Today we turn away from our rejoicing. We put away our most festive words. We who are nothing but dust and ashes, return to our own. We receive the mark of death. And so we begin the season of repentance. Six weeks between now and the cross. Beginning in ashes, we are more earnest in prayer, more focused on the Word of God, more intent on hearing and learning that word. We begin with our own mortality. We end with the death of God himself. We don’t do this to earn some merit before God. We don’t do it because entrance into heaven depends on us performing the right rituals in the right way on the right days. Rather, we do this because of the Word of the Lord that promises ” he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;” It’s a phrase that shows up 9 times in the Old testament. The books of Moses. The Psalms. The prophets. They all use it. It’s one of the most common ways of describing the Lord. Jonah even uses it as an accusation against God, when God spares the hated Ninevites from destruction. God wants to show them mercy. That’s the theme throughout the psalms we recite tonight, as well as the Old Testament reading. Don’t think the Old Testament tells of judgment and the New of forgiveness. The mercy and love of God drips from the pages of the Old Testament like honey from the comb. The Old Testament points to – and more than that, drives us to – our Savior Jesus Christ. If not for that steadfast love, shown in the birth, life, death, and resurrection Jesus, there is no point to the repentance, the ashes, the fasting, and almsgiving, the prayer. We may as well go on our merry way and enjoy things while we can, before the day of reckoning arrives.
Most of the world does just that. They have no regard for the Lord and his word. Even in the church, there are many who are too busy to pray with the Lord one little hour. That he continues to put up with us, despite our constant sin, that he does not strike us down like he did the rebellious Israelites in the desert with serpents, or the earth opening to swallow, or a plague – that he does not smite us in this way, despite every intention of our sinful flesh being always for evil continually – that he does not bring judgement against us the moment we sin, is testimony to his great love and mercy, not to our great faithfulness in repenting of our sin. We are saved not for the sake of our actions, our bending low, our sitting in dust and ashes. We are saved for the sake of the son, who bore our sins on the cross, who gave himself into death so that we would be saved.
We daily sin much, and surely deserve nothing but punishment. And yet our Lord, in his mercy, continually forgives us our sin. He does not rebuke us in his anger, he does not chasten in his wrath, he patiently instructs us. Disciplining us so that we would repent of our sin, turn to him, and be saved. He could, by all rights, condemn us to the fires of hell the moment we are conceived, the instant we are born. He could consign us to flames of woe at any moment. But he does not. Because he is abounding in steadfast love.
The season of Holy Lent originally began as a time of instruction in the faith for those preparing to be Baptized. It goes back to the earliest days of the church. Intensive instruction, leading to Baptism right before the Easter festival. As more people joined the church, they ran out of adults to Baptize. The church shifted her efforts from teaching and baptizing adults, to baptizing and teaching children. The extra services and extra instruction continued during the season of Lent – as a way of hearing again of the cross and passion of our Lord. Testing and temptation are the themes of Lent. 40 days of Lent – just as 40 days of rain in the days of Noah, 40 years in the wilderness in the days of Moses, 40 days in the desert for Jesus. A time of purification, of testing, a time for the people of God to consider our own actions in light of the ten commandments. To hear more of God’s Word regarding our sin, and the mercy he shows through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
That’s why we are here – not because we think we can earn something from our appearance this evening. We don’t receive the sign of the ash because we want credit for having come to church. We do this to remind ourselves of our own sin, of our own mortality – we are reminded that we deserve such mortality. Death is our enemy, but it is one we have sought out, we have embraced by our sin. We can’t blame God for our sin. That is our own doing. And so also the wages of sin, death. Tonight we consider our many sins, and recognize that from infant to aged, we are all deserving of death. Because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
And yet, by the grace and mercy of God, he offers forgiveness to those who repent of their sin. Those who turn from their sin, and turn to him. The word repent means to turn away. God would not have the sinner die, and so he sent his son Jesus Christ to die for us. And because of the work of Jesus on the cross for us, the penalty and condemnation for our sin is taken away. Yes, we are marked with the sign of dust and ashes this evening. But that dust and ash is in the shape of the cross. That is the mark that was made on us in Holy Baptism. And the mark of Baptism, the water that was poured, so that we were joined to Christ’s death, marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified – that mark is not washed or brushed away from the forehead. That is an eternal mark. It is the assurance of salvation for all who believe.
And in this time of Lent, we are reminded that this is a time of grace and mercy. A time to repent and receive the forgiveness promised by God to all those who believe in his name. The dust will be wiped off later this evening. Some day we return to the dust. But the mark of the cross given in the water at the font will not be wiped away. And even when we are dust and ashes again, that mark will suffice to save you from your sin, save you from the judgement. For the sake of Jesus Christ, your savior. Amen.