Sermon for Ash Wednesday, preached on Wednesday, March 9, 2011.
I tell you straight up that I have no desire to relive my life or to be a child again. I believe that one of the most difficult times of life is the tension between youth and adulthood. Everyone tells you to grow up and then they insist you are still a child. You cannot live in the carefree play world of a little child but neither can you live in the adult world with all its privileges and its responsibilities. It's the terrible in between time; I have no desire to repeat it.
Yet we live in that same terrible tension as Christians. We are also here caught between who we were as sinners condemned and our newly bestowed status as saints redeemed and declared righteous by God. If anyone suggests to you that faith is the easiest path to walk, they lie. It is much easier to live in the dark deception of sin than it is to live in the light of God. Yet the darkness cannot hide our sin forever – it just postpones the day of reckoning. As painful as the light is, it provides us confidence and peace for that judgement and courage for every hurdle we face in this journey of living.
Here in the same body, lives two people. One is the sinner condemned by God and drowned in baptism. The other is the saint redeemed in Christ and reborn to new life in those same baptismal waters. But until the day of Christ's return, we carry within us the tension of two radically different people – one not yet fully dead and the other not yet fully alive.
The world recognizes this tension and treats us as hypocrites and fakes even though God has declared us the genuine children of God. Because we have no perfect righteousness of our own, the world finds us Christians eminently forgettable and anonymous. Yet because we wear Christ's own righteousness by baptism, we are immortal and our identities are sealed for all eternity in the baptismal river that leads us to the very presence of God.
We carry around in our bodies the death that sin has wrought but at the very same time we carry around in those bodies the life that death cannot overcome. At one and the same time we are sinners condemned and the saints who are alive to God in Christ, forevermore. It is not a choice of which people we shall be today but this is who we are at all times. When we are evil, we are the forgiven and when we are good we are still the sinner.
We are caught between our sorrow over the sin that continues to infect our thoughts, words, and deeds and the joy that flows from God's gracious gift of forgiveness in Christ. We are often unsure what we should be – the somber people who lament our sins or the joyful people who live in the freedom of forgiveness. But, of course, we live in both places at the very same time. There is sorrow for sin on Easter Sunday and joy over forgiveness on Ash Wednesday. It is a tale of two opposite worlds and people who live in them both at the very same time.
We are poor and humble who dare not demand or even ask of God one thing and yet we are declared rich in Christ and called the royal children of our Lord, the very brothers and sisters of the Son of God. We are the empty who have nothing and the people who are filled with heavenly grace. This is the reality of the tension in which we live and we cannot escape this tensions nor can we live outside the contradiction that is the forgiven sinner.
No where is that more in evidence than on Ash Wednesday. This is a day all about our sin and our need of a Savior. It is the day we recall and take personally the words spoken to Adam and Eve in the Garden: Ashes to ashes, dust... from dust you came and unto dust you shall return. Yet even in those ashes lies our hope. They are not simply smudges of death on our foreheads but crosses that remind us of the life that God has built in us by baptism.
Ashes in the shape of the cross, marked on the foreheads of condemned sinners for whom Christ died.... We are walking contradictions to everyone except to God. This tension would be a terrible burden except for faith. The contradictions would be impossible to bear were it not for the cross. We are simultaneously sinners condemned and saints forgiven. One is the reality we know and cannot escape and the other the reality declared us in Christ of which we dare not let go. We are not who we were, but neither are we yet the people we shall be in Christ. So today is not primarily for the unbelievers who know not God’s grace but for the sinners whom He has redeemed, who know His grace and yet, like St. Paul, lament that the good we do not and the evil we do over and over. Baptism is the lens that makes this clear and faith is what reconciles the seeming contradiction of it all. We, the baptized, return to the Lord. We come not because of what we fear, but because of what we know. We come not under compulsion but as those bidden by grace.
In the midst of it all, we cling to the cross. Caught in between the sin we know and the forgiveness God has declared, repentance is the only thing that makes sense. Such is the state of repentance that marks our lives until Christ comes again. It is in this tension that we live and work and it is in this tension that worship and rejoice. The promise of an eternal tomorrow hidden in the reality of an earthly today... Guilty sinners declared righteous... the dead made alive in Christ... So this contradiction that only makes sense in Christ is not something we run from but run to... and the whole mystery of it all is revealed in ashes in the shape of hope... Amen.