Once again we come to the season of Holy Lent. We come in sorrow and contrition. We come in penitence and humility. We come today to hear the Holy Word of God. We are reminded that we are nothing but dust and ashes. From dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return. Death is a time of law. As we consider our own mortality, if we are honest, we must admit, “I deserve it.” This saying is true and worthy of all acceptance, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” Death is nothing more than the wages of our sins. Each year, as we approach and hear the words of dust and ashes, we get a year closer to the fulfillment of that curse.
Death is a curse. It is not a sweet release. It has no dignity. It is a violence brought into God’s creation because of the violence we have committed against the creation, and against God. That is what sin is. And it was never supposed to be that way. Everything was good. It was as God intended. Adam and Eve in the garden, showing their obedience to God’s command. Worshipping him in obedience at the two trees, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But Ever was deceived, and Adam disobeyed. The knowledge given by that tree was not good. It was not that Adam and Ever were incomplete without that knowledge. The knowledge of good and evil did not make them like God. If God did not intervene it would have forever separated us from God. The tree gave knowledge, and that knowledge made us slaves of sin and death. Now, we know what those things are – we are not better for the knowing.
When God finds Adam and Eve in the Garden there is a curse and a promise. The curse of Eden is that we must return to the dust from which we were formed. The promise is that one will come to save us. We’ve heard of the birth, heralded by angels.
Now we start on the long road to the cross. The long road to the salvation promised to our first parents. This is a time of testing, of temptation. And today we sit in the dust and ashes that make up our being. We confess our sins. We stop with the lies and excuses, and admit “There is not even one who does good. No, not one. I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am not worthy that you should even come into my house.” The faithful throughout scripture recognized their own unworthiness. Recognized their own sin. Recognized that death was nothing more than fitting punishment for their misdeeds. Peter wept bitterly. But tears could not atone for his denial of Jesus.
Do not think that the dust and ashes of today earn you anything. Do not think that you are better for them. Those who receive the sign of ashes are no better than those who do not. Those who come tonight are not lesser sinners. Those who are faithful, those who are not – all earned the just wages for their sins. It is but a breath from the gilded glory of this world to the cold shroud of the grave.
Repent of your sin. Turn away from your faithlessness. Like Peter, do not continue in it, but go home and weep bitterly. Tonight is only the first step on the journey of repentance. The whole life of the Christian is one of repentance. Each day, you must by contrition and repentance, down the Old Adam with all his evil desires, so that he dies. Each day a new man must emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness. And then tomorrow, the struggle must repeat.
And we must reject the false theology that says, “Well, we all sin, so there’s nothing to worry about. Forgiveness is free! We need not worry about the sin. We can always get forgiveness later.” Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Turn now, while there is still time. Return to the Lord before he judges, before he strikes the land with a curse. Return to his word, turn away from your sin. Actually live up to the promise given to you in your Baptism, instead of giving in so easily to the sinful flesh. Instead of listening to the lies of Satan, return to the Lord your God. Instead of getting caught up in the things of this world, hear his Word, receive his gifts.
For our Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He does not desire the death of the sinner, but that you would turn from your sin and live.
So tonight, resolve to turn away from the sin. And then recognize that your promise means as much tonight as it did yesterday when you promised the same thing before falling into the same sins. Or the day before. Or the day before that. We are good at resolving to do better. We can feel sorrow with the best of them. But it’s not sorrow over your sin that saves. It’s not a resolution to fix things, to do better next time that brings you into God’s kingdom. For that is the way of Judas. Who was sorrier than anyone before or since. Who tried everything he could to undo the damage. Who resolved to be better. And who finally despaired of his salvation and took the only road left for those who would try and save themselves.
Because the truth is, it is a daily struggle. A struggle to be sorrowful for your sin. A struggle to repent. A struggle to drown that Old Adam. And in all of that, you must know that it still isn’t you that brings you salvation. If, as sorry as he was, Judas couldn’t do it, then neither can you. Peter wept, but Peter turned to the Lord. Jesus must take away your sin. Today, and tomorrow, and the day after. So yes, turn away from your sin. Yes, go and sin no more. But that still won’t do it.
Repentance is faith that grabs hold of the promise. The promise Jesus gave you in his death.
So come in dust and ashes. That’s all you ever were. It’s Jesus that gives you the true life in his body and blood. Given and shed for you. That is the promise. And without it, all is lost. With it, you have already been given all there is. The promise of forgiveness. The inheritance of heaven. Life eternal with God in Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God. Who brings us to sorrow over our sin, and then gives us faith to believe the promise. Who gives his own body and blood as the pledge and seal and bids us take eat and take drink so that the promise is yours. The promise made on the cross. The promise given in Baptism. The promise sealed with his body and blood.
Repent, and live. And this not of yourselves it is the gift of God. In Jesus name.