Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Homily for Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; 2 Peter 1:2-11; Joel 2:12-19
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I know that everything about Ash Wednesday, and everything about Lent in general, is offensive to you. The overly intense focus upon your own sin is offensive to you. Your submission to being marked with ashes upon your forehead and confessing your sins before a man you know to be a sinner himself is offensive to you. The absurdity of coming to this altar to have that same sinful man lay his sinful hands upon your sinful head and pronounce you forgiven – I know very well how this offends you, for it offends me as well. Therefore, permit me to put word to your thoughts: “We confess our sins each and every Sunday in the Divine Service. Why must we do it again now, and with such somberness and severe words and preaching?” “And, besides, only God can forgive sins, right? And, Jesus has already forgiven my sins on the cross, right? Then, why do you make it sound like I’m not forgiven, like I need to confess again and again and again? Are you saying that I’m not already forgiven?” “And, these ashes, this ceremony, and all this making us feel guilty and bad, isn’t this all just Roman Catholic mumbo-jumbo that Luther got rid of at the Reformation?” Yeah, I know, everything about Ash Wednesday, everything about Lent in general, is offensive to you. It’s offensive to me as well. But, that is precisely why you need it. And, that is precisely why I need it. We need to repent from our pride and from our self-righteousness that are so easily offended. They need to be offended. In fact, they need to die. Therefore, this Ash Wednesday and this Lent, your Lord invites you to die – to die with Him – to die to your pride and to your self-righteousness, to be broken and to be humbled, and to repent, that He might raise you up again, and daily, to new and everlasting life in Him, and in Him alone.
So, are you going to give something up for Lent? Are you going to make a sacrifice of some kind or another? Are you going to give up chocolate or wine? Good for you! You could stand to lose a little weight! Or, are you going to give up swearing and cursing? That would be good! Maybe, give up Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media? I’ll bet you find you’re a lot less angry and have more time to get things done. Those are all great things to give up. They’re likely to make you a happier, healthier person, no doubt. But, don’t think that God is going to be impressed. Don’t think that giving up stuff is going to make you holier or somehow more worthy in the eyes of the LORD. God doesn’t need you give up anything at all. And, frankly, if there were one thing God would like you to give up, it’s the one thing that you simply cannot ever give up – sin, you simply cannot give up sin, no matter how hard you try. So, my advice to you is this: Stop trying to do stuff. Stop trying to give up stuff. Stop trying to do, and practice getting better at receiving.
“Now you’ve gone off the deep end, Pastor! Are you suggesting that I should stop trying not to sin?” No, not exactly. Of course you should, you must, continue to resist the temptation to sin. But, how do you think you’re going to do that? By your extraordinary will power? How has that worked for you in the past? Still keeping those resolutions you made only forty days ago? You can only resist the temptation to sin by keeping the oil of faith in the lamp of your soul full and replenished. You cannot buy this oil, you cannot earn it, and you don’t even deserve it, but you receive it as a gift of God’s grace through His means of grace, His proclaimed Word and His visible Word in Baptism, Absolution, and Supper. Giving something up for Lent – the Biblical Word is fasting – may be, as Luther teaches in the Small Catechism, “good outward bodily preparation,” but it is not a meritorious work. In fact, the purpose of fasting is that you might become hungry and thirsty, weak, and dependent so that you might all the better receive the spiritual food and drink your LORD mercifully pours out for you to strengthen your faith, to preserve, keep, and sustain you through every trial, tribulation, and temptation you face.
Today your LORD invites you to return to Him, with the promise that “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Your LORD invites you to return to Him “with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” That is to say, return to Him in repentance. Return to Him in humility. Return to Him dead to yourself that He might revive you and cause you to live again in Him. “Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him?” Who knows? You see, it doesn’t matter. You’re not returning to Him in order to get something out of Him, are you? No! But, return to Him because He is your God, your Creator, your life and your being. If you’ve come for any other reason, then repeat the first part again about fasting, weeping, and mourning until it sinks in. Yet, indeed, your LORD does leave a blessing behind, a grain offering in the holy body of Jesus, and a wine offering in His precious blood that you may eat and drink and live.
Moreover, you do not return to the LORD merely as His subject, but your return to the LORD as His Son. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” Did you catch that? Partakers – your God wants you to be a partaker of His divine nature. To be a partaker is to be a recipient of His gifts. And, this is not a one-time thing, but an ongoing, every-day-of-your-life kind of thing.
However, being a partaker of the LORD and of His divine nature – well, that means something. That means that you are not your own, but you are the LORD’s. That means that you are part of both the spiritual and fleshly body the LORD has taken on in His Son Jesus Christ. That means that you are, as St. Paul teaches, members of His Body, and that you are, as Jesus’ teaches, branches of His True Vine. That means that you will bear fruit – His fruit. Thus, St. Peter exhorts you today to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” What are these but the fruits of the Spirit expressed in different ways? What they share in common is that they are qualities that come from humility, selflessness, sacrifice, and reception of the LORD’s gifts. There is no doing here, just as there is no giving anything up, but, instead, there is being. Thus, what is described is what your life will be like and look like when you are a partaker of the LORD’s divine nature. The children's apples will not fall far from their Father's tree.
But, St. Peter continues saying, “If these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, I ask you, how does this happen? How do you increase your fruitfulness? Well, how does a branch from an apple tree or a grape vine produce more and better fruit? It’s not by the efforts of the branch, is it? No. But, it is by drawing life and sustenance from the tree and the vine. Thus, St. Peter exhorts you to “make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will ever fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” What St. Peter is saying is that your calling and election are already accomplished in Jesus Christ. However, your certainty and comfort in this comes only from remaining in the LORD’s gifts and in bearing His fruit. Thus, if you remove yourself from the LORD’s gifts in Word and Sacrament and cease bearing the fruits of His Spirit and faith, you will stumble and fall. Whether you will be raised up again to faith and fruitfulness God alone knows. Therefore, take care and be diligent in receiving the LORD’s gifts and bear His fruit.
But, again, my advice to you is to stop trying to do stuff, even to give up stuff. Stop trying to do altogether, but this Lent, practice that you may get better at receiving and being. Indeed, a huge part of Ash Wednesday and of Lent is recognizing and confessing your inability to stop sinning and to save yourself, or even to work together with God towards your salvation, but rather to throw yourself completely upon the mercy of God poured out for you in His Son Jesus Christ. This is why Ash Wednesday and Lent are so exceedingly offensive to your fallen flesh and reason. You want to justify yourself, always. But, the truth is that your justification always and only comes from outside of you. That is why your Lord exhorts you not to lay up treasures for yourself on earth, but in heaven, with the promise that “where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” Those heavenly treasures are here for you today, right now: “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied.” No, these things are not impressive to the world and to your fleshly reason and desires. They are not earthly, but heavenly, treasures. But, they are real, effective, and lasting treasures nonetheless. These treasures of Word and Water, Bread, and Wine bestow the forgiveness of sins, preserve you as partakers of the divine nature of the LORD, and make you fruitful, comforting you and strengthening you that you might make your calling and election sure in practicing them. “Return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” He has relented over your disaster, and He desires to bless you and to make of you a rich blessing to others. Stop doing, and practice receiving His gifts and being His gift.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.