Roads closed all over the county. Wife stuck in Cheyenne. Elder of the day on the other side of the snow drift that is his road. Members huddled in their homes, waiting for the weather to break. (Ok, probably not exactly huddled. But they are in their homes until the crazy subsides.)
So, for those who could not make it to church, here is Ash Wednesday’s sermon to read (with a Tip-o-the-hat to Hans Feine for some of the ideas):
The Gospel reading says not to disfigure faces. We put ashes on the faces. It’s a long tradition in the church. Did we not hear what he just said? Is this one of those Catholic practices that we should just get rid of? For many years, Lutherans celebrated Ash Wednesday without the ashes. Should we go back to that? “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.”
Sure sounds like maybe we should rethink the ashes thing.
But then, we also prayed together. No secret rooms. All together, where we could see each other. And we do that every time we come together. And left hands can see what right hands are doing at offering time. If we’re under condemnation for the ashes, we were under condemnation for the prayers and offerings as well.
So, what’s up with that?
Notice the reason Jesus gives – they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. They stand and pray in the synagogues that they may be seen by others. They give to the needy that they may be praised by others.
The problem isn’t the being seen in itself. The problem is the being seen for the sake of being seen. The problem is doing any of these to impress others.
We don’t stop our prayers to make sure no one can possibly see u`s. But neither to we proclaim, “Look at us! Praying again! Aren’t we holy people!” It’s one thing to pray together so you can be seen, and everyone can marvel at your great faith. It’s another to pray because you have great need, and are desperate for help from above.
And we don’t say, “Look at how we help the poor. What good people we are!” It’s one thing to give to the needy so that everyone can wonder at the many fine deeds we perform. It’s another to give because God has blessed you, and there are people in need that you can help. That’s fifth commandment stuff – help and support our neighbor in every physical need.
And we don’t say “Look at that ash mark on my forehead! How pious I am!”
It’s one thing to put the ash mark their so others see it, so they know how pious you are. So you can get the respect of your peers. It’s another to dwell in sackcloth and ashes because you really do repent of your sin, you really are conscious of earning death by your actions. You really are sorry for what you have done, the word for that is contrition, and you really do know that you need the forgiveness God gives, otherwise you are eternally condemned.
The problem is not the in the action istelf. The problem is the motivation. If you hide in a closet to pray, and make sure that’s the only way you ever pray, and you never even come to church because you don’t want to pray publicly, and you never give to the poor, because someone might find out and praise you, and you make sure you are always immaculately groomed so that people can see how well you follow the command of Jesus, then you have been infected with a false piety just as deadly as the one Jesus warns against.
Ashes are nothing. And no ashes are nothing. But sin is not nothing. Death is not nothing. And sins are what you have committed. And death is what you have earned for those sins.
Holy Scripture calls us to repent of our sin. Holy Scripture says we are to discipline ourselves against the sinful flesh. And Holy Scripture does nothing else but meditate on the suffering and death of our Lord. The things we do in Holy Lent are the things that scripture repeatedly says to do with our time.
One of the other disciplines of Lent was instruction in the faith. Because scripture tells us to do that as well. So we gather to hear the word, and to be instructed in that word. To repent of our sin. To hear again of the death of Jesus. And yes, tonight we dwell in dust and ashes. Tonight we hear “From dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.” And we wear the mark of death. Because our sinful flesh does not want to hear the things of God. There’s a lot we can ignore. The commandments are easily forgotten. The promise of Christ easily put aside. The church easily neglected. But death isn’t something we can forget about. We can try. But death intrudes. Death keeps at us. It’s always just an accident, a medical episode, a missed breath away. And so, if nothing else will bring us to repent, we have this – the day of dust and ashes. The Law of God, given without fancy adornments. Just “Fear Love and Trust in him above all things. And if you don’t you are dead. And you don’t so you are dead.”
And with that firmly in mind, what else can we do but spend time preparing for the death of our Lord with almsgiving and fasting and in prayer. Jesus even says to do those things. Tonight is the shock therapy, the intervention. Which is to say, tonight is the truth spoken to you without any place for excuses. You can repent or you can die. Those are your options. If you wish to continue on the path of death, then go back to the world and its pleasures. Ignore the season of Holy Lent, ignore the path to the cross. Ignore this time of discipline, this time of Word, prayer and fasting.
But if you would live, then the church is the place to help you with that path of repentance. This is the place – yes, gathered publicly to pray, not in a closet in your basement – where the Word of God, the word of his law is proclaimed against your sin.
But here’s the thing.
The church can never leave things in dust and ashes. Because the Lord is loving and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And so it is true that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
But in dust you shall not stay. There is mercy for those who are merciful. There is righteousness for those who hunger and thirst after it. There is forgiveness for those who repent. And there is life, for those who are reborn into the new life of water and the Spirit that God offers here.
We don’t mark our faces to show ourselves more pious.
We don’t pray midweek to show ourselves more holy.
We don’t give to the poor to feel good about ourselves and our wealth.
We do those things because we know the need our neighbor has, the need we have.
It’s one thing to pray and cry out Lord have mercy, and weep at the feet of Jesus so that others can see how pious you are. It’s another to do it because you have lost everything, and there is no other hope.
It’s one thing to mark your face because you want everyone to know how much you love the church.
It’s another to dwell in ashes because you’ve tried, and tried and tired again to conquer your sins, and you know that you can not do it. And all you can do is repent in dust and ashes for being an unfaithful and lazy servant of God. And to trust in that word of God that even when we are faithless, he remains faithful. And to hold ever tighter to the promise of forgiveness for your sins. To say, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief. Deliver me from every temptation of body and soul, possessions and reputation. Save me from dying outside of your grace and mercy. Because I can’t do it myself. I need Jesus to die for me.”
That’s where we are headed now during this season of Holy Lent. Because we don’t have any other hope of salvation.
May God grant to us repentance for our sins, faith to believe the promise of forgiveness, and strength to walk the path of righteousness.