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Turning back to God

Graham O'Brien delves into Jesus' call to return to God, as we look to the beginning of Lent next week.

Graham O'Brien   |  13 Mar 2017

Wednesday March 1, 2017 – Ash Wednesday

Theme

 Re-Turning to God

Sentence

Examine me oh God and know my heart, test me and discover my thoughts, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139: 23,24)

Collect

Almighty and merciful God,
 you hate nothing that you have made
 and forgive the sins of all who are penitent;
 create in us new and contrite hearts,
 so that when we turn to you and confess our sins
 we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness;
 through Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

Readings

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58: 1-12

Psalm 51: 1-17

2 Corinthians 5: 20b-6:10

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

Comment

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

Joel likely writes this prophesy in Jerusalem, either in a late pre-exile period, or sometime between 500-350BCE in the period after the Babylonian exile and dispersion. 

Following a plague of locusts (Joel 1), the prophet now uses this image to describe the arrival of a human army that devastates Judah. 

In this vision we see two different visions of God’s coming: The invading army symbolises God’s judgement and destruction of his enemies on the “day of the Lord” (2:1-11), leading to the central question, “who can endure the day of the Lord?”. 

The second image is of God’s forgiveness and the gracious restoration of his people and land (2:12-end). Here, those who can endure the Lord’s coming are the ones who turn back to God. 

But as we see at the end of chapter 2, this is more than just a physical restoration, this restores the heart and moves into the fullness of God’s salvation, which we ultimately see in the Cross. 

On Ash Wednesday, this passage is a call to re-turn to God with all our heart and to walk in God’s ways.

 

The second passage from Isaiah 58: 1-12 adds to the picture of re-turning to God and walking in God’s ways. 

The prophet identifies that some display superficial spirituality with their self-denial in fasting, but God calls for an inner transformation.  When we re-turn to God and receive forgiveness that also must lead to faithful action.  The sacrifice of worship we offer to God includes our actions that come from a transformed heart, seen in our love for others – especially those in need.

Psalm 51: 1-17

The subheading provides a good description of context for this Psalm: “A Psalm of David, regarding the time Nathan the prophet came to him, after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba”. 

There is an old saying, “If you want to move anything in a church, do it a centimetre at a time”. The same is also true of our walk with God, it is very easy to drift away from God, a bit-at-a-time, until we find ourselves not following God in areas of our lives.  Nathan’s words to David are a stern call to re-turn to God.

Walter Brueggemann identifies Psalm 51 as a Psalm of “disorientation” in which we see a model for actual confession and re-turning (The Message of the Psalms , pp 98-102).  Some brief points to note:

  • Verses 1 and 2 identifies the qualities that God shows in forgiveness– mercy, steadfast love – qualities made visible in ritual, transformative action – blot out, wash and cleanse.  The Psalmist is empty with nothing to offer God, but at the same time displays “desperate trust” in God.
  • Verses 3-5 contain the confession which acknowledges that although sin hurts others, ultimately sin violates our relationship with God, and it is with God we must deal.  God is righteous and holy; we – God’s partners – are not.
  • In verses 4-16 we see the graciousness of God, as the Psalmist asks God to do what he cannot do for himself – be made right with God.  In verse 6 the Psalmist identifies that God desires truth in the inward being.  God looks at our heart, the seat of our character, so that our inward character leads to righteous works not the other way around.  

This is a prayer to turn from the old life to a new life marked by the wisdom of God. It culminates in the well know refrain, “create in me a clean heart, O God” (vs 10).  Brueggemann observes that the life-giving wind/ spirit mentioned is wholly a gift of God which we need to function as God intended. 

  • Finally, the mood changes in verses 15-17 to one of praise.  But it is important to note that “one cannot ask for lips to praise until one has engaged in a profound yielding and emptying…True worship and new living require a yielding of self to begin again on God’s terms” (pg 101)

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

The theme of reconciliation looms large in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: reconciliation between Paul and the Corinthian Christians, but ultimately, reconciliation between the Corinthian Christians and God. 

The words “Be reconciled to God” (5:20b) stand out in this passage, as they point to the restoration of a broken relationship.  So how are they (and we) to be reconciled to God?  Paul answers: by being made a new creation (5:17) through Christ (5: 18-19), this message comes from Paul as an ambassador for Christ (5:20). This new creation means a new way of life, in which you become like Christ. 

In 5:21 we find a concise summary of the gospel: how through Christ we have been reconciled to God, and how that effects the disciples’ lives. For Paul, reconciliation functions as one with justification – to be reconciled to God is to be justified or made righteous (Rom 5:6-11; Rom 9:30-10:4). 

As we are made into a new creation in Christ, and reconciled to God by accepting the grace offered through Christ’s death, we become the righteousness of God (5:21). We take on the righteousness that comes from God.  Paul also implies our responsibility to represent the righteousness of God to others. 

Verses 6:1-3 provide a rallying cry to action “now is the time” (6:2).  Having been reconciled to God, how are the Corinthians going to put this into action? If they stray (reject Paul’s message), they risk everything.

As ambassador for Christ (5:20) Paul names his right to claim what he says as an Apostle (and against some criticism) through an extensive list of his hardships, characterised by endurance (6:4) and service to others (6:10).

The powerful, effective, life-changing nature of Christ’s death is what reconciles us to God.

The consequence of reconciliation with God is the reconciliation of people to each other in Christ. 

All people have value because Christ died for them - Christ has established their value, rather than their value being determined by their response to his death. 

Christ’s love claims us for God as a new creation and pushes us out towards others so that we live for Christ by living for others. As we do so, the work of Christ continues – the message of salvation goes out to the world.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Lent is traditionally a time of self-reflection and self-denial expressed in acts of penance such as the things we “give up”. 

But why do we do this? Is it for human praise, or is our self-denial an act of worship to God, an act of re-turning ourselves towards God? Picking up on the previous readings’ theme, Matthew 6 emphasises the inward reality of re-turning to God.

In Matthew 6 we are at the heart of the “Sermon on the Mount”.  In the previous section (5:20-48) the focus was on personal acts of integrity, justice and love directed towards others. These were outlined in the Jewish law. But now the focus is on devotion to God through three Jewish obligations: giving money, praying and fasting. 

Matthew makes no distinction between the types of behaviour – they are all called righteousness (dikaiosyn ē ), commonly translated as piety (6:1) but can also be understood as “covenant behaviour”. We might view this as “heart righteousness” (5:20) producing “acts of righteousness” (6:1).

The text gives us a number of contrasting motives for a disciple’s devotion to God. 

The negative example sounds harsh to our ears, as it uses the word hypocrite (6:2). But in the original context it means “stage actors,” those who perform religious acts, but for a human audience.

The contrast is not between public or private worship, or between internal and external behaviour.  Rather for the disciples the contrast is about motivation  – are our righteous actions intended for human praise, or to be acceptable to God? 

Matthew then emphasises the point using metaphors to reinforce the contrast – blowing a trumpet, and right and left hands.  The desired motive is to do one’s religious duty for God alone. 

Likewise, prayer (6:5-6) is directed to God alone. It is worth noting that the metaphors he uses are not there to critique Jewish practices, but to exaggerate the different motivations.

The reference to gentile prayer (6:7-8) goes further to say our prayer does not manipulate a deity, but rather Christian prayer expresses our trust in God.  Jesus’ teaching on the Lord’s Prayer as the pattern (6:9-13) emphasises the same idea.

Matthew 6:16-18 picks up the third obligation of fasting, a theme often associated with Lent.

As with giving alms and prayer, Matthew emphasises devotion to God alone. 

So often we focus on the “giving up” aspect of fasting, but more recently people have focused on doing something positive - a new spiritual practice, or doing something for others, both of which involve a giving-up of ourselves and our time. 

So how does “fasting” transform us in righteousness? 

When our chosen discipline hits us hardest – our desire for what we have given up grows stronger, or time we have sacrificed for others becomes difficult – we are reminded that we do this as an act of worship to God and re-turn our hearts towards God.

Through a series of contrasts, verses 19-21 turn to serving God with material possessions.

But these words refer to more than material possessions, because how we use what we have reflects our inner disposition – “for where your treasure is, your heart will be also” (6:21) – our priority once again is God.

All throughout these verses, the phrase “will reward you” has been used at the end of each example (6:4, 6:6, 6:18), and treasure (eschatological reward) in verse 20. 

I could not help thinking of the various reward schemes businesses operate and how we get so used to the benefits of loyalty schemes. 

But with God, there is no transaction or perk, the reward is being accepted by God and receiving eternal life. 

To use a well-known phrase from N.T. Wright, our reward is “now and not yet”; “now” meaning that by having the right motive in all we do, we can grow in kingdom righteousness, and “not yet” meaning we await the fullness of God’s reward.

Conclusion

As we reflect on these lectionary verses and the meaning of Lent and Ash Wednesday in particular, we are reminded about our utter reliance on God in every moment and in every breath as we re-turn to God.  We are also reminded about our motivation - All we do is to and for God .  As we intentionally journey toward Easter our focus is on an inward transformation of righteousness.  But this transformation also has an outward expression of righteousness, because our reconciliation with God must include a reconciliation with each other – Christ died for all. 

So may this time of Lent be a time of re-turning to God, and also a re-turning to others, as we represent the righteousness we have received from God to others. And as we do this, we participate in God’s reconciliation of the world.

The Rev Dr Graham O'Brien is Ministry Educator for the Diocese of Nelson.

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