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Turn-around Time

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday

Text: Joel 2:12, O.T.: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, N.T.: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

  Israel’s story is of a parent calling children back. God, the Father, struggles with His children, Israel, turning their backs on Him.

God teaches Israel how to respect Him, how to honor Him. Israel knows right from wrong. Israel understands God’s rules. Israel goes a different way.

God says to Israel, there are no other gods but me. Don’t worship anything but me. Honor the day of rest I give you for your benefit. Honor me by honoring your biological parents.

Israel responds with indifference. They worship the Golden Calf in the Sinai desert during the Exodus. They complain about God’s protection and want to return to Egypt. They rebel against the leader God gave them in Moses.

Then, when they finally get to the Promised Land, they don’t follow God’s rules that are taught by their parents. They marry Canaanites and begin to worship Canaanite gods and goddesses. Israel rejects God’s rules. Faithful parents teach their children God’s rules. Children abandon their parents’ teaching and abandon God.

The Bible story is a family story. It’s realistic, honest in describing a family’s relationship with God that is repeated throughout history. We’re re-living it.

Inside and outside congregations there are baptized Christians who have turned away from God. One of the places we have most strayed is admitting that we have turned away from God.

There are many Christians who resent being reminded they ought to be careful about turning away from God. The response is, I’m a good person, don’t try to make me feel guilty.

Don’t try to make me feel guilty. Does that mean a person isn’t guilty? Or does it mean that a person doesn’t want to be reminded of their guilt? Or does it mean that because I’m Christian I’m free from guilt because of Christ?

Today, there are children who say to their parents, “Don’t try to make me feel guilty.” Like Israel of old, they have a list of rationalizations to justify not feeling guilty.

Israel had all sorts of reasons to turn away from God. They wanted to be like the people surrounding them who didn’t know God. They wanted independence from God and His rules for life. Similarly, children have reasons they give to turn away from parents. They want to be independent from rules.

This is part of American life today. One of the rites of passage for America is a child’s independence. We’ve created a culture where children are expected to be independent from their parents – not simply out of the house, but free from parents. We may be too close to the trees to see what’s at stake. But others notice.

Several years ago a nurses’ aide from Africa asked me about what she was seeing in a skilled care facility. “Where are the children taking care of their parents?” She asked. “One of the things that has shocked me when I came here is to see how many parents live alone without anyone but our staff showing concern for them.” She was noticing children’s independence from parents.

When a nation is taught to be independent from parents, its people are being encouraged to be like Israel of old in its contentious relationship with God. Its people are being taught to look at rules as restrictions rather than as blessings to give life. Its people are being taught to see discipline as offensive, rather than as necessary to live an abundant life, fulfilling life.

When a nation bases its identity on freedom and not on respect and appreciation, it embeds within the fabric of families alienation and abandonment. Both of these lead to the collapse of community.

God knew that if Israel followed the way of surrounding nations, it would lose its identity. It would lose its community. It would lose its ability to live. Only by appreciating the rules of God’s covenant would Israel live. Only by living with gratitude for God’s love that was embedded in God’s rules, would Israel live. Only by turning toward God’s love would Israel live.

Not one of the nations that Israel tried to be like in its independence from God has survived into the twenty-first century. Most of the nations surrounding ancient Israel died within centuries of the Bible’s writing. None live because they knew not the ways of God.

Today, only the Church and the Jewish people survive from that ancient world. Both learned to turn to God in order to live. Repentance is the beginning of life.

Several years ago I attended a gathering of Christian men in Washington, D.C. There were more people on the Mall that day than there was for the President’s inaugural a few weeks ago. Over a million men and boys gathered on the Mall to give thanks for Jesus Christ. No political leader in America had ever gathered as many followers in one place.

One speaker announced it was the greatest gathering of God’s people since the Exodus. In fact, the number gathered in Washington D.C. that October afternoon exceeded those who were numbered to have left Egypt for the Promised Land, 3,200 years ago.

We knelt in the dust, on the grass, on asphalt pavement and concrete sidewalks, turning to God in prayer.

We accepted that we weren’t the men God created us to be, and that we needed to return to God with humility and gratitude for His love and mercy.

We didn’t resent that God had a greater purpose for us than we saw for ourselves. We realized our independence from that purpose was afflicting not only ourselves, but our wives, mothers, families, and nation.

We knew the past wasn’t as good as we imagined it to be. Neither was the present as good as it ought to be. We set our faces towards a future that held promise for the better because we had returned to God.

When a nation loses sight of its dependency upon God, it loses its capacity to live for a better future. When a nation encourages its independence from God, its content with the present and is satisfied that there can be no better. When a nation separates its national purpose from God’s eternal purpose, it has resigned itself to hopelessness. Hope comes from turning towards God.

Thirty-four years before our Million Man March, Dr. Martin Luther King gathered 300,000 to that same Mall in Washington, D.C. His vision was of America returning to God. He proclaimed God had a greater purpose for America than denying racial reconciliation. God created all of His people to share in His purpose of redeeming love for a better life.

The vision Martin Luther King presented that day was just part Christ’s legacy to God’s children. It’s just one aspect of our blessed inheritance as God’s children.  There are other parts of our legacy that are equally compelling – worshipping the Lord with gladness, coming into His presence with singing and His courts with praise is another; serving the weak, helping the afflicted, loving and serving God is still another. Each comes from turning to God for hope.

Martin Luther King spoke from his hope in a better world that comes from turning to God. Today, the Book of Joel speaks to us about hope in a better people that comes from turning to God.

Don’t give up the heavenly inheritance that’s stored for us. Turn to God, and live.

Amen.

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