Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Sermon: Ash Wednesday - 2018

14 February 2018

Text: Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

When a person knows that death is imminent, he sometimes says things like, “I need to get my affairs in order.”  Dying has a tendency to focus us on what is important, on seriously setting priorities. 

Our Lord says as much when He tells us: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus is not saying that we shouldn’t save money or be wise with our possessions.  What He is saying is that we need to have our priorities in order.  Should our hearts be set on temporary things?  Should our treasure be on the things of this life that just rot away?  Everything that money can buy will eventually turn to dust and be forgotten.  But think about the non-material things: love, faith, hope, joy.  These things are part of you and will last beyond the grave.  Your soul, your personality, that too is eternal.  Of course, you will rise again bodily, and we Christians will live physically in a new heaven and a new earth, but the old and corrupted and dying and fading away are only temporary. 

Why put your heart and your soul and your treasure into a doomed project?  There are truly better ways to invest.

This is why once a year, six weeks before Easter, and the day after Mardi Gras, we come to church on a Wednesday.  The mood is serious.  The parties are over.  There is a somberness and a renewed sense of purpose about our Christian faith as we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.  We are all reminded that we suffer from a terminal illness: sin.  On this day, instead of going along as if we will live forever, we reflect on the shortness of our time.  One way or another, whether in our sleep at an old age, whether suddenly in an accident, or after suffering by means of a painful illness, we are all going to die.  It is as certain as that smudge of black dust in the shape of a cross upon your forehead.  Look around at your brothers and sisters.  Look at their faces.  They are dying too.

God is not telling us this in order to depress us, but rather to make us face reality, and put our affairs in order.  “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” dear friends.  Commit to being where Jesus is, each and every week.  Come prepared to hear the Gospel.  Come humbly to the communion rail “for the forgiveness of sins.”  Come and joyfully take part in the one thing that will carry you beyond the grave and will bring you to life eternal: your faith in Jesus Christ.

This is not a call for you to go to work to save yourself, but rather a call for you to get out of the way and allow Jesus to work on you, to prepare you for your own death, so that you might live forever.

Store up your treasures in heaven, dear friends!  Commit to come here to pray.  Commit to financially support your church and other charities.  Commit to offer your time and service not only to this congregation in the abstract, but to your brothers and sisters here, to those elsewhere, and to the Lord Himself! 

For this is the Christian life: our response to the Lord’s grace given to us at Calvary’s cross, and delivered to us at the baptismal font.  The Christian life is that we store up these heavenly treasures when we give to the needy (secretly, not looking for the reward of men); when we pray (not by putting on a show, but by genuinely praying to your Father in heaven); when you fast (not for the sake of the praise of others, but genuinely, as a discipline to deny yourself for the sake of spiritual strengthening).

Giving to the needy, praying, and fasting: these are all “whens” in the life of the Christian according to our Lord’s preaching.  We have just heard it in His own Words recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, and chosen for us to hear as we begin our Lenten journey, striving now to “lay up… treasures in heaven,” getting our affairs in order, and setting our priorities based on what is eternal rather than what is passing and temporary.

The discipline of Lent is not easy, dear friends.  You are not going to be perfect, which itself is a reminder of our need for God’s grace and mercy.  If you could perfectly live the Christian life, you wouldn’t need a Savior.  But of course, dear brothers and sisters, we do. 

And so this Ash Wednesday, this season of Lent, is a holy time, a time of refreshment, a time of prayer and meditation, a time to think about our priorities, to get our affairs in order in response to what Christ has done for us.

No amount to discipline will make you a disciple.  But Jesus has called you in baptism.  He has bidden you to walk with Him day in and day out.  He has enabled you to be absolved of all your sins.  He has made the Word of God available to you like never before.  He has provided proclamation and teaching for your benefit.  He has given you a holy house in which to gather for His gifts.  He has given you His very self upon the cross, His flesh and blood as the atoning sacrifice, His true body and blood also given to you miraculously here in this parish and in churches like it around the world.  Our Lord offers you the Holy Spirit to strengthen you and make you a blessing to others.

He gives all of this to you as a free gift, dear friends!

That, brothers and sisters, is what it means to be a disciple.  That is why you were baptized.  That is why you have been brought here today.  That is why Jesus calls you yet again to put your priorities right. 

That is also why Jesus, in His mercy, has caused your forehead to be marked by the ashes that remind us of our fall into sin and the death that we deserve.  “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  But remember something else, dear brother, dear sister.  Remember the cross.  This is why these ashes are shaped like a cross.  The death that we deserve has been borne by our Lord Jesus Christ.  That sign of the cross is not only a reminder of death, but also of our Lord’s conquest over death.  His victory is your victory.

And even as our Lord rose from the grave, so shall we.  There will be time to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, when our time of joy returns, but as for now, we are called to a time of fasting and repentance.  It is a fast that looks forward to the feast.  It is a Lenten repentance that looks forward to our eternal Easter reward in heaven. 

So, dear friends, as we have been reminded once more of our mortality, of the shortness of our time on this side of the grave, even in that sobering reality, let us be joyful, knowing that our Lord bore our sins and carried them to the cross, winning for us victory even over death itself.  Let us gratefully put our affairs in order, prioritize our lives, and lay up treasures in heaven. 

Let us be grateful for the blessings the Lord has bestowed upon us, and let us cheerfully share that bounty with others.  Let us reflect on eternity, and live our lives to the fullest, knowing that our time on this side of the grave is fleeting, even as our promised life in eternity is never-ending.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 

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

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