Wednesday, March 1, 2017
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.
There are few more sobering words in the Holy Scriptures or in the Divine Liturgy of the Church than those which each of you heard just moments ago: Remember, O man, that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return. Those words are a blunt reminder of the certainty of your death. You will die, that is certain, and your death is what you have rightly earned and merited for your sin – the sins that you have committed in thought, word, and deed, and the sin that you have inherited from your father Adam. As I look at you, I see death, impressed upon your foreheads, just as you see it impressed upon mine, dust and ashes, the stuff of which we are made. There is no avoiding this reality, for all flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. However, as I look at you, I also see something that brings me unspeakable comfort and joy – the cross of Jesus the Christ, God’s Son, our Savior. Though you are marked with the ashes of death, the cross is an even more powerful reminder that all your sin is atoned for and that even your enemy, death, has been conquered in Jesus’ death upon the cross. And, while the deathly ashes now stain your brow, soon you will wash them away for another year. Yet, still you are marked, you are marked with the cross of Christ crucified in Holy Baptism – a mark which is invisible to you and to me, but a mark which shines glorious to our God and Father, for it is the mark of His divine love and mercy, grace, forgiveness, and peace that can never be taken away from you.
And so, each year Ash Wednesday begins our Lenten pilgrimage. Lent serves as an annual reminder and opportunity for you to return to your LORD in repentance, to confess your sins and to be washed clean in the purifying blood of Jesus. For, it is not a man who calls you to repent, but it is your LORD God Himself who says to you “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” We return because there is someone to return to, thanks be to God! We prodigal sons and daughters who have taken our God for granted and who have squandered his grace in reckless living are called to see how far we have strayed, where the gods we have made for ourselves have lead us, and to see our loving Father running toward us with open arms ready, not to chastise or to punish, but to embrace and to forgive and to restore. He has killed His best Lamb for you, even His only beloved Son, that you may feast on His flesh and drink His life-giving blood and live with Him forever.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me.” Yet even now, in the midst of your sinful rebellion and your idolatrous ways, return to the LORD, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and He relents over disaster – He relents over your disaster, the disastrous misery and death of your backsliding ways. Return in fasting, return in humility, return in repentance, because He has already prepared your restoration and even now He calls you to it.
For, your repentance, your returning is His work by His Word. The LORD calls “Return to me,” and His sheep hear and know His voice and return. The LORD is jealous for you; He will not share you or forfeit you to another. And, instead of punishment and death for your rebellion, He blesses you. He sends you His blessing: Grain, that you might eat the bread of His body. Wine, that you might drink His blood and live. And oil, that you might be consecrated and sanctified, set apart and marked with His Name, as His people, in Holy Baptism. Through these blessings He has made you partakers of His divine nature so that you are not a slave, but a son and an heir.
In blindness you cried out for mercy; in Christ you have received it in all fullness. You have been freed from bondage to the world, the passions of the flesh, and death, therefore do not submit yourself again to slavery. This day you are called to a fast. Fasting is not a command of the Law, but it is a response of faith to the freedom and the life that we have graciously received in Christ Jesus. Jesus says “When you fast…,” not “If you fast…” But, fasting is not starvation, but it is a willful, intentional abstention from the desires and the passions of the flesh that would lead you back into slavery. Whatever it is that enslaves you, that keeps you in joyless bondage, that hinders your God given vocation, that gets between you and your spouse, between you and your children, whatever it is that gets between you and your God – cut it out and throw it away; it is an idol and a foothold for the devil who desires only to keep you away from God and in slavery to sin and death.
And, give to those in need. Again, this is not a command of the Law, but it is a response of faith. Giving to those in need is part of showing love to your neighbor, love that is selfless and sacrificial and that flows from God’s love for you in Christ Jesus. This kind of love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It is patient and kind. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
And, pray. Pray alone, in private, with or without words. Pray in your vocation, in your many vocations, live your life as a prayer to God. And pray in the solemn assembly with your faithful brothers and sisters in Christ with the elders, with the children, with brides and bridegrooms, and even with nursing infants, for you are together with them the Body of Christ and together partakers of His divine nature. No man is an island, and no Christian is ever alone, though the devil is working to divide and separate you from the body of Christ. This is all the more reason to fast from the worldly and fleshly desires and passions that he utilizes to isolate you and imprison you and kill you.
Therefore, as much as Ash Wednesday is a trumpet call to repentance, it is also a call to arms and to war against the temptations of the world, the desires and passions of the flesh, and the treachery of the devil. Lent is boot camp for Christians as we, together, through fasting, service, prayer, and repentance, shed the excess baggage that weighs us down and keeps us from living as the free people of God unto His glory. And as we purge ourselves of our idolatries, we are equipped with all that we need for the battle. In this regard, St. Paul’s exhorts the Church at Ephesus as well as you today:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.
People of God, Ash Wednesday and Lent are much less about what you might give up than they are about returning to what you have been given and have received. The ashes of this day are a sign that you have died to the world, to fleshly desires and passions, and to the devil, but that you live in Christ your crucified, risen, and reigning God and Savior. God calls you to live in that life and to not return to slavery to sin and death. But, God knows that, while the spirit of the new man is willing, nevertheless, the flesh of the old man is weak. And so, He has left you a blessing: His Body, His Blood, His Baptism, His Absolution, His Word. These are your heavenly treasures here on earth; and, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.