Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Text: Joel 2:12-19
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
Lent is an adiaphoron. That is, it is neither commanded nor forbidden by God. Nothing in the scriptures tell us that we must fast in some way for forty days before celebrating Easter. But they certainly do not forbid doing so either. However, Lent is a season of repentance. And repentance is not an adiaphoron. Repentance is at the very heart of the Gospel.
John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord, preaching repentance and baptizing people in a baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. Jesus Himself, after He had been baptized by John and was tempted in the wilderness, came into Galilee preaching: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mark 1:14)
This scriptural message was not lost on Luther and the fathers of the Reformation either. The very first of the 95 Theses places repentance at the forefront: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” A decade later, Luther included a Brief Exhortation to Confession in the Large Catechism. There the reformer reminds us that our lives are constantly to be lived out in the Lord’s Prayer asking God to forgive us as we forgive others. And we ought to confess our sins before one another. We ought to acknowledge our faults, our short comings and transgressions, in the presence of the Church. Furthermore, we ought to seek the forgiveness of those we have wronged privately. But beyond this, Luther points us to the wonderful gift of speaking our sins before the called and ordained servants of Christ to hear our pastor speak the absolution in Jesus’ name directly to us. Regarding this repentance, Luther writes: “When I exhort you to go to confession, I am doing nothing more than exhorting you to be a Christian.”
The life of a Christian in this age is a life of repentance. This idea does not begin with us here tonight. It does not begin with Luther or even the earthly ministry of Jesus’ incarnation. It predates John the Baptist. This call to repentance is the word of God calling out to fallen man in the Garden: “Where are you?” “Who has told you that you are naked?” “Did you eat from the fruit of the tree of which I told you not to eat?” This call to repentance is not incidental to the Scriptures. “Repent and believe the Gospel” is a summary not only of Jesus’ preaching recorded by the evangelists but of the scriptures as a whole. Joel is but one voice in a choir of prophets and apostles calling us to return to the Lord.
The sin that Joel rebukes is real. We do not know much definite about the man or his times. His ministry most likely took place shortly before the Assyrian invasion of Israel and Judah. We know from the other books of the Old Testament that this is a time when God’s people had rejected Him for false gods. Widows and orphans were neglected; the poor were oppressed. Sexual immorality was common, including as part of the idolatrous worship practices that had replaced the divine service instituted by God through Moses and Aaron. How different is that from us?
We can put on a good outward appearance, but how many families in our community, even Christian families, are plagued by the same sins? Gambling in casinos wouldn’t bother me too much if those who participated did so as a means of entertainment that they could responsibly afford. But whatever the intent of the casino operators, they too often become a fickle idol for those struggling to take care of their families. Today’s daily bread is sacrificed to chance in the hope that the troubles of tomorrow will be taken care of with one push of a button. The lottery is not any better. Maybe that has been you.
In many ways we have pushed God out of our lives. we complain about the Ten Commandments being taken out of the Court House and Prayer being pushed out of our schools, but how many parents have neglected their God-given responsibility to teach the Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer to their children at home? It is not the responsibility of public schools to form Christians, and it is not the role of the government to enforce Christian morality. While it is right to defend our rights in the public square, it is not right to rely on the state to raise our children in the faith. Yet we will run our kids to school and practices for sports and other activities, but how often do Christian parents fail to teach the simple faith of the catechism to their children? Maybe that has been you.
Christians are not perfect. Christians struggle with addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. Maybe that has been you. Christians gossip. Christians use profanity. Christians have struggles in their marriages. They struggle to raise their children. Maybe that has been you. Christians have doubts. They struggle to forgive others. Christians worry when told not to worry. They think less of themselves they should in light of God’s Word that they are His creation and the subject of His love and election; and Christians think more highly of themselves than they ought to when their confidence is based in their own righteousness, intelligence, strength, and works. Maybe that has been you. These are certainly not the things that make one a Christian, but these are the sins that hang around our neck and drag us down in the muck and mire of a fallen world. Perhaps it can be said no more simply concerning the Christian than we have heard again tonight: “Remember you dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“Return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord, you God,
for He is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love;
and He relents over disaster.
The Lord knows that you are dust. But take heart, for the Lord knows what to do with dust. The Lord knows how to gather and shape you from the dust and ashes of a life that has been ruined by sin. The Lord who watered Eden with a mist coming up from the ground knows how to regenerate You in the waters of Holy Baptism and how to keep you quenched with the living water that wells up in you to eternal life. The Lord knows how to give the breath of the Spirit of Life that the dead bones might be covered in flesh and live.
We repent because we have nothing to offer. Apart from Christ, there is nothing good about us; there is nothing holy or righteous. We have nothing to offer God. But take heart, for it is God who creates out of nothing.
When Luther was just beginning to grasp the gospel, He made a profound observation that can give us so much direction when we wrestle with our own sin, with the shame that comes from the sins other have committed against us, and in any form of suffering we endure. He writes: Therefore God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise. In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched, and gives grace only to those who are not in grace.”
To become the material out of which God makes a Christian, one must first become nothing in his own eyes.
Lent is not a requirement. Lent is not commanded by God. Receiving ashes on your forehead if done to make something of yourself is a rejection of Jesus’ word in the Sermon on the Mount that our fasting is not to be done to gain the attention of the world. Lent is not necessary, but it is beautiful in its simplicity. It is a season to return to the Lord, to lose ourselves in Christ, to become the least, even nothing, that we would be raised with Christ in His glory.
So repent. Return to the Lord. Confess your sins here in this place and receive forgiveness. Apologize to your brother whom you have wronged in your family, in the community, at work, and, yes, even in this congregation in order that you may be reconciled. Call upon the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who teaches us to call His Father, our Father, that your life may be a life of repentance. And do not fear to make use of private confession so that words of forgiveness may be spoken to you by name with the promise that this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with [you] himself.
The Lord has had pity on His people. Let us follow His Son to the upper room, to the Garden of Gethsemane, to His trials, and to Golgotha. For He emptied Himself and became nothing, that in His resurrection we who are from nothing might have everything.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria