Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Here is my sermon on the topic “Why bother repenting when we die anyway?”

I had sort of a “Marco Rubio” moment during the service. My throat got really dry, and I had trouble talking. But I managed to make it through without heading out for a drink. (I have had things go the other way before, as well.)

I did significant editing, removing almost a third of it before actually preaching. So many choice phrases cut. But overall, much better for the shortness, I thought. So, here it is:

It does not matter if you repent. It does not matter if you do not repent. You have sinned. From dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return. It is too late to stop. The sin has been committed, the bowl is broken, the cord is cut. Your sin has given you into the hands of death, and it is not a question of if, it is a question of when. Repent if you will, but death will come just as surely.

From dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return. The same judgment is on every child of Adam. So why bother? Why put away your wickedness, why cut down your idols, why stop worshipping the false gods of your devising, if the end is still the same? Why come here, why receive the mark of the ashes, if it does not matter? The cemetery beckons young and old alike, death calls to rich and poor all the same, it stakes its claim on the faithful just as surely as it does on the godless.

And yet, the cry goes out, “Repent.” Repent of your sin. Turn away from your iniquity.  The Blessed Reformer writes:

This, then, is what it means to begin true repentance; and here man must hear something like this: You are all of no account, whether you be manifest sinners or saints in your own opinion; you all must become different and do otherwise than you now are acting and are doing no matter what sort of people you are, whether you are as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you can be. Here no one is righteous.

But to this office the New Testament immediately adds the consoling promise of grace through the Gospel, which must be believed, as Christ declares, Mark 1: Repent and believe the Gospel, i.e., become different and do otherwise, and believe My promise.

The curse of God is never given without the promise.  Our first parents in Eden were promised a savior, even as they were cursed to return to the dust.

The son who was abandoned on the cross, was raised, and now with his death and resurrection, you have the promise of life.

But it is not a life that comes easily. You must deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him. “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” It’s not  about how hard you must work to enter heaven – let’s be clear, you can’t earn heaven by your work. You must accept it as the free gift of God through Jesus Christ. And that faith is not even your work, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sends through his Holy Word and Blessed Sacraments.

But in receiving the gift of faith, you make an enemy of Satan. He is a powerful enemy. You were his, and when Christ claimed you as his own, you were torn from his grasp. He does not want to let you go. He will do anything to get you back. And if he were the only danger, it would still be true that the road to salvation is hard and narrow.  But the world also fights against Christ. You must abandon any pretense of being accepted by the world if you will follow Jesus. “Intolerant hate monger” is one of the better titles the world has for Christians.

And even if you were able to endure the slings and arrows that the world throws at you, there is yet one more enemy of the cross, and it is the most dangerous of all.  It is your own sinful nature that despises God and his word, that does not want to let God’s word be proclaimed, that does not want to believe, that does not want to follow the narrow path of life.  You must fight every day, as the devil, world and your own flesh war against God and his holy word.

Those who go to church still get angry with their neighbor, they still refuse to help their neighbor in need, they still lust. Divorce is still a problem in the church, pregnancy outside of wedlock and then the temptation to get rid of the inconvenient life, pornography is a problem in the church as much as out of it. Hatred, anger, bitterness, resentment. And if you have managed to escape the sins just listed, don’t worry, your sinful flesh has all sorts of sins that you do like.

Even though you are redeemed by Christ, there is much sin that still remains.  Your heavenly Father declares you righteous for Jesus sake, but you still live as a sinner. The heart is still sinful. It can not be reformed, it can not be improved. Your sinful nature must be killed.  And so, by daily repentance you must drown the old Adam. During this season of Holy Lent we take extra time to pray that God would protect and defend us from the assaults of the devil, from the temptations of the world, and from the depravity of our own sinful flesh.

When Adam and Eve sinned, After God declared the judgment of death; and after he had promised a Savior, he evicted them from the Garden, and placed an angel with a flaming sword to guard the way to the tree of life.

If Adam and Eve would have eaten of that tree after their sin, they would have lived forever, but they would have lived forever sinful. Imagine an eternity of fighting with the desires of the flesh, of each day losing the battle with Satan. Of being overcome again and again by temptation. God blocked the way to the tree of life until Jesus could take the sin away. Death now still claims us, but only for a short time. Jesus has swallowed your sin by his death, he has taken the forever of death away by his resurrection. And now, you have the promise that you will live forever, not as you are now, sinful and worthy of eternal condemnation, but in his grace and mercy.  That is what awaits in the resurrection. When you will meet the great judge.  Those who do not repent will meet him on their own merits. A fearful thing indeed.  Repent, so that on that great day, you will stand on Jesus merits.

In this world, the fight continues. The flesh will not give up, not give in. It will one day give out.  Repent of your sin, because from dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return. Look to Jesus. Amen.

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