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Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ash Wednesday

Psalms 2 & 1

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

2 March 2022

            A number of global Christian leaders have called upon the Church to mark this Ash Wednesday by praying for the people of Ukraine, for the end of the Russian invasion, and for peace instead of war.  So, for our service this evening I have selected two psalms to read.  I begin with Psalm number 2:

Psalm 2

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying,

“Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.

Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,

“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling

kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.

We think of the Book of Psalms as songs in praise and celebration of God to be used in worship.  So, it probably surprises us to realize that the second psalm in the entire collection is this one, that takes a geopolitical vision.  A song for the faithful during a time of war, calamity, and violence.  A song condemning war and violence and the political leaders who inflict it upon the people.  Condemning them for believing they are sovereign, whereas God is the true sovereign.  And the singers of this psalm believe that God will enact justice upon those rulers who behave violently and unjustly.

The Archbishop of Canterbury as called this attack upon Ukraine “an act of great evil.”  Pope Francis has declared himself heartbroken and demanded that the weapons be silenced.  He called upon Christians around the world to fast today in solidarity with the suffering of the Ukrainian people.  The national officers of the United Church of Christ released these words of prayer:

Make us a people who love our children, all of our children, more than we love greed, power, and control. Overturn governments of tyranny wherever they are found. Disrupt the intentions of evil and give us power to stand against demonic forces of greed and control. Grant that peace and justice come to warring nations by the hands of those courageous enough to stand and study war no more. Let Thy kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven, we pray. 

            Epifaniy, the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church delivered a very direct condemnation, “There has been an unprovoked, insidious, cynical attack by Russia and Belarus on Ukraine.”  He added, “Those who have started and are waging an aggressive war against Ukraine should know that according to God’s law and human laws, they are murderers and criminals. And for their crime, they will speak before God and before humanity, without escaping condemnation and punishment.”

            Epifaniy then encouraged his people:

Our common mission is to repel the enemy, to protect our homeland, our future, and the future of the new generations from the tyranny that the attacker seeks to bring with his bayonets.

The truth is on our side. Therefore, the enemy, with the help of God and with the support of the whole civilized world, will be defeated.

Our task now is to unite, to withstand the first blow, not to panic. We believe in God’s providence and the victory of truth.

            The purpose of Ash Wednesday is to set aside time for reflection.  And in particular reflection upon our mortality.  A reminder that our lives are finite, fragile, and limited, and not fully in our control.  And from this reflection upon mortality to then take stock of our moral character, to examine ourselves, and in particular what sins we need to repent.  Ash Wednesday begins a forty day journey of Lenten fasting and spiritual practice that ends with Holy Week and the Feast of Resurrection.

            There was a time when 21st century Americans could and did avoid thinking about their mortality, and so Ash Wednesday had this vivid counter-cultural aspect.  A day in which we called attention to something people generally tried to avoid. 

            But the last few years our fragility, vulnerability, and mortality have been quite vivid.  Instead of this day calling our attention to it, this day has taken on a new emphasis—not reminding us of a hard truth but giving us some solace and comfort in the midst of reality.

            And here, just as we might be finally emerging from the most difficult days of this global pandemic, war.  Another reminder of danger, suffering, vulnerability. 

            Yet I’ve read a lot the last few days about the dramatic change in the world in the last week.  There is a measure of global unity and focus that we haven’t seen in decades.  We are seeing evil and its consequences.  But even more importantly, we are seeing courage.  We are watching people fight for liberty, freedom, independence, and democracy.  For their own agency and autonomy and dignity.  We are being reminded of the big values and why they matter and what sacrifices humans are willing to make to ensure them. 

            And so I want to read another Psalm, the first Psalm.  Most scholars believe it was quite intentionally placed at the opening of this hymn collection in order to paint a vivid image of the good life and the bad life and why we are called to follow the way of God and what benefits accrue to us when we do.  And that, in essence, all the other psalms fit within the rubric of this opening song. 

            As I read, use this psalm to reflect upon yourself, to examine yourself.  And in the context of this time in which we live in which so much has been made clear.  And let’s be sure that we are on the side of peace, of life, of love, of courage, so that we might enjoy the blessing and happiness of God.

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. I n all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

The Golan Heights

Yesterday one of my friends sent me a link when Donald Trump announced that the United States was recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.  When I messaged back, "I probably agree with him on this point. Does that surprise you?" He responded "Yes. More than a bit...explain."

In December of 1993, I visited the Golan Heights as part of a university tour/class.  We were staying in a kibbutz on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee for a few days in order to tour sites around the lake and in the northern part of the country.  One day I drive took us along the eastern shore of the lake and up into the heights.  We stopped at what had once been Syrian artillery emplacements.  From this location you could see the Syrian border to the east and also Israeli military installations along the border, which we were cautioned not to photograph.

But it was standing in those artillery emplacements, which overlooked the entire region of the Galilee, that I realized Israel never would, nor could it, surrender the Golan Heights to an antagonistic Syria.

Of course I had hoped such a determination would be made as part of some regional peace treaty.  Both Jim Baker and Warren Christopher (gifted diplomats) spent incredible effort trying to negotiate with Hafez Assad, to no avail. And no peace treaty is within sight.

Finally, we do not recognize the current Syrian government as legitimate; they have abdicated their role, so it is the perfect time to, in essence, punish the Assad regime by providing support for the loss of their territory.

Manifesto on Europe

3o of Europe's top intellectuals, including philosophers and Nobel-prize-winner authors, have written a manifesto defending Europe against the rise of nationalist populism.  Read it here.  Some excerpts:

Europe is being attacked by false prophets who are drunk on resentment, and delirious at their opportunity to seize the limelight. It has been abandoned by the two great allies who in the previous century twice saved it from suicide; one across the Channel and the other across the Atlantic. The continent is vulnerable to the increasingly brazen meddling by the occupant of the Kremlin. Europe as an idea is falling apart before our eyes.


Our faith is in the great idea that we inherited, which we believe to have been the one force powerful enough to lift Europe’s peoples above themselves and their warring past. We believe it remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages. What is at stake forbids us from giving up.