Ash Wednesday Meditation

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Text: 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10; Psalm 51:1-12

“We implore you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God…we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain…behold, now is the favorable time, behold, now is the day of salvation.”

Not to receive the grace of God in vain, isn’t that a strange string of words? What does it mean to receive the grace of God in vain?

We are not talking about pure unbelief or the enemies of the gospel. They do not receive the grace at all but deny that it exists. Instead we are talking about someone who has received it, but it does no good, or it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. So what does the grace of God do?

It breaks down and it builds up. It kills and it makes alive. It cleanses and creates anew. Both the law and the gospel are a grace. By the law we know our sins. As the psalmist says, “I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.” That is the peculiar grace of the law. But the overwhelming grace of the gospel follows, “create a clean heart….renew a right spirit…restore to me the joy…the joy of you salvation…uphold me with a willing spirit.”
So what does it mean to receive grace in vain? The core of it is to have heard the law, but never applied it to ourselves. Our ears have heard the 10 commandments. Our intellect has turned them over, maybe even memorized them along with a bunch of scripture and catechism answers. Our parents, physical or spiritual, have led us in green pastures. But the terror of that imposing law has never got to our hearts.

To receive it in vain is to receive the grace as if you don’t need it. To stand in the light of the law and think as the Pharisee, “Thank God I am not like that publican”. To stand in the light, and not see the darkness of our natural heart. To be put next to purity and think oneself not to shabby. To be shown just how lost we are, and not ask for directions thinking we are fine. We are rich, we have means, we have years, we will get out of this and be the stronger for it. We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.

The entire passage, maybe like the ashes of today, might seem a little overboard. We implore…we appeal…behold, now….a second time, behold, now. To the one who receives in vain, why all the histrionics? We’ve got this under control, calm down. But we don’t. The proclamation over the ashes, dust you are and to dust you will return is true. We don’t have this under control. We can’t add a single hour to our given time. Yet, we can receive that in vain. Never let that sink into our hearts.

Yet God holds out his grace for us. He proclaims it in many and various ways – as Paul talks about in the rest of the passage. In Christ God has declared us reconciled. God has stopped counting. He’s drawn up unilateral terms of disarmament with the most beneficial terms imaginable. We get the kingdom, as long as we don’t think it is ours by right, it is only ours by grace. And now is the time to sign that peace treaty. Now is the time to let that grace move our hearts. To break our stone hearts…and to receive new clean ones.

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God…now is the favorable time…a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Amen.

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