Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sermon: Ash Wednesday

21 February 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 6:1-21 (Joel 2:12-19; 2 Pet 1:2-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is warning us that we are in great peril.

We are being called to repentance for putting our trust in our possessions. We lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, although these possessions guarantee nothing. They can be swept away by storm surge, or by a tornado, or by a fire. Our wealth and riches mean nothing when we are diagnosed with cancer, or when our family members are in accidents, or people we love suddenly engage in self-destructive behavior.

Today we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. All of our earthly treasures will rot and decay. All of our accomplishments will be forgotten. We cannot buy happiness, not with money, not with reputation, not with self-esteem. In fact, on this day, we are reminded of how little cause we have of self-esteem at all.

We are indeed poor, miserable sinners. We offend God and neighbor numerous times every day – sometimes knowingly, other times we are too hardened and stupid to even see our own folly and sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. We justify our sins, we point the finger at others, we lie to cover up our misdeeds, and yet we are so quick to point out the transgressions of others. We focus on the Gospel even when what we need to hear at certain times in our lives is the Law.

So what are we to do? If we could stop sinning, we could simply do that, but we can’t. So if we can’t stop sinning, should we simply resign ourselves to hell? Should we turn our anger to a God who expects perfection from imperfect beings?

Hear the Word of the Lord, dear Christians! Listen to what our merciful Lord commands us to do!

“Turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Fasting, dear Christians, is not simply a nice custom. Our Lord considers it to be an integral part of the Christian life of repentance and forgiveness. We must sever ourselves from the false gods we worship, our luxuries, our full bellies, the fulfillment of every whim. We are to meditate on our sins to the point where they become horrifying and grievous to us. We are to mourn because of our sins – and we can only do that by taking to time to ponder them, to allow the Law to do its work in beating us down.

We are indeed to take action: “Blow the trumpet in Zion. Consecrate a fast. Call a sacred assembly. Gather the people. Sanctify the congregation. Assemble the elders. Gather the children and nursing babies.” The people of God are to gather. We are to assemble in church, in a consecrated time of fasting. We cannot repent as individuals. Even the newborns, laden with sin, are to gather with the assembly to collectively repent and plead for God’s mercy. Nursing babes are called to seek nourishment at the breast of Mother Church.

“Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar; Let them say: ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and do not give your heritage to reproach.’” Pastors are to pray earnestly for their flocks, pleading for the Lord to show them mercy - and woe to them that shirk this responsibility.

Of course, doing all of these things, clergy and laity alike, will not atone for our sins. You can’t earn God’s mercy by impressing him. In fact, it’s actually the opposite. In acknowledging that we cannot impress God, in the realization that our own earthly treasures cannot help us, in owning up to our total dependence upon the grace and mercy of God – we are divesting ourselves of all of our false security.

Part of that divesting, part of that severance from self-delusion involves the three “whens” our Lord employs in our Gospel text: When we give alms, when we pray, and when we fast. For it is impossible to lead a Christian life without these things. To refuse to give to our fellow men in need is to embrace a false god and is evidence that we are not in a state of grace. If you never give to those in need, either with your time or your money, you are in grave peril. You must repent immediately!

Likewise, if you claim to be a Christian and yet never pray, you are not a Christian. Prayer is as natural and foundational to the Christian life as breathing is to the worldly life. If you go for days on end without praying, you are also in eternal peril. This is not child’s play. Satan is interposing himself between you and your Savior. If this is happening to you, now is the time to pray to God, asking him for grace to do better.

And likewise, if you never fast, you are in peril of falling into dependence on your own belly, your own riches, your own freedom of choice – rather than seeing every morsel of food as an unearned grace from God. Just as an athlete must train and watch his diet, so too must the Christian. Lent is a great time to deny ourselves, to prayerfully ponder just how ungrateful we typically are for all of God’s blessings, and to repent of our ingratitude.

Once again, dear Christian brothers and sisters, you cannot earn God’s favor by almsgiving, praying, and fasting. But by shunning these things, you are earning something else – a self-imposed separation from the merciful God who is pleading with you to return to Him. For He is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.” He “relents from doing harm,” from repaying us with the wrath we deserve. For when we call upon the Lord seeking His mercy, he is eager to pour it out upon us abundantly: “Behold, I will send you grain and new wine and oil.” He blesses us with grains that become bread to be sanctified into His body, and new wine to be consecrated as his blood, as well as oil that heals and cleanses – just like the waters of Holy Baptism. The Lord is eager to shower mercy upon those who are contrite. But those who are not contrite do not truly give alms, pray, or fast.

In fact, the Pharisees made a great show to do all of these things in order to be praised by men. And they got just what they sought – but nothing more.

And what comfort we have in the words of St. Peter in our epistle for today: “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We have been gifted with all that we need to overcome our sins and false gods – gifted by virtue of the divine power of Jesus into whose name we are baptized! Only in this context do Peter’s words make any sense at all: “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things, you will never stumble, for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

“Supplied to you,” Peter says. Even your diligence, even your desire to give alms, pray, and fast are godly gifts. And notice Jesus is not invoked to simply pay you back what you’ve supposedly earned by being diligent. Rather St. Peter makes a point of using the title “Savior” for our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the rescuer, the champion, the one who gets it done on your behalf. If we could do it on our own, we’d have a paymaster, not a Savior.

So, my dear friends, when you give alms, when you pray, and when you fast, give glory to your crucified Savior who is merciful to you, who is eager to pour out his grace and forgiveness to you. He has done it all for you. And when you do sin, repent! Store up your treasure in heaven, and stop looking to yourself for salvation. “Rend your heart, and not your garments.” Take your sins seriously, and mourn over them. Come to this sanctuary, where the Lord may be found. Seek out absolution from the pastors the Lord has provided you by His mercy. And when you do repent, once more, give all glory to your Lord and Savior. For if you could repent of your own accord, by your own power, you would have no reason to thank Jesus. But we sinners have every reason to thank Him, serve Him, praise Him, and obey Him.

For we are indeed dust, and we shall return to dust. But we Christians return as sanctified dust. Our bodies have been made holy and set aside to rise on the last day, to be reunited with our spirits for eternity.

For our Lord and Savior has indeed “given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world.”

Let us unworthy sinners heed our Lord’s warnings, clinging to this promise. Even as we mourn over our sins, repent of them, and seek the Lord’s abundant mercy - today, this season of Lent, and all the days of this life under the cross. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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