Sermon for Ash Wednesday, preached on Wednesday, February 17, 2010.
Ash Wednesday is the liturgical doorway to the season of Lent. During this season called Lent, we set out on a journey of discovery but not everything we discover is welcome information. We began with an extended confession, the journey of discovery that starts with an honest look at ourselves through the mirror of the commandments. Then this journey of discovery leads us through the weeks and Sundays in Lent to the place where this sin is answered, paid for, and forgiven – to Calvary. Finally this journey will lead us to the empty tomb where in place of death we find life, the Lord of Life who has the power to lead us from death to life and resurrection. Ash Wednesday is the doorway that begins Lent with honest confession of our sin, with the surprise of grace that forgives us, and with our confidence in the power and sufficiency of the cross.
It begins with a little introspection. But we do not look within to find God or to find things noble and good. No, we look inside to see the sin that keeps God distant from us. These are the things that we have hidden, that we have run away from, that we have excused and justified, and that we can no longer avoid. It is the unpleasant first step on this larger journey of revelation.
We may think we see ourselves objectively but in the brutal and unyielding light of the Law of God, we see the unvarnished truth of who we are. Yet by the work of the Spirit this terrible truth drives into the arms of Christ and all He has done for us. From disappointment with ourselves we come to stand in awe of Christ and the love that moved Him to act when we could not act to save ourselves.
Our past is a tearful trail of sin. In our present, we look around us only to see the failed fruits of this sin. When we gaze into the future, we see our hopeless end... unless we look through the lens which is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Through Christ we see a future that was not there apart from Him.
From introspection and its awareness of sin move to reflection. What has sin done to us that we cannot set ourselves free from its grasp? What is the power of sin that drags us unwilling victims to its death? And who is this God who loves us so that He gave His only begotten Son? Who is this God who refused to let sin have its last word over our lives?
The reflection we look for is the mirror of Christ and His redeeming love, the righteousness that is both alien to us because it comes from Him alone and yet home to us because it offers us the security and peace nothing else can offer. Our Lord is not only our mighty warrior who faced down sin and its death. He is also the loving God who clothes us in His holiness, who makes for us a new set of clothes from His own righteousness, that all our sin may be covered forever. By baptism we have a new identity as God’s children so that when the Father looks upon us, He sees us wearing the clothing that is the familiar and holy garments of Christ’s holiness.
We looked inside to find there the sin we do not want to admit. We look through the lens of the cross to behold the salvation we do not deserve. And then what? The Spirit calls us and equips us to respond. This response is not the majestic and triumphant response of the hero, but the humble and contrite response of the repentant. We return to the Lord with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. We return to the Lord not as if nothing has happened but because everything has happened to save us.
We rejoice not in ourselves but in Him whose slowness to anger is not indifference but mercy... whose steadfast love is not displayed in words but in the work of suffering and the pain of death... whose grace and mercy are not theoretical construct but the practical pillars of the new life, new hope, and new peace God has constructed for us. His mercy is not some admirable trait but the powerful forgiveness which overcomes sin’s grip on us as well as releasing us from all of yesterday’s guilt.
We come to the cross not as a people who gaze upon it as art work or stand in awe of it like nature’s beauty. No, we come to this cross to get what it offers, to receive the grace dispensed only there, to rejoice in the mercy that is available at the exclusive locations of the Word and Sacraments. We see in the cross not merely an answer to the longing within but the path forward to our new lives. As Christians, we live out the cross shaped lives of the redeemed, putting this cross to work in who we are and how we live.
Lent is no trip to the movies to see and old story once again. It is the story that reaches out to include us, that claims us as participants and not merely spectators. For what Christ has done is to set us free by His grace, so that sin is no longer our master and death no longer our destiny. We serve a crucified and risen Savior, we follow in our own daily lives, the cross shaped pattern of existence... loving as He has loved us... forgiving as He has forgiven us... showing mercy as He has been merciful to us...
Ash Wednesday is the liturgical door through which we begin our Lenten journey... a journey of discovery... a journey of redemption... a journey of new life... it all begins with ashes in the shape of a cross, with an honest look at our sin, the surprise of God’s mercy, and the work of the Spirit to make possible a response of faith and repentance. Good journey, people of God... Godspeed... Amen