again?”
. . .
“Hey, you! What’s with the crowd at Herod’s? Why are all the priests and their lackeys so worked up? Which poor guy do they have it in for now? Heresy you say? Who? Some other John the Baptist? Jesus? Jesus of Nazareth? The one who was riding the donkey in that procession the other day? It’s about time somebody did something about him. Mess with me, will you? What are they yelling? Yea, crucify him! Some crown you’re sporting now, Messiah. Soon your kingdom will be dust and ash—just like my dreams.”
How do we relate some 2000 years later to such a turn? When in our lives have we waived the palm branch, praising God for responding to our long-hoped-for dreams, singing hallelujahs that our turn to share in life’s riches had come, giving thanks that the Holy One was apparently on our side?
At what points have there been dramatic changes that have resulted in our cursing God and telling him to go away, to leave us alone?
How is it that we have convinced ourselves that if we play by the rules, attend worship often enough, obey the commandments, pray in the proper way, that we win God over and he rewards our effort with what we want the way we want it?
What are the ashes of our lives, of our hopes and dreams, of our spirituality, when our hurts are so deep we lash out at the one who is the great healer? When do we utter the words that rend every parent’s heart—“I hate you, Mommy, Daddy, Abba!” What prompts us to throw our own tantrums, sever our relationship when we don’t get what we want the way we want it?
Jesus’ message in our Gospel lesson today speaks to what is in the hearts of those who come into God’s presence. He doesn’t want a show of affection, he wants more. God wants us; all of us. God doesn’t want us dabbling in religion; he wants our very souls to be connected to him.
We recognize and honor those rare persons who are able by dint of hard work and determination to rise from the ashes of their lives, their dreams, to make a success of themselves. But in the end, they themselves will turn to ash and dust.
We Christians have a God who made us from the ash of stars that once blazed in his firmament and breathed life into us. In the short span of our earthly existence, he promises that he will continually raise us up when we fall, that he will give worth and value to our lives, that even our poor efforts when done in faith will positively impact the lives of others. The Creator was not content that we would simply return to the dust from which we were created and that would be the end of us. The God of the universe sacrificed his only Son so that from that dust, we would be raised to life eternal. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—but in sure and certain hope of life forever in his kingdom.
Tonight we come together as the people of God acknowledging that there have been and there will be times in our lives when we have gone from alleluia to auwe, from waiving palm frond to waiving “Go away.”
The ashes that we have placed on our foreheads acknowledge as Luther prayed, without God’s aid and counsel, we would easily wreck it all. The ashes in the sign of the cross are not a public display or our penitence or our piety. They are for us a reminder of the deepest, darkest times in our lives that come when we separate ourselves from God.
As we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we hear them with the understanding that that return to dust will only be temporary, that God will raise us from the dead as surely as he raised his Son. Those words are a reminder in this season of Lent not only of the cost of that assurance, of that gift, but that our sinfulness, our rebellion, was the reason for the high cost.
Throughout these forty days, we focus more on the “auwes” brought on by our attitudes and behaviors than the alleluias for the Christ who came that we might have life. Let us each take the time leading up to Good Friday to remember that Christ died for us—for you and for me. After such soulful reflection, our “auwes” can indeed give greater voice and enthusiasm to the Easter alleluias.
Copyright © 2007 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org