The following is the text of the sermon delivered today…
Text: Joel 2:12-19
Peter Thiel was one of the founders of PayPal and one of the first investor in Facebook. But unlike most highly successful businessmen, he has a philosophical disposition. He attempts to distill his experience not into phrases that are clichés the minute they are uttered meaning nothing, but some of surprising depth. His recent book title is the example I want to steal for a second – Zero to One.
At a simple business level what he throws out of his venture capital office is any business pitching 1 to 2 or 1 to any number. If the presentation can be reduced to “I want to be the next Facebook”, Mr. Thiel isn’t interested. He wants to invest is businesses that are going from zero to one. If you want investment, come up with an idea that nobody is really doing.
But then start asking questions about how you do that. Going from 1 to 2 can be a process – picking a somewhat useful cliché – it can be a process of continuous improvement. Microsoft might be the example of the ultimate 1 to 2 company. Xerox PARC did all the 0 to 1, Microsoft just made it better, and sold it better, faster. They used to be famous, and in some ways still are, for getting is right on the third try. The surface 3 is getting raves. Going from zero to one is not a process. What is half of a new idea? half a vision? You either have one, or you don’t. Like Louis Armstrong said about Jazz, “Man, if you gotta ask…”
Now how does this apply to on Ash Wednesday?
There are lots of religions and even lots of Christian churches that are about 1 to 2. And by that I mean they are preaching a gospel of self-improvement. Do this, do that, have your best life now, the power of positive thinking, and every other cliché. You never get THE ONE in that method.
Clinging to the zero, The ONE is given by grace.
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. You don’t get much more zero than that. I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. Create in me a clean heart, O God. No continuous improvement there, but creation. You only get God, the ONE, when there are no others before Him – not even yourself, maybe especially ourselves. Hence on Ash Wednesday the ashes, a clear expression of our personal spiritual zero.
And when we remove the other Gods, when we cling to the zero, God is pleased to take up residence with us. To restore to us the joy of His salvation, and uphold us with a willing spirit. To take us from the last seat at the banquet to a seat of honor. To give to the prodigal the coat and the ring and the fattened calf.
The reading from Joel is interesting in this way. Israel had been hit by a plague of locusts. It wasn’t just any plague, but everything had been eaten and destroyed. So much so that the elements of the sin offerings – grain and wine and oil – had be removed. It was a very literal demonstration of Israel’s zero. There outward circumstance reflected the state of their hearts. Would they embrace the truth, or continue in pride? “Rend you hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, for he is gracious…abounding in steadfast love…who knows…he might relent and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering.” In other words the Lord might leave the sin offering for them.
And that is exactly what He did in Jesus Christ. For all who cling to their zero, he’s given THE ONE, our sin offering. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Grace and truth go together. The ONE, God is found in the weak places – contrite hearts and crosses. Amen.