Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sermon: Ash Wednesday


25 February 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 6:1-6, 16-21 (Joel 2:12-19, 2 Peter 1:2-11)


In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These are painful words, just as harsh today for us as they were when God first pronounced them over a terrified Adam in Genesis chapter three.

For these words are harbingers of death, reminders of our own mortality. The ashen cross marks us as condemned prisoners waiting for our appointment with the hangman. For the wages of sin is death. Death came into the world through one man. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

The condemnation of Adam applies to all of us children of Adam. The things we treasure are in reality only so much dust and debris, and the one thing we treasure above all, our very lives, are passing away with each day.

This is why one of the Sons of Adam, the One who is also the Son of God, tells us: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” – for these things are all temporary. Rather we are to “lay up” for ourselves “treasures in heaven.”

This is exactly what the prophet Joel means when he speaks God’s Word: “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Rather than wallow in the passing things of this fallen world, we are to fix our eyes above, to those things which are not passing away, to our Lord Jesus Christ, whose death defeated death, whose perfect life is given to us as a free and sacrificial gift. We are being rescued, dear friends! Though we are now in a pit, our impending help is from above. Hold your heads high, looking toward heaven. Hold your heads up as conquerors, not down as the defeated and the downtrodden.

We can indeed repent. We can indeed hear the holy words of the Ten Commandments, the Law of the Lord, calling us back to Himself like a Father bidding His children into His strong and loving arms.

Today, in the words of the prophet Joel, we “consecrate a fast.” Let every man, woman, and child look to his true treasure, that is, to become, in the words of St. Peter, “partakers of the divine nature.” For consider our blessed Lord’s divine nature – though He died in His flesh, He rose again in that same divine nature, defeating the devil, destroying death, conquering sin. We are partakers, dear brothers and sisters, with that same victorious divine nature. For He is not only our Lord, but also our Savior: the king who comes to save us. He came not only to crush the serpent’s head, but also to rescue those condemned to the dust, so that we might escape “from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”

For that is the cause of it all, of our destiny to return to dust, of the Lord’s dusty walk to the cross, and of the dusty cross traced upon our foreheads along with the reminder of what we are. The cause of it all is sin. Sin leads to death. Sin wrought the cross. Sin stands in the way of our treasures in heaven.

But thanks be to God that His death on the cross as our Savior pardons us from this death sentence. For the Lamb of God, pure and holy, has mercy on us. In conquering sin, our Lord conquered death. And in conquering sin and death, our Lord crushed the devil’s head and rendered him powerless – even in the face of death.

For the great paradox is this: though we are dust, and though we shall return to dust (as is the just penalty for our sins and the sins of all mankind), we will not remain dust. And what’s more, this is not merely a paradox, but is good news, dear friends: we will rise from the dust. Not like a Phoenix, but as ourselves, as the men and women the Lord created us to be. This is the greatest news of all: that our sins are atoned for, our death rendered only temporary, and our redemption as certain and sure as the black mark on your forehead.

For just as the dust will wash off by water, your sins have been washed away permanently by water and the Word, not merely by a symbolic cross traced in dust, but by a real cross soaked in blood.

Never forget that after Ash Wednesday comes Easter. And yet, for the time being, it is a helpful discipline to ponder your sins, meditate on your mortality, and allow the Law of God to crush your pride and self-reliance into dust. And as our Lord says: “When you give to the needy… When you pray… and when you fast…” do not seek the praise of other men who are likewise dust, but seek the reward from your Father who is in heaven, the Father who loves you, who sent His Son to redeem you, who faithfully calls you to repentance, and who promises through the tears of our dusty faces: “there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Amen.

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