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?’
Today we gather as a solemn assembly. We gather to remember the shortness of our live, the sinfulness of our present state, and the long road we have to attain perfection. The gathering of the church on the first day of Lent is an ancient ritual and one that asks something of all of us. The poor and the rich are both brought low in humility, the powerful and the weak made equal, the good and the wicked united with the imposition of a few ashes, a smearing of palm leaves that have been burned and are applied in a symbol of shame and death.
We take on these ashes today to unite us all together as one in our pursuit of God. Lent is a season where we work to remove the blinders we have put on ourselves. No longer do we let ourselves think we are without problems, that we are yet perfect, here we let go of our pretentions and pursue something simple but very difficult to grasp – namely, humility. The next forty days of prayer, of abstention, of fasting and good works, it is all centered on us letting go of all the compound misconceptions we have built up around ourselves.
True humility, as C.S. Lewis once said, is not found, “in thinking less of ourselves, but of ourselves less.” We look at our failings and our successes honestly. When we do Good, we acknowledge the goodness of the thing we have done and grow toward Godliness. When we sin we acknowledge the evil of the thing we have done, and we move away from it and turn around to move back toward God. The Lenten season can become a period of hectic swirling, evaluating and reevaluating the things we do, the things we thoughtlessly consume, the people we have forgotten or cast aside.
Throughout the scripture which we read today we see a word repeated again and again, although in English it is easy to miss. We are told, each of us, from priest to bride and groom even as infants, to return to God who is gracious and merciful. If we rend our hearts, that is truly feel contrite about our wrongdoings in life, and not simply say sorry and not do anything about it. If we return to God, then we might see God turn toward us – see God turn toward us and offer us blessings in the wake of God’s turning.
These words, “return,” “Turn,” as the King James puts it, “Repent,” all come from a single word. שׁוּב This word means to pull a 180. Whatever direction that a person is going in they snap back around and head in the other direction. It is usually given to us, the people of God, in endless calls to return to the life God has prepared for us rather than the cruelty and death we have sought for ourselves and our neighbors. However, it is not exclusively the work of people to turn.
God too turns back to face us. The prophets frequently describe God in locative terms – coming close to us or moving away from us. When discussing repentance specifically the prophetic imagination sees something twofold. We move away from God, chasing after the empty cisterns that rob us of life rather than the living water that we depend upon. God, upset that we cared so little about the relationship turns away from us and begins to walk away. Here is where the prophets differ in their responses. Some leave us hanging in the moment, questioning if God will turn back. Others assume God will not, as the book of Lamentations does. Elsewhere, Jeremiah suggests that we can only turn back to God because God first turned toward us.
It is this final interpretation which we can find a great deal of life in. Oftentimes when we think about our own sinfulness, and we all do, we see ourselves as horribly lost and making our way blindly back to God’s light. We see ourselves scrambling through the dark to find a light that we lost somewhere along the way. The history of God’s people says something else though. Our Christian narrative says something else. We worship a God who is not content to stand far off and removed from us, but who cannot remain angry because they are too deeply in love. The anger of God is temporary, but the love of God is eternal.
Our scripture today speaks of a God, “abounding in steadfast love.” This is a poor translation. The actual Hebrew says something closer to, “Our God loves with many loves,” or alternatively, “God is loyal in many ways.” God is not only extremely loving, but loves us in innumerable ways. It is this love that leads to the image Jesus gives us in Luke of the Prodigal Son and his loving Father. The sort of love that brings Jewish Philosopher of Religion Araham Joshua Heschel, to describe whole of religious revelation is, “to witness how God is turning toward [us.]”
Today we must affirm a simple truth, provocative as it may seem, that if we repent this season, turning toward God, then we will find that God has already repented before us, turning to face us even before we knew we were able to turn toward God. The Divine assumes that we will choose correctly, God awaits us to come home and live in the fullness of Life, the goodness of Love, and at peace with all around us. God assumes the best in us, can we do the same? Can we take this period of Lent as more than an observance to be checked off our calendars? Embracing it fully, let us return to our God who has already started running to meet us. Let us now prepare our hearts, let our Shuv be a true transformational turning, and let us take hold of the God who has sought us from the beginning of time. – Amen