After the jump. I added a few words at the end about how God expects us to hold him to his promises. That, and not our worthiness, is why we are bold to ask for his blessings.
Most of the church year celebrates some event in the life of Christ or the church. Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent – we are on our way to Palm Sunday, Holy Week, the night when he was betrayed, good Friday, and then the feast of feasts, Easter. The events that we begin preparing for tonight are not only central to the church year, not only central to our faith, they are the very center of our being. The death and resurrection of Christ IS what we are. We preach Christ Crucified.
But tonight does not celebrate or commemorate any specific event. Today, we give answer to the question that God asks the sinner, “What is this that you have done?” Today we set aside our rationalizations, our cop outs, our defenses and our excuses. Today we say, “I have sinned by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault.” The sin is yours. The fault is yours. It is not your brothers fault, your sisters fault, your wife’s fault, your husbands fault, societies fault. It is not that you did the best you could do. It is not that you just need to try harder. It is not that God’s Law is just too hard.
It is that you are a sinner. It is that you have sinned. It is that you deserve nothing but the temporal and eternal punishment of God almighty.
Today is the day to come clean about your conduct. You can pretend all you want. The grave doesn’t care. You can make excuses right up until death claims you. Today, the Lord says, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” “Give up on the false gods and false teachings you cling to every day, and listen to my word.” “I will question you, and you will answer me.”
Today, the ashes of the palms are placed on the forehead because you are nothing but dust and ashes. From dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return. And if you want to make excuses to continue the lie, to deny the truth, then you deceive only yourself, and the truth is not in you.
If we are to rightly celebrate the death of the one who is truth, we must begin by admitting the truth.
We do not fear, love and trust and in God above all things. Oh the idols we create. The false gods we revere. The things we look to for comfort, the stuff of this world. Our possessions that so quickly get blown away, our health that is in peril from the moment of our conception, our mighty deeds, our jobs, our friends our families, television, sports, we place all sorts of things in front of God, and then bow down to the idol and expect that God won’t notice. The greatest idol of all is our own heart. We love and trust ourselves far more than we love and trust in the one true God. We just want to add a little bit of ourselves. We want to do something. We don’t want to admit that he must do it all for us.
And even on a day like today, when we finally admit the truth, the idols and the lies lurk in the corners. Your sinful flesh suggests that because you have made an honest assessment of sin, now God must love you. Because you are finally able to come clean to him, that you deserve mercy.
Mercy is, by definition, underserved. That is why it is mercy. And the temptation this day is to think that, because of your great piety, because of your own willingness to admit to violating God’s law, that somehow you are now in a position to expect something from him. As if it is owed you. As if you have done your part, and now he must do his.
Our hearts are wicked places. Even as we dwell on sin, the heart finds a way to turn God’s word in on itself until it is about you, about your work, about what you have done.
Ash Wednesday is the day to recognize that, left to yourself, you have only the grave, only eternal destruction, to look forward to. Anything better than that must be an undeserved gift. Any hope of salvation must be God showing his love and mercy to you in spite of you, not in any way because of you.
Today we begin the journey to the cross. Today isn’t about you. Today we begin to look at what you cost Jesus. What he had to pay for you. Today we begin that journey. We do so by looking at what you have earned for yourself. Death and decay. Sackcloth and ashes. Turn away from your sin, even the sin of thinking that you turning away from your sin somehow makes you acceptable to God. Trust that Jesus saves you. It is not your work. It is his, start to finish. Without the spirit to awaken your heart, you can not even see the sin. God must go to work on your stony heart with his law. Recognizing your guilt is a work of the spirit. So confess your sin, admit your sinfulness, but recognize that this too is a gift of God. This too is God’s work to save you. This is God, coming to you with the reality of who you are, so that you would see who Jesus is, so that you would know how much you need him. So that you are ready to hear what he does for you. He dies for you. He suffers the punishment of sin for you. He gives his life for you, not in spite of your sin, but because of it.
It’s all Jesus.