Begin with Brokenness: An Ash Wednesday Sermon

Last week at Eastbrook’s “Journey to the Cross” service, I shared this message for Ash Wednesday rooted in Joel 2:12-17.

Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before.

In the Japanese artform kintsugi broken pieces of pottery are taken by an artist and repaired by mending the imperfections with a lacquer infused with powdered gold. Instead of flaws to be hidden, the imperfections become part of the beauty and strength of the vessel worth highlighting.

Kintsugi speaks about two realities we experience in our lives and in the world all the time. One the one hand, things are not the way they should be, and on the other hand, beauty can break forth unexpectedly from brokenness.

The journey of Lent is like this. On the one hand we travel a shocking, broken road with Jesus in Jerusalem. He is hailed as King at His triumphal entry. Many people flock to hear His powerful words and teaching. They watch Him cause a scandal in the religious center. He shows the fruitlessness of dead religion and turns expectations upside down. But what started with great acclaim turns to dark destruction as Jesus eventually is crucified in Jerusalem. His body beaten. His blood poured out.  His suffering for us. 

“He took up our pain and bore our suffering” (Isaiah 53:4).  On the one hand, Jesus’ journey is difficult.

On the other hand, we discover that Jesus’ difficult pathway to the Cross is God’s pathway for bringing what is good. God brings life, healing, forgiveness, change, and transformation through the sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross. He turns an upside-down world right-side up. It’s the sort of thing we describe with the Bible word “salvation.” The Apostle Paul describes the wonderful paradox of Lent in 1 Corinthians:

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God….For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”  (1 Corinthians 1:18, 25)

Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and powerful than before. We see this in the life and ministry of Jesus.

We see that with God’s work in our own lives as well. On the one hand, we all know that despite appearances we’re not all we’re cracked up to be. We have sinned and we are broken. We experience that in our relationships, in our pursuits, and inside of ourselves. Lent gives us an opportunity to pull off the mask before God and before others and just be our real selves. 

To name before God and others that things are not right and we still need God’s healing, redemption, and salvation in our lives. As Paul says: “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:25).

On the other hand, God can bring beautiful transformation in our lives by His grace and truth. We are never castoff by God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We are all trophies of God’s grace, prizes of Jesus’ rescue mission.

Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before…and that’s even true of us.

But sometimes we can forget all this. Like someone with a case of amnesia we forget why we’re here and what we’re all about. Like someone lost in the forest, we become disoriented and forget which way we are supposed to go. And so, we move through our daily routines without thinking or feeling. Like someone who wakes up in the morning without having a jolt from their daily cup of coffee, we’re groggy in a dreamworld and lacking touch with reality. This touches our life with God as well, both individually and as a community. Amnesiac, disoriented, and groggy, when Lent arrives, we tend to just go through the motions. We give up something. We read the devotional. We participate in the Journey to the Cross service. 

But the prophet Joel snaps us awake with his stark words:

“Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:13)

Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before. The prophet Joel calls out to a people sinking in the waves of sin and idolatry. He calls them to turn around from their wrong ways and seek after God. Drawing on the action common with repentance, an outward tearing of garments, the prophet tells the people to tear their hearts, to break them up, before God. 

Right alongside his invitation to break our heart with repentance—to turn to God—Joel reminds everyone that God is ready to meet us with His patience, forgiveness, and unyielding love. He takes the broken places of our lives and restores them, infusing these imperfections with His inestimably valuable grace, truth, holiness, and love. 

Lent begins with brokenness. It begins with realizing the ways we have strayed from God. We turn back, tearing our hearts open with confession, bringing to Him the places where we are broken, and presenting to Him our lives. Twentieth-century novelist Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Now, that may be true generally, but with Lent, we do not place ourselves at the mercy of an anonymous world, but in the hands of a loving God who graciously remakes us through Christ.

Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before. 

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