Thursday, February 15, 2024

No words to avoid death except Christ. . .

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (B), preached on Wednesday, February 14, 2024.

There are many words used to describe death.  Most of them are words we invent in order not to say the word.  Dead.  Scripture has words used in place of death also.  But these are not euphemisms.  These words speak the truth clearly and bluntly.

Tonight we come to Church only to see black where color once reigned.  The crosses are covered drawing even more attention to what lies behind the veils. And we came to the altar rail to hear the words no one wants to hear:  “Remember, O man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”  Dust is not a euphemism for death.  It is the truth.  We came from dust.  Into dust God breathed the breath of life and man became a living being.  And then sin stole that life and put an expiration date upon us.  Dust is not only our beginning.  It is our end.  And in between we are still dust.  The human body, as miraculous as it is, can be summarized as water and dust.  The Lord says this not to put us down but so that we may not live in lies but in the truth as He is truth.

The miracle here is not that death is not death.  The miracle is that here, in the midst of death, God still reigns in His mercy and love.  The ashes upon our foreheads are in the shape of a cross.  Dust we are but now but not merely dust.  In Christ we are the dwelling place of God.  Because of Christ, we shall not return to dust.  God will raise up our bodies from the dust of the earth and breath into those bodies the breath of everlasting life.  So what we do here tonight is not merely an act of repentance but a statement of faith.

Apart from Christ we have nothing to hope for and everything to lose.  All the nice euphemisms for death will fail us when the breath leaves our bodies and Christ is not there to raise us up from the grave or the Spirit to breath in us the breath of life.  We can soften the blow all we want by talking about passing away or gone or, my favorite, expired... like a cheap coupon no longer worth anything.  This is what sin has done and only a Savior who is the Son of God in our flesh can rescue us from the dust that was our beginning and the dust that will be our end.

Even worse than admitting the fact that we are dust, is the presumption that we can fix what is wrong with us if given only the time or opportunity.  This is what our Lord attacks in the Gospel reading appointed for Ash Wednesday.  You can give until you are poor and the whole world notices but it will count for nothing unless Christ lives in you by faith.  You can pray until the cows come home but unless you pray in Christ’s name, pleading His merits and begging for the mercy He has promised to give, they are hollow words that echo through eternity without any ears to hear them.  You can keep the Law as best it can be kept in your own eyes but without the righteousness of Christ to cover you, the Law can only accuse and only condemn.

So what Ash Wednesday is about is sin and death.  The wages of sin is death.  Yet even in this day about sin and death there is an answer.  The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ.  We do not wear these ashes to earn anything from God but as an outward mark that we get it.  We know that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God not by an inch but by a mile.  We know that death is what our sins have earned us and the debt they have incurred is beyond our capacity to repay.  We wear these ashes for the sake of the world.  We may be here in God’s house, the redeemed of the Lord, but we live in a world in which most people live in the darkness of sin and its death.  So these ashes are a witness to the world of what repentance must admit.  But these ashes are also a sign of hope.  Christ is here to bear for us the curse of sin and its death and to answer its power with the greater power of forgiveness and life.

There is one more thing.  The world may not be impressed by our feeble piety and acts of charity but God sees.  Just as God sees us for the sinners we are and still He loves us, so does He see the paltry works we do and still He rewards us.  Salvation is already ours but the favor of God remains His to give us, if not now then at the last when we shall enter into the joy of our master.  So though our good works can do nothing to add to Christ’s saving work nor can they commend us to God beyond the baptismal mark of Christ upon us, God who sees in secret will reward our secret acts of mercy, charity, and love.  

So be encouraged.  Christ has done all things to rescue you from sin and its death and to breath eternal life into your dust.  But the Father has done us the great kindness of also noticing and rewarding the simple acts of piety and charity we do apart from the stage lights of the world and a desire to be recognized.  This gives meaning and encouragement to the alms we give to our neighbor and to the tithes and offerings we bring to the Lord and to the time the world says we waste when we spend it in daily devotion and prayer.   You are dust but not only dust.   

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