Spare Your People, O Lord


Ash Wednesday Service

Illinois Great Rivers Conference Center
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
March 5, 2014
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
For those who claim the name of Jesus as a part of their nomenclature, it’s another Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is gone.  Visuals of penitence are everywhere. One church strips the altar bare. Another adorns it with an old rugged cross. One penitent looks down the telescope of time at Jesus’ passion. 

Images of Palm Sunday, the Upper Room, the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, the trial, the cross and his ignominious death flood the mind.  Guilt drenches another penitent. Every intention to walk henceforth in His holy ways, to lead a new life, to walk humbly with God has fallen by the wayside like a thousand New Year’s Resolutions. Exposed may be a deficient spirituality not commensurate with years lived. Today, we who follow Christ wear not the color purple, royalty resplendent. Instead, we opt for the color gray/black as in ashes. In the dust and dirt of those ashes are two sides: a sign of our constant need to repent and a symbol of our impending mortality. Uncle Sam suggests that it is death and taxes.

Will the imposition of ashes really cause us to ponder the state of our own souls? Will the imposition of ashes turn us to the right if we know by self-examination that we would not be prepared for God’s coming; if “He comes like a thief in the night” today? Can these ashes reminiscent of cremation jar us, call us, motivate us to engage in prayer and fasting like the people of Nineveh? God heard their cries. God saw their true acts of repentance and saved them. So can it be for us!!

Joel claimed that same truth for his people. He told them the day of the Lord was upon them. He told them to fast and pray, weep and rend their garments. He said God could save them. Repentance, not manipulation, could save them from war, captivity, deportation, acts of Mother Nature, sickness, family problems and faith issues as gut wrenching as Uncle Sam’s national debt. As a result, his folks cried out, “Spare your people O Lord.”

In a recent trip to the Holy Land, “Spare your people O Lord”, pushed its way into my mind. It had the dual flavor of Ash Wednesday; repentance and mortality. Why? Three of the holiest places in Judaism, Christianity and/or Islam reeked of death and repentance.

The Church of the Nativity has a violent history. For centuries, superpowers of this world have waged war at the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. Because of war, the basilica has been damaged, renovated and remodeled since the third century. Now, a rotted wood ceiling and loosened stone have increased worry over the structural integrity of the ancient basilica. Repairs have been put on hold. Its owners can’t agree on a plan of action, namely the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and Franciscan Order of the Roman Catholic Church. Their war of words has gotten in the way. It’s a miracle the basilica is still standing and the roof hasn’t caved in while religious discourse has put needed renovations on hold.  But they can wait too late to renovate. “Spare your people O Lord.”

The Temple Mount is one of the holiest sites in Islam. A place of prayer and study, it remains in Muslim control. Any attempt by Israel to take over this sacred space will result in bloodshed. While we were in Israel, the Knesset (Jewish Congress) had a spirited discussion about taking it over. Tensions heightened. We saw a vivid expression of that tension. When some Jewish persons appeared on the Temple Mount accompanied by an armed guard, Muslim faithful’s chanted in derision, “There is no God by Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.”  “Spare your people O Lord.” It’s a miracle that a bloodbath does not break out on the Temple Mount daily. Smoldering anger, bitterness and hostility lie just beneath the surface.  Any small act of provocation can set it ablaze.  For the moment, peace reigns. But it is not the Peace of God.    

We visited the Western Wall or Wailing Wall, Israel’s most holy site. This first century remnant of Herod’s temple has become a place of prayer. Our tour group prayed there. We left our prayers in the wall. Nobody touched them. Ironically, President Obama visited the Wailing Wall in 2008. He stuck a written prayer in the wall. Somebody removed it. An Israeli newspaper printed Obama’s private prayer and shared it with the world. Outrage and apologies followed. But the deed was done. A prayer between the President and his God was publicized. Plus, the President was criticized for its substance or lack thereof. Quite frankly, President Obama prayed the prayer, commensurate with the spirit, of Ash Wednesday. It reeked of self-examination and not of how he looked politically.  And so President Obama prayed, “Lord, protect me and my family.  Forgive me of my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair.  Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just.  And make me an instrument of your will.”    

These examples of human behavior at some of the holiest sites on earth are but a mirror of ourselves; personally and collectively.  We harbor ill will against those who do not share our religious beliefs. We know renovations need to be made in our own lives but competing voices or desires put those changes on hold. We can take the words or prayers of others and expose it’s so called weaknesses loudly proclaiming like the publican in the gospels, “thank God I’m not like him or her.”

And yet, when we turn to the right, in the midst of our difficulties, God may hear our prayers and save us from our sins. For all that is not right at some of the holiest sites on earth, all of them are places of prayer and repentance 24 hours a day. I’d like to believe that God responds to all God’s people bringing sincere petitions for forgiveness and salvation. Did God not come to save the world? “Spare your people O Lord” even as we to adore you and seek your face.  Amen.