This is a day of joy and celebration: you are alive, you are found, and you are home.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (shaped by Jesus’ story in Luke 15:11-32)
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This is not a day for your shame to overwhelm you. This is not a day for your guilt to crush you.
This is not a day for your imminent death to terrify you or lead you into despair.
That is not what we do today.
This is a day of homecoming. A day of rejoicing. A day of celebration.
Jesus told a parable about a father and two sons that ended in a great party, noisy, joyful, full of food. A party of resurrection celebrating that the one who was dead is now alive again. That party is today.
Because today this is the voice of the prophet for you: “Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful. Return to the Lord your God, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Today this is the voice of God’s servant for you: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” And today this is the voice of God for you: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
“Now is [that] acceptable time, now is [that] day of salvation.” That day is today.
But, you say, I get ashes on my forehead today to remind me that I will die.
How is that not something to frighten and dismay me?
Yes, you will hear today that you are dust, and that you will return to dust. Just as the younger child had to face the truth that sitting in a pigsty eating pig’s food was death before he knew he needed life, so you and I need to face our truth. Just as the elder child needed to hear that his bitterness and resentment toward his brother and his own father was death before he could come into the party, so you and I need to hear that reality.
But the One who calls you to return home, the One who longs for you to be reconciled, has faced death itself to love you home. Has defeated the power of death forever. If you are dust, and you know that you will return to dust, then today is a day of joy and hope. Because the holy and Triune God not only has a love that cannot be stopped by mere death, this God is your God and loves you with that love. A love that even raises you from the daily deaths and sufferings you know here and fills you with life now.
And when the dead realize they are alive, it’s time for a party, a celebration, Jesus says.
But, you say, I confess my sins today, I sing with David my grief over my failures, my broken heart and life.
How is that not something to be ashamed of, to feel crippling guilt over?
Yes, you confess your sins today, and the sin that binds you. You look at your life, your actions, your inaction, and you say, “I know I have failed to love my God and love my neighbor in so many ways.” Just as the younger child needed to face his mistakes, his sinful disregard for his father, his wastefulness, and admit it before he knew he longed for his father’s embrace and kiss, so you and I need to face what we have broken in our lives and in the world. Just as the elder sibling needed to realize that his own self-centered actions and self-righteous behavior led to his pain and suffering, and equally disregarded his father’s love, before he could hear that his father loved him deeply and forever, so you and I need to admit the hidden things we do, the habits, the ways of thinking and being that destroy others and destroy our own peace of mind.
But today you see your God going out on the road looking for you, longing to bring you home. You hear God’s voice calling through the prophet, “return to my love,” and through the apostle, “be reconciled in my love.” Your welcome is assured before you ever face your sin and wrongdoing.
And when the lost are found, when the homeless are brought home, it’s time for a party, a celebration, Jesus says.
That’s why the Table of Christ is spread for you today.
You wake up in your pigsty or in your bubble of self-righteousness and find a great feast spread for you in the love of the God of all creation. A meal of love and forgiveness and healing for you, joining you to the reconciling death and resurrection of the very Son of God.
You will eat and drink and taste the goodness of God for you. You will remember, even as you wash off your ashes tonight, the healing waters of baptism that have poured over you and called you beloved.
You will hear, “this is for you. For you.”
This party, this celebration, is for you. Because when the dead live and the lost are found, all God wants to do is throw a party.
So rejoice, beloved of God. This is your day. This is your homecoming.
This is the acceptable time, the day of healing for you. This day begins and ends in the unconditional love of the Triune God that kills death with life, and runs out on the road looking for all who are lost.
You are loved by a God who will not be satisfied until all the lost sheep, all the lost children, are home safe and sound.
That’s the treasure in your heart that surpasses all other treasures, the treasure that can’t be rusted or stolen. And when such treasure fills your heart, where else can your heart be but fixed solidly within that treasure, that joy?
In the name of Jesus. Amen
Audio file of Gospel and sermon: