But do not think that Lent, that Ash Wednesday are an attempt to make you feel sorry for your sins. Certainly you should be sorry that you have broken God’s Law.
But in the grand scheme of things, that gets you nothing if that’s all you get from today. If Lent is only about our sorrow over sin, then we don’t need it. And if that’s all the church is for, to make us sorry for our sins, or even to make us so sorry that we promise not to do it again, then we’re all wasting our time. We can pack up and go home, because we aren’t doing anyone any good.
We aren’t here because we have recognized our sin. We aren’t here because we are sorry for that sin. We aren’t here because this is where we go to atone for sin.
Forgiveness is a free gift, and no action or work or struggle or personal effort on your part will get you forgiveness.
Ash Wednesday is not the day when you trot out the sorry-o-meter, to see if your sorrow over sin reaches the forgiveness threshold set by God. Because that will never get you a thing.
Ash Wednesday is the day that you realize that your best efforts, your finest works, your most religious religiosity, has done nothing to help you solve the death problem. More than that, you have the death problem precisely because of your best efforts, your finest works and your most religious religiosity.
Today we hear the curse: From dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return. But the curse is not, can not be the final word. The curse is the judgment for sin. And you have earned that judgment. And, like Adam and Eve before you, there is a lot of rationalizing, and excusing, and explaining away the sin. Today is the day that you hear how very little God cares about excuses. They can be lousy excuses. The word of God remains: From dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return. They can be excellent excuses. The Word of God remains: From dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return. They can be the best reason ever that totally explains what you have done in a way that any reasonable person would respond, “Surely, you can not be held accountable for that.” From dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return. The voice of judgment speaks without discrimination, over every sin and every sinner. Dust.
But there is another voice that speaks today. The ashes have a long and proud history in the church. They go back to the days of the Old Testament. They carry with them the word of God. ” From dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.” But they carry no promise. And so they are less than the word of Christ, who says, “Father forgive.” He does not say that in the ashes. He says it from the cross. And he joins that word of forgiveness to the water. To the bread. To the wine. And it is more than just water, it is a washing of regeneration. And it is more than just bread. It is the very body of Jesus. And it is more than just wine. It is his true blood.
Today we receive the mark of the ashes. And it reminds us that we are mortal – and that our mortality is entirely deserved. But it is not the final word. The final word is Jesus word. And His word is the word of forgiveness.
That is true repentance. Not only that you are filled with sorrow for your sin, not only that you recognize how very great is your sin, and that you look on your sins with terror because of the punishment of God. Repentance is not only those things. Repentance is also that you look to Christ, and his sacrifice. You look to the promise given in Holy Baptism. For that mark – The sign of holy cross, made upon your forehead and upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified – that mark does not fade away, is not brushed away does not wash away.
That is the mark that matters. The sign of sin which we wear today reminds us, and prompts us to live a life of repentance. But that is only because of the word of God that stands behind it. And that word only does you any good because of the promise of God that is in the water, not in the ashes.
And your life of repentance must grab hold of the promise of Jesus, given in the water, given at his table. That is why we are here. The word of God does more than just bring us sorrow. It does more than terrify. It offers the absolution. Freely and without condition, for Christ’s sake.
Earlier this week, 21 men confessed the name of Christ, as their blood was spilled. Their final words were “Lord Jesus Christ”, spoken as the devil and his workers on earth wielded their swords. And those final words stand as testimony to the hope that is in them. Their blood cries out from the ground, but not for vengeance. It cries of the hope that is theirs, even as their bodies return to dust and ashes.
The judgment spoken over them by those murderous butchers of Satan, are a fitting judgment for any Christian. “Your Lord is the Nazarene, and you are a people of the cross.” May it always be for us that we are people of the cross. That we look to Jesus the author and perfector of our faith. That we would not be so enamored with the things of this world that we forget we are but dust and ashes before the Lord.
They were able to make public witness to the whole world, in a way that few Christians ever have opportunity to do. They now stand with the apostles and martyrs in glory. They are the those who have come through the great tribulation and washes their robes in the blood of the lamb.
The dust and ashes that we see this day, that we have traced on our foreheads, speak of death. They are a word of judgment. But the word, the promise, the death of Jesus is a greater word. And it speaks life to your dying body.
In repentance, grab hold of that word. Hold onto it, as the 21 martyrs did. They knew that they were but dust and ashes in this world. The death of Jesus saved them from that. Because he gives a life beyond the things of this world.
We get marked with the sign of ashes. But that is only an outward sign of the mark made on you at your baptism. And it is only an outward sign of the hope that is yours. Of the life you are given in the supper.
Today we begin the journey of repentance, a journey that ends at the cross. Those 21 have gone the way of Jesus. The way of the cross. And they have shown us that the ashes have their place. But it is fleeting. For our Lord Jesus comes with life. With his blood, to revive your dead flesh. To feed you with the food that does not spoil, but remains to eternal life. To take you from this vale of tears to himself in heaven. Grant this Lord unto us all.