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Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Note: This sermon turned out better preached, I think, especially toward the end.

Click here for mp3 audio 18 Sermon for Ash Wednesday.mp3

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  The text for tonight is the Psalm for Ash Wednesday, Psalm 6.

Lent is very much like a journey.  Each year we journey with our Lord to Good Friday, to the cross and find there His work for us, the forgiveness of our sins.  This year to guide us on our path to the cross, each week we will reflect upon our Lord’s death and what that means for sinners like you and me.  Reflection should be a familiar part of the Lenten journey for all of us.

It would be easy to make a journey like that into a mere trip down memory lane.  Like tourist we might stroll through the story of Jesus’ death pausing to take a picture or two but still not really seeing the connection between Jesus’ story and ours.  For the Church, Lent really has two focuses: first, is that reflection Christ’s Passion and death. But second, it is a time of spiritual renewal through the Word of God.  In the early Church it was during Lent that those preparing for Baptism received their final instructions in the faith before being baptized.  So this year we will be pausing to reflect on Christ’s Passion and death, and focus on being renewed by the Holy Spirit as Christians who need Confession and Absolution.

Take a look once again at Psalm 6, which we prayed a few minutes ago.  The word penitence or penitential is related to another very Lutheran word:  repentance.  What is repentance? Repentance is turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness.  Or as Dr. Luther put in the Smalcald Articles, This is what true repentance means.  Here a person needs to hear something like this, “You are all of no account, whether you are obvious sinners or saints in your own opinions.  You have to become different from what you are now.  You have to act differently than you are now acting, whether you are as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you can be.  Here no one is godly.”  (SA III III 3)  Repentance, then, is ultimately a gift from God, because only God can turn put such a thought in the sinner’s mind.  Only God can turn the sinner’s heart toward Him.

This is Ash Wednesday, not the only day in the Church year that we focus on repentance but it is one of the chief days.  The marks of ash on our heads notwithstanding, repentance is not about our religious exercises, but rather repentance is the work of God in us to come to see ourselves as God sees us, dead in trespasses and sin in need of forgiveness and resurrection.

But repentance does not end with us dead in trespasses and sin but rather with faith in Christ and His Gospel to forgive sins.  If repentance is the call of God to become different and act differently, then faith in the Gospel is also an act of God in us.  That is, become different, act differently, because of the gift of believing my promise.”  Our Lord Himself says, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [My] name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).  (SA III III 4-6)

Isn’t this exactly what we just confessed aloud in the catechism reading tonight?

What does such baptizing with water indicate?
It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

This process of contrition and repentance is daily, ongoing, not just a once in a lifetime event.  It is a daily death and rebirth, a daily killing by the Law and a making alive by the Gospel. This is the cycle of the Christian life.  That is why we continue to repent and receive absolution. That is why we go to the Lord’s Supper week after week. It is about living the Christian life, not simply knowing right answers.

This is what God would have us learn from the penitential psalms.  In Psalm 6 David begins by lamenting that it seems like God has abandoned him.  “O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.”  This is nothing but Law.  David has rebelled against God and God is angry with David.  But God works repentance in the heart of David through the Law and so David prays that God will have mercy on him because he is so weak and troubled.

What does this tell us about God?  Well, it first of all tells you that God hates sin, and that when you sin, God is angry with you.  Does that sound harsh?  It should.  The Law of God kills; it kills our pride and any vanity that God will deal with us because we’re special.  In a closely related psalm, Psalm 5, David writes:  “You hate all evildoers” (5:5). The Law doesn’t wink at sin.  That’s different than you and I.  You and I try to wink at sin.  Yes, our sin is bad, but it’s not as bad as some people’s.  This is like saying, “My cancer isn’t that bad; it’s just on the top of my skin.”  You can’t ignore sin.  Sooner or later it will dig in and do its work of destruction.

But let’s go on to verse two of Psalm 6.  “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.”  David prays that the Lord will be gracious to him and heal him.  David wants God to not be angry toward him.  He wants to hold God to His promises.  David knows something of the true character of the Lord. God hates for a time but loves for eternity.

Now think again about the effect that this sin has on David.  He is faint, his bones are in agony, his soul is in anguish.  He even cries out, “No one remembers You when he is dead.  Who praises You from the grave? (cf. v. 5).  David is afraid not only for his very life, but for his memory after he’s gone.  Worn out from groaning, flooded with tears, eyes, weak with sorrow, fail because of all his foes.  David’s paints a picture in Psalm 6 of the effect of sin.  It is profound and even painful.  It’s a picture that makes you squirm.  It makes me squirm.  I don’t like to talk about my sinfulness or even think about it.  I would much rather think of myself as basically a nice person.  I’m a Christian, and that means all this sin talk is for someone else.  But remember, David was also a believer, was can even call him a Christian because David looked forward to the coming of the Messiah.  So, sin isn’t just something that unbelievers have to deal with and address.  I think sometimes we can get the idea that sin and forgiveness is for the bad people, but that the Christians just praise God because He’s so great and because we love Him so much.  Well, that’s a misleading idea.  God and the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents.  That means you and that means today they rejoice not just long ago when you became a believer.

This is the foundation of our hope: no matter how messed up your life has become, no matter how far down the path of sin you have trod, no matter what nightmares trouble you and pain you have caused to yourself and to others, God is merciful and forgiving.  He hates the sinner for breaking the Law, that is true, BUT because of Jesus Christ, God loves the sinner even more.  I know that might not even sound right in the ear, but this is true.  God loved you so much that His Son, Jesus, went to the cross and died for you.  God hates the sinner, and He burned up all the fire of His wrath on Jesus at the cross.  God showed His love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  God’s unfailing love puts you back together when nothing else can.  Only God can scatter your enemies: sin, death, and the devil.  Only the mercy of God in Jesus Christ can turn you around to see your sin as God sees it and give you faith to believe in the forgiveness Christ won for you on the cross.

This Lent we are journeying together to Good Friday to the cross of Jesus Christ, and through it, come to Easter Sunday with glad hearts, that, as I exhorted you earlier, we might participate in the great feast of Easter in sincerity and truth.  During this Lenten journey we are going to hear again of God’s great mercy for poor sinners like you and like me. We are going to hear again of God’s gift of forgiveness that He bestows in holy absolution.  For some of you, this will be a journey that you’ve taken before many times.  But for some this may be a new journey, or at least a new path on this same journey.  Confessing sins, not generically but specifically, is a hard thing.  So hard, in fact, that many will never even try it.  But I am here today to give to you God’s great gift of forgiveness in His Son, Jesus Christ.

The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer (cf. Psalm 6:9).  In the name of Jesus, Amen.



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