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Ash Wednesday
February 13, 2013
The Old Testament: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Sermon: "Rend Your Heart!"

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles

Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel

The Old Testament:

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--
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
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,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the LORD, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep.
Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
`Where is their God?'"

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Rend Your Heart!

This is the first night of Lent: a time to reflect, to think deeply, to weep. Most of us can appreciate that reflection part of Lent; but the weeping? Now is that really necessary? How often we try to hold in our emotions; especially do we try to conceal our grief. We are practiced at it, often successful at even convincing ourselves that we are not afflicted by inner pain as others may be. But we pay a price for such self-deception.

Someone has compared it to holding a beach ball under the water. If you've ever tried holding a beach ball under water, you soon discover what a difficult task it is. The air inside the ball forces it to move toward the surface of the water. In order to keep the ball under the water we have to exert strength and energy. The longer we hold the ball under the water, the more tired we become. In order to rest from the effort we have to let the ball rise to the surface. Likewise, the emotions that God gave us need to be allowed to come to the surface. Many of us are unconsciously trying to hold our emotions inside and are using strength and energy that we need for other things. The longer we hold these emotions inside the less strength and energy remains. We wear ourselves out trying to avoid dealing with our emotions. 

Did you know that the Bible teaches us that it's good to cry? Paul the Apostle wrote, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." (Romans 12:15). Our Scripture passage from the second chapter of Joel reads like this: "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, Rend your heart, and not your clothing, return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishment." 

It's good to cry; to show our emotions; to rend our hearts. In fact, there are times when it is particularly good to cry. 

FIRST, IT'S GOOD TO REND OUR HEARTS OVER THE STATE OF OUR SOCIETY. It would certainly be appropriate to cry over our society. Less than 5 percent of the world's population lives in the United States, and yet we consume more than 50 percent of the world's cocaine. Our national defense spending, which currently runs ahead of the next ten nations combined, is dwarfed by what we spend on the gambling industry. Pressures on our young people are extraordinary. I've never seen a better summary of these pressures our youth face than the following letter sent to an advice columnist: 

“Dear Ann:” begins the writer, “The reader signed ‘Georgia,’ who lived through the Depression and described how hard it was to be a teenager in the 30s, said kids today have an easy time of it compared to teens in his day. You said you couldn't argue with him. Well, I can. Let me ask your generation a few questions.” 

“Are your parents divorced? Almost every one of my friends come from a broken home. Were you thinking about suicide when you were 12? Did you have an ulcer when you were 16? Did your best friend lose her virginity to a guy she went out with twice? You may have had to worry about pregnancy, maybe even VD, but did you also have to worry about AIDS? Did your classmates carry guns and knives? How many kids in your class came to school regularly drunk, stoned or high on drugs? Did any of your friends have their brains fried from using Meth? What percentage of your graduating class also graduated from a drug/alcohol rehabilitation center? “

“Did your school have armed security guards in the halls? Did you ever live in a neighborhood where the sound of gunfire at night was normal? You talk a lot about being dirt poor and having no money. Since when does having money mean happiness? The kids at school who have the expensive cars and designer clothes are often the most miserable. When I am your age, Georgia, I won't do much looking back, I'll just thank God that I survived.” 

Reading a letter such as this one makes me realize again just how really needed the youth work we do here at St. Thomas is. It is good to rend our hearts for our Society, and work for and with the youth God has blessed us with here. 

SECOND, IT'S GOOD TO REND OUR HEARTS OVER SOMEONE WE LOVE. I don't believe anyone will disagree with me here. If there is someone we really care about, sooner or later we will shed some tears. Who is not vulnerable to tears when it comes to someone we love? Especially when we lose that someone? 

C.S. Lewis that great apologist for the Christian faith was staggered by the death of his wife Joy. He felt as if he were drunk or had suffered a physical blow to the head; as if there were a blanket between him and the rest of the world. He was in such pain that he reports that he could not even pray. Every time he tried, it was as if a door had been shut in his face and he could hear it being bolted from the other side. It was only later that he came to understand that it had been the bolt of his own heart's door which he had drawn himself in pain. God had not closed the door, Lewis had himself done it to block the pain. 

Some of you have been there. You know what it's like. Your grief has been overwhelming and tears have flowed. Of course, you don't have to lose somebody to death to shed tears over them. Some of you parents have cried over your sons and daughters for reasons only you are aware. And in this day when so many families are broken many sons and daughters know what it is to weep over their parents. Many husbands and wives and partners know what it is to weep for one another. It's good to rend our hearts over our society. It's good to rend our hearts over ones we love. 

But, as our passage in Joel points out, THERE IS ONE MORE VERY GOOD THING OVER WHICH TO REND THE HEART: OUR SINS. That is the crying that our text is about. "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, Rend your heart, and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." 

Now the world does not know of such tears. We live in a time when we don't cry over our sins, we sell them to a publisher. Or we go on the Talk-Show circuit and brag about them. 

The late great comedian, Jonathan Winters, was troubled by this when he negotiated the selling of his autobiography. Several publishers he approached about his book wanted to be sure he included salacious details of any scandalous relationships. Winters had decided not to tell all. Five different publishers asked him, "What about your affairs?" answered Winters, "They are in order." 

Of course, there is a reason that so many do not know about such weeping. If you go to Israel, one of the most awe inspiring sights to see is the Western Wall of the Old Temple of Jerusalem. Great crowds of people gather there to pray. Guides will point out how the Jewish worshipers there will start praying at one end of the Wailing Wall and slowly make their way to where the Holy of Holies used to be. When they get there an unusual phenomenon will occur. When the people begin to pray at the Wailing Wall, their confession of sins will not bother them too much, but the closer they get to the Holy of Holies the more aware of their sins they become and they will begin to weep. 

The closer to God we are, the more conscious we are of our sins. It’s one of the ironies of the spiritual life; the very thing that gives us our greatest and highest joy, closeness to God, is the very thing that can most effectively bring us to tears. If we seldom ever feel the weight of our sinfulness then probably neither do we feel a great sense of closeness to a holy God. 

So many know nothing of crying over its sins. But there are times when we need to weep over them. There are times when we need to confront the worst within us and rend our hearts with grief. To rend our hearts not just because of the wrong we have done, and certainly not just because we may now be paying a price in consequence for our wrongs, but to grieve for hurting the heart of the one who loves us most of all; our Lord Jesus Christ. As our hearts may be rent over someone we love, so his heart is rent over us whom he has loved so much as to die for us. He did it so that nothing would stand in the way between us and the Awesome Majesty of Holy God. Every sin we commit is another hammer blow upon the nails that put him on the Cross. Yet he does not grieve for the pain, he grieves for you and me. 

As you begin this season of Lent, take time to look deep within and confront that which you've been pushing down, trying to keep from facing. Let your heart be rent as you repent; it will cleanse your soul. Then surrender it all to the living God, who is slow to anger, but abounding in steadfast love and mercy. May we each come to be filled with the joy of our salvation.

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