1 March 2017
Text: Matt 6:1-6, 16-21 (Joel 2:12-19, 2 Peter 1:2-11)
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
St. Peter wrote to the church about “the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
And that is the source of all of our problems, dear friends, a lusting for that which was not given us. It plagued Adam and Eve when they chose to disobey God’s word at the temptation of the serpent.
The word translated as “corruption” means decay or ruin, and it is closely related to the word translated as “jealousy.” What could be a more fitting description of the fall in the garden? What could be a more accurate – though unflattering picture – of each one of us?
Corruption is rot, and rot spreads, until it reaches its terminus at death. “Remember, O man…”
Although it’s not something we deal with in our modern world, an example of this corruption from Scripture is leprosy. Today, leprosy is known as Hansen’s Disease, and it can be cured. But for most of human existence, leprosy was a death sentence. And death followed the slow and painful march of corruption and decay of the flesh. And since this disease is contagious and so dangerous, because it is disfiguring and frightening, those who suffered with leprosy were cast out of the community and forced to live alone or in leper colonies. If they came into contact with people not suffering with the disease, they had to call out “unclean!” You could tell lepers by looking at them.
Lepers sometimes came to Jesus calling out for mercy, seeking for Jesus to remove the corruption and restore them to life and to the community. They had faith that He could do this, and prayed for His help. They gathered where Jesus could be found, even risking the reproach of others, including the hypocrites who saw themselves as better than lepers, though they too needed Christ’s mercy.
And so, on this day, this first day of the great fast, on this day in which we ponder our own sinful nature and corruption, our own leprous sin and “the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire,” we symbolically wear the rags of the leper, with the outstretched hands of the beggar, our faces marked for death, with ashes of sorrow and repentance placed upon us with a call to remembrance – as if we need to be reminded of sin and death.
And yet we do need reminded, for we hypocritically deny our sinful nature, our corruption, and even our mortality. We change the subject when death comes up. We avoid making wills and taking care of insurance needs. We shy away from the topic. But on this day, we look at one another as fellow members of a leper colony. We see a token of the corruption that we hide so well.
In our own day and age, we are so clueless that many Christian churches have turned Ash Wednesday into an extension of Carnival. Some churches allow people to drive up in their cars to get ashes as if it were a happy meal or a parade throw – without even being inconvenienced to the point of opening the car door – because people are too busy and too callous to hear the Word of God. For whatever reason, they thing ashes are a fun thing to do.
Other churches make a mockery of this ancient practice by mixing glitter with the oil and ashes to produce a fashion statement that is intended to support sexual rebellion from the Word of God, and to celebrate it, thus losing all meaning that the ashes convey: the token of corruption and death and a call to repent of our sins and not take pride in them.
But even though we came to church, heard the word of God, and did not festoon ourselves with glitter on this day, this reminder is for us. Our Lord Jesus reminds us of the sin of self-righteousness: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…. And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen.” Make sure you understand the meaning behind the ashes, dear friends. It isn’t one of those little yellow stickers you put on to brag that you voted today. This is a serious reminder that you are corrupt. You are a liar. You are a cheater. You are a thief. You are a sexual scoundrel. You are disobedient of authority. You covet and despise preaching and the Word. You abuse the Lord’s name and take idols.
You are a leper, and we are members of a colony. We have no cure to save ourselves from the corruption, and death is imminent. We are a corrupting force to others. We need to protect them from us.
But, dear friends, the ashes placed on your foreheads are shaped like a cross: the symbol of death under the law, the death suffered by Jesus as the atonement for those sins. In the cross, we can call out to the Lord, “Have mercy upon us!” and He hears us. With a Word He cleanses us. With His flesh and blood, He takes away our leprosy, our shame, our reproach, and yes, even our death. We are cured and healed and restored to the community: the communion of saints. And in gratitude, we, like the Samaritan leper, continue to return to give thanks, struggling to lead repentant and holy lives.
This is what Joel means in saying: “Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” We return in repentance, and we return in thanks.
And so let these ashen crosses that remind us of our sin and mortality in and of ourselves, also remind us of our forgiveness and immortality in Christ, though the cross, by His Word, and by means of the water and the blood and the flesh of Him who has healed the leper, raised the dead, and invited us to partake of eternal life.
For the Lord says to us anew, dear friends: “Behold, I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.”
Remember, O man… Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.