Ash Wednesday - Feb. 14, 2018
Rev. Michael C. Larson
When children are baptized by Christ here at Luther Memorial we trace the sign of the cross upon their foreheads and their hearts to mark them as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified. When the children of this congregation and buried we do the same. I carry a bottle of ashes and spread those ashes at the committal tracing the sign of the cross, saying “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Tonight, on Ash Wednesday, somewhere between your baptism and its completion in death – we trace the cross upon your forehead in ashes. Baptisms and funerals serve as a reminder that we come into this world naked and leave it in the very same way. We come from the substance of the earth and we return to dust. The ashes which we wear serve as a sobering reminder of the frailty of our lives. Our stuff, our achievements, and all the things which we think are so important are really not that important at all.
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord in our Scripture text tonight, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” We acknowledge that our sins are actually serious. When we confess our sins we are not saying, “sorry Lord, I said a naughty word this week.” We are not confessing, “God, one time I was mean to somebody and I should have been more nice.”
No! Tonight we confess that our sins actually offend God and that the devil is a cruel slave master. Sin is a serious matter. Our spouses and children pay dearly for it.
It is they who receive the brunt of our mood swings and bad attitudes. We have caused our own mothers to cry. We have crushed our children with our disapproval of them. We have been loveless, even holding a grudges against members of the household of faith here at LMC.
We have lived as if God did not matter and as if we have mattered most. Sin makes the good things in life no longer enjoyable. Sin crushes happiness. It stains the soul, it maims the body, and leaves us for dead. Sin is always deadly! It’s killing us.
The Prophet Joel tells us tonight that our sins are worth crying over. We should weep over our sins. They have already caused much sadness and destruction and they continue to do so. Tonight we begin the season of lent. We resolve to live differently – to repent of our sins and turn again to the Lord, living by faith in the Son of God. Most important we set our faces like flint toward Jerusalem.
After Adam sinned the Lord said “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The imposition of ashes is biblical. Joshua and the leaders of Israel repented of sins and covered themselves in ashes. King David, Job, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Jonah did the same because they hoped for a man of dust who would come. God had promised a second Adam, a man of the earth sort of Savior, born of the Virgin Mary. A man of flesh and blood, like you, to suffer for your sins and lie down in death in a dusty tomb.
He took your place. Your sins became his. Your betrayals, your depravities, the tears you have caused in others, your mistrust, your anger, your faithlessness, your refusal to pray - flirtations with coworkers, philandering, and broken vows. This is how sinners anointed our blessed and holy Jesus to stretch out his hands for nails, and feet to be driven through with metal spikes. The judgment which should have fallen upon us rained down upon Him instead.
Yet even as he suffers He does this joyfully for you. Therefore lent is not really a time to be sad or gloomy. It’s not even necessarily a time to give things up or stop eating things you like because Jesus is already out of the tomb!
We mourn over the greatness of our sins but rejoice so more much more in the greatness of God’s love. A love better than Valentines Day. A love which does not consist of candy shaped hearts and corny hallmark messages, but a message of perfect love etched out in in a blood-soaked cross. Not a symbol of death but a emblem of eternal life.
Your foreheads are not just smeared with soot and ashes. Engraved upon your forehead is the sign of the holy life-giving cross on which hung the salvation of the world. Upon your forehead is a reminder that the devil, your sins, and the grave have absolutely no claim on you. No one can speak anything against you because Jesus is risen and ascended to the right hand of God. It is He who speaks on your behalf, interceding for you before your Father in heaven.
And dearly beloved. He says good things about you. He says nothing about you that is not glowing with approval. Your Father in heaven is not conflicted in how he thinks about you. He simply loves you as fervently and as joyfully as He loves His own Son. He can do none other.
So tonight begin your fasting by leaving behind your sins. Dump them all in the dusty tomb outside of Jerusalem because that’s where they belong, and then, take up the righteousness of God which belongs to you by faith in the Gospel.
Repent and be glad. It is no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you. And the life you now live you live by faith in the Son of God.
Jesus Himself plainly says “Whoever eats of my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” So eat, drink and be merry. Set your face to Easter morning and trust that every grave shall be opened. Dust shall rise and you, who hope in Jesus, will not be disappointment. In the name of Jesus. Amen.