Ash Wednesday Sermon (March 5): “Waiting and Fasting”

March 5, 2014

“Waiting and Fasting”

Ash Wednesday Meditation

The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray

Joel 2:12-14

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13     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.
14 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?

Psalm 51

Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.

Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.

14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.


Today, at the start of the Lenten season, I want us to consider the discipline of waiting.  I’ve been re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” about moving from Arizona to a farm in southern Virginia in order to spend a year living almost entirely on food they produced themselves or was produced in their neighborhood.  Their commitment means not eating fruits and vegetables out of season, shipped from another continent.

I was struck that the crux of their experiment came down to waiting.

Waiting in the early spring for the asparagus to come up, but waiting several years after planting the bed of asparagus in the first place for a good harvest.

But then once the few good weeks of asparagus bounty was over, they waited another year for the next few good weeks.

Waiting for things is hard.  We want our strawberries, and oranges, and tomatoes, when we want them – and we don’t usually have to wait, ever.

But Barbara Kingsolver writes that it is actually possible to wait, to celebrate each season as it comes which people did for thousands of years before us – we’ve grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything, always.

We’ve grown accustomed to not waiting – we are frustrated by long lines, traffic, test results that never seem to come, doctors who cannot see us for several months, repairmen who can’t get to us until next week.

We don’t like waiting for good news (a long awaited pregnancy, a college acceptance letter, a job offer) and we don’t like waiting for bad news (a diagnosis, a rejection).

We are entering the season of Lent which is a period of reflection and repentance, a period of walking in desert and darkness so that we can be truly awed by the brilliance of Easter joy.

It is a period of waiting and it is good for us.  I always get a little grumpy around Christmas time because I feel like we are hurried through the advent season – that season, too, is a time of waiting and anticipation, waiting for the light to come into the darkness, and advent seems to always skip to the Christmas joy too quickly.

It is during Lent that we often commit ourselves to a fast of sorts – giving something up for forty days.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Do not bother looking for Lent in you Bible dictionary; because there was no such thing back then.  There is some evidence that early Christians fasted forty hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending forty days in prayer and self-denial did not arise until later, when the initial rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten very ho-hum about their faith.

When the world did not end [as they thought it would], Jesus’ followers stopped expecting so much from God or themselves.  They hung a wooden cross on the wall and settled back into their more or less comfortable routines . . . little by little, Christians became devoted to their comforts instead . . . these things made them feel safe and cared for . . .they no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another . . . they blended in.  They avoided extremes.  They decided to be nice instead of holy. . .”

So at some point in the history of the church faithful people decided it was time to do something counter-cultural, radical, and they looked to the Bible for clues.

And there they saw that Israel spent forty years wandering learning to trust God and that Elijah spent forty days in anticipation of hearing the still, small voice of God, and Moses spent forty days listening to God give the law, and Jesus spent forty days between his baptism and his ministry.  This time of wandering and waiting – it was hard.  It was necessary.

Taylor continues, “So the church announced a season of Lent, from the old English word lenten, meaning ‘spring’ – not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime of the soul.  Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone.  Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.”

Forty days of waiting, forty days of fasting, of taking away some of the comfortable things that consume our focus and deaden our awareness of God.

Fasting is a spiritual waiting that awakens us, shakes us out of our monotonous routines where we rarely wait for anything.  It is a waiting that reminds us that there is a reason we are doing this counter-cultural thing.  Every hunger pang, or every time we reach for the remote, or for a cup of coffee, we remember that we are waiting and we are reminded of what we are waiting for.

Jen Hatmaker in her book “7” writes about undergoing a series of fasts – fasting from things — excessive amounts of clothing, from excessive choices of food, from spending, from technology, and fasting for things – for a less materialistic life, for better care of the earth, and she writes, “If a fast doesn’t include any sacrifices, then it is not a fast.  The discomfort is where the magic happens.  Life zips along, unchecked and automatic.

We default to our lifestyle, enjoying our privileges, but a fast interrupts that rote trajectory.  Jesus gets a fresh platform in the empty space where indulgence resided.  It’s like jeans you wear every day without thinking, but take them off and walk outside, and you’ll be terribly aware of their absence.  I bet you won’t forget you are pantsless, so conspicuous will this omission feel.  While that metaphor is in shaky theological territory, that is basically the result of a fast.  It makes us hyper-aware, super-sensitive to the Spirit.”

God calls out to us through the prophet Joel: “Yet even now return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”  God says “Rend your hearts.  Return to me.”  And if we wonder how on earth to do that, we start with fasting, with waiting.  So as we wait to get to use facebook again or drink caffeine, we are reminded that we are also waiting for our savior and the joy of the good news of Easter morning!


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