Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sermon: Ash Wednesday

17 February 2010 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

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

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord. Even now, when we’re still basking in the glow of so much to celebrate. Even now when people have come together to cheer and raise the glass, to hold our heads high and to drink in all the attention our city and region are enjoying – even now, “declares the Lord, ‘return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’”

We look at one another bearing ashes on our foreheads. “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Even in the midst of the euphoria and joy of the last few weeks, we have been confronted with this somber reminder that we are mortal. And now, we must confront why. “Even now” the Lord calls us to set our celebrations aside and look deep within our darkest mortal nature.

The Lord calls upon us to fast. Even the Lord Jesus uses the little word “when” to describe the Christian practice of fasting. “When you fast,” he says. It is not an option. God speaks to us anew through the holy prophet Joel: “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”

“Even now,” the Lord calls upon us to deny ourselves; to withhold food from our bodies and to discipline ourselves to shun that which we crave. In pondering our sin, He calls us to weep and mourn, for this is what we do in the face of death, and the wages of sin is death. All mourning is caused by sin. “Remember, O man…”

But, dear friends, the Lord does not call upon us to destroy ourselves. Fasting is not starvation. Weeping is not self-destruction. Mourning is not giving up. For He calls upon us to “rend your hearts and not your garments.” He bids us to repent, to have a change in heart and mind, to reorder our disordered priorities. He invites us back to Him, not to be repaid with the wrath we deserve, but rather with the mercy that we don’t deserve: “for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

The Lord has gifts to give us, mercy to heap upon us like endless beads in a parade. He draws and impels us to meet together in a holy gathering: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly.” He assembles us, literally “churches” us, draws us out of our self-imposed prisons and into the congregation where His healing and liberation come to us, where the ashes of death are to be replaced by something better. For the ashes on our foreheads are not ashes alone – they have been mixed with oil, and you have been literally “christed,” anointed, marked with chrism, shaped in the form of a cross, labeled not only as one who will die and return to dust, but also as one who will rise and wipe the dust of this sinful world from your feet. For the oil mixed with the ashes calls to mind the Holy Baptism with which we were washed.

“And when you fast,” says our Lord, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others…. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father in secret.”

We have been washed in Holy Baptism and anointed by the Anointed One Himself when He called us out of darkness into the light, when He blessed us with the seal of the Holy Spirit and invited us to pray with Him to “Our Father.”

“Gather the people,” God says to us. “Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants.” For just as not even the little ones are exempt from death, even as they too must bear the cross of mortality upon their little brows, shouldering with us our common cross and burden of six millennia of sin and death, so too does our Lord invite the children and nurslings into redemption, to be baptized along with the elders. Our Lord Jesus bade us to allow the children to come to Him, and not to hinder them. For these little ones “believe” in Him. None are left out of this sacred assembly. We neither segregate nor exclude by race or class or age, neither rich nor poor, neither old nor young, neither sick nor well. For likewise none are exempt from this mortal mark of ash upon the forehead and the somber reminder: “Remember, O man…”

“Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber.” No-one is excluded from death, but more importantly, all are bidden to come to partake of eternal life!

For the Lord also calls His ministers to pray for the people, weeping and saying: “Spare Your people, O Lord, and make not Your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.”

The Lord is truly merciful, dear friends. He loves us. He spares no expense to save us, not even the life of His only begotten Son. He pleads with us to come, to return, to repent, to turn away from all things that draw us from Him, to turn aside from all those things that lead us to death. He even “relents over disaster.”

The Lord “had pity on His people. The Lord answered and said to His people, ‘Behold, I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied.”

Even though we fast, we shall be satisfied. Even though we weep and mourn, we shall be comforted. Even though we sin, we shall be forgiven. And even though we are dust and to dust we shall return, we shall be restored to life anew.

For the Lord Himself sends us grain to be made into the bread of His body, and wine to be made into His blood, and oil, to be traced upon our heads in the sign of the cross in a holy anointing – at baptism, and again when we are suffering illness, even the kind of illness that may bring about our return to dust. The cross-shaped anointing with oil is a reminder – not that we are dust, children of the Old Adam, but rather that we are sons, children of the new covenant. It is a reminder – much like the blood of the Passover Lamb – that the angel of death has no ultimate power over us, for he had no ultimate power over our Lord Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead, the Conqueror of the grave, and the Victor over Satan.

Ashes may remind us of death, but the cross reminds us of the death of death and the victory of our Lord unto everlasting life.

And as St. Peter reminds us anew: “For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

“Even now” dear brothers and sisters, “even now” let us return to the Lord, and even unto eternal life. Amen.

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


Polly said...

Scripture like that always makes me wonder why we don't commune infants.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Polly:

This has become a topic of discussion in the LCMS. It is my understanding that the Japanese Church with which we share fellowship allows for infant communion.

It is a hotly debated topic, and I don't care to see this thread turned into a debate on it (we've been down that road a few times), but I think it is fair to say that an argument can be made for it.

For his part, Luther did not consider the practice of infant communion in and of itself to be heretical (as the Moravians practiced it, as did many in the Western Church until the 13th (?) century, and the Eastern churches all along.

The early Lutherans practiced much younger communion than we contemporary Americans tend to. I do think there is a consensus to lower the communion age - even among those who are opposed to communing infants.

Mossback Meadow said...

Thanks. I wasn't looking to stir up a debate. We're in good hands here in Marion, OH. : )

Mossback Meadow said...

That first comment was from me. Didn't realize I have 2 google identities.

Dave Lambert said...

Thank you for proclaiming the Gospel. We attended an Ash Wednesday service in an LC-MS church where the Gospel was missing from the sermon! Fortunately the Divine Service compensated for that omission.