Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, has a very specific ritual. And rituals, for some deep reason, fulfill a need in humans. Out problem is perverting the ritual. It is the same thing the sin does to lots of good things. It takes the action and twists the direction the wrong way. Instead of love flowing outward to our neighbor, or love coming to us from God, sin wants love to flow from our neighbor and then believes it can give something to God. The Ashes tell us otherwise. They set us in proper relation with God and with out neighbor. Or they should. If we are listening to them instead of trying to get them to speak for us.
Biblical Text: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Paul’s extended argument in 2 Corinthians is an argument with what we might naturally want to do in s stressful situation. We might want to fight it, which means defeat and domination of the enemy. Or we might want to avoid it, flee from it, which means by varying degrees denial and disappearance. Paul could flee by just never seeing the Corinthians again. Paul could fight by “defending” his apostleship and proving it all over again. But neither of those things are what an Ambassador of Christ does. The one who has not received the grace of God in vain, is the one who can control themselves and not fight or flee, but submit to what God calls them to be. That may look like all kinds of paradox, and the world doesn’t know how to respond to it. But that is the way of the grace. That is the way of Jesus
Biblical Text: Matthew 6:19-34
Ash Wednesday is one of the occasional services of the church year. I alter up the text a bit, because I think the assigned texts don’t reflect our actual practice. It is not that the historic practices are bad, just that we don’t do them. I think we might consider them in the right light if we understood the section of the sermon on the mount right after them. And by understood what I really mean is feel cut to the heart by it. That is what this attempts.
I like the church year because along with Christmas and Easter and the days that you naturally blow the trumpet it has days like Ash Wednesday. Days that force us to think about things we don’t want to think about.
I’ve been told that the word sin has no meaning in modern English. That what sin means to the vast majority of Americans is an understandable indulgence. The sinful chocolate. The scale says you don’t need it, but hey. The sinful car. Yes, the payment is a little more, but you’ve always wanted that badge and now can swing it. Biblically those really aren’t sins. They might be foolishness, or they might even be just enjoying God’s creation. Jesus was called a drunkard and a glutton by the Pharisees.
Sin biblically is dominated by two metaphors. There are the purity metaphors – clean and dirty. And there are the special metaphors – missing the mark, walking the wrong way, ever before me. A common division of the Jewish law is between the ceremonial and the moral. The ceremonial law is what governs what is kosher and non-kosher. The breaking of the ceremonial law was cleansed by the ceremonial washings and the sacrifices. Purity being the primary way to talk about it. And purity – clean and dirty – tends to be digital. You are clean or dirty, there is no space in between. Eat a bacon cheeseburger and you are ceremonially unclean. Offer the sacrifice and you are restored to cleanliness.
The sacrifice of Jesus fulfilled that ceremonial law for all time. That cross has made us clean. It has washed us, created in us a clean heart.
The other portion of the law is the moral. The 10 commandments are the shorthand for it. This is where those spacial words start to take over. Cast me not away from your presence. Uphold me with a willing Spirit. The word that becomes resurrection is literally stand up, be put aright.
When you read repent in the New Testament, there are couple of different words used. Metanoia, which focuses on the mental. The recognition that we by ourselves are unclean. And the first call of metanoia, repent, is believe. The other word is epistrepho, which is spacial and means turning around and walking in the other direction. We start walking in the ways God intends.
Luther said in the first of the 95 theses, When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. That is not a life of constantly changing our minds, but of constantly walking in the correct direction.
And here is where Ash Wednesday is unique. Our justification is immediate. We are made clean by the righteousness of Christ by faith. But because we went wrong, we wandered a far distance “east of Eden”. And the consequences of sin are death. Abraham never possessed the promised land. Moses never entered it. David’s kingdom fell apart. Dust we are and to dust we will return. However far we walk in the way God intends, this flesh is not going to make it.
But this flesh is not our hope. As the writer of Hebrews says in the chapter of the heroes of the faith.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. (Heb 11:13-14)
Our hope is not here and now, but then and there. Our repentance walk here and now, turns into a triumph then and there. When we are no longer clothed with this mortal flesh, but we receive the resurrection – are stood aright. There are plenty of days on the calendar to celebrate that. But Ash Wednesday is on the calendar to remember that it is not yet a full on triumph. We only share in that triumph to the extent that we seek a homeland. To the extent that we pick up our cross and follow him past Calvary. Amen.
The following is the text of the sermon delivered today…
Text: Joel 2:12-19
Peter Thiel was one of the founders of PayPal and one of the first investor in Facebook. But unlike most highly successful businessmen, he has a philosophical disposition. He attempts to distill his experience not into phrases that are clichés the minute they are uttered meaning nothing, but some of surprising depth. His recent book title is the example I want to steal for a second – Zero to One.
At a simple business level what he throws out of his venture capital office is any business pitching 1 to 2 or 1 to any number. If the presentation can be reduced to “I want to be the next Facebook”, Mr. Thiel isn’t interested. He wants to invest is businesses that are going from zero to one. If you want investment, come up with an idea that nobody is really doing.
But then start asking questions about how you do that. Going from 1 to 2 can be a process – picking a somewhat useful cliché – it can be a process of continuous improvement. Microsoft might be the example of the ultimate 1 to 2 company. Xerox PARC did all the 0 to 1, Microsoft just made it better, and sold it better, faster. They used to be famous, and in some ways still are, for getting is right on the third try. The surface 3 is getting raves. Going from zero to one is not a process. What is half of a new idea? half a vision? You either have one, or you don’t. Like Louis Armstrong said about Jazz, “Man, if you gotta ask…”
Now how does this apply to on Ash Wednesday?
There are lots of religions and even lots of Christian churches that are about 1 to 2. And by that I mean they are preaching a gospel of self-improvement. Do this, do that, have your best life now, the power of positive thinking, and every other cliché. You never get THE ONE in that method.
Clinging to the zero, The ONE is given by grace.
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. You don’t get much more zero than that. I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. Create in me a clean heart, O God. No continuous improvement there, but creation. You only get God, the ONE, when there are no others before Him – not even yourself, maybe especially ourselves. Hence on Ash Wednesday the ashes, a clear expression of our personal spiritual zero.
And when we remove the other Gods, when we cling to the zero, God is pleased to take up residence with us. To restore to us the joy of His salvation, and uphold us with a willing spirit. To take us from the last seat at the banquet to a seat of honor. To give to the prodigal the coat and the ring and the fattened calf.
The reading from Joel is interesting in this way. Israel had been hit by a plague of locusts. It wasn’t just any plague, but everything had been eaten and destroyed. So much so that the elements of the sin offerings – grain and wine and oil – had be removed. It was a very literal demonstration of Israel’s zero. There outward circumstance reflected the state of their hearts. Would they embrace the truth, or continue in pride? “Rend you hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, for he is gracious…abounding in steadfast love…who knows…he might relent and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering.” In other words the Lord might leave the sin offering for them.
And that is exactly what He did in Jesus Christ. For all who cling to their zero, he’s given THE ONE, our sin offering. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Grace and truth go together. The ONE, God is found in the weak places – contrite hearts and crosses. Amen.
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.
There is an old word that has fallen into disuse. That word is exhort. As I type this, it has fallen into such disuse that Microsoft is questioning my grammar. It would accept exhorted in the past tense, but questions the present tense use of that verb. Our grandfathers and grandmothers exhorted, but we no longer exhort; at least according the Microsoft Word.
Another Word does use exhort. I imagine that it has fallen into disuse because it carries the connotation that there is an objective moral standard. Coaches do not exhort, they coach, because while sports do have an objective standard (scoreboard!) that standard is not a moral one. Politicians, preachers, generals and teachers would be your standard exhorters. And while it might have a negative connotation in our lawless age, exhortation in the bible is used always as a positive.
Peter at Pentecost, with the sermon that brought in 3000 souls: “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Act 2:40 ESV)
Paul writing to the Thessalonians, “we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith.” (1Th 3:2 ESV)
That same Paul to Timothy giving him his charge, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2Ti 4:2 ESV) And giving the same charge to Titus, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” (Tit 2:15 ESV)
The writer of the Hebrews to all Christians, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb 3:13 ESV)
And Peter at a later date, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1Pe 5:1 ESV)
I have an exhortation for you today. I am a hoarder of numbers and statistics. I keep all kinds of things. Numbers don’t tell everything, but I do believe a couple of things about them. First, if you don’t have any numbers, you probably don’t really care about it. In the business world we use to say “if it isn’t measured it isn’t real”. That saying captures the ditch on the other side of the road. What happens there is that only the number is real and hence if you can fake it easier, “who cares, we made the number”. At a certain point of complexity it is easier to “game the system” or to “rob Peter to pay Paul”. The number wasn’t meant to drive either of those activities, but that is what the law encourages, a spiritless conformity. Instead what the numbers help you do is paint a picture. Blood pressure, body temperature and blood oxygen level paint a very simple picture of the health of a body for a doctor. I want to share some numbers from last year with you.
On Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of the penitential season of Lent, we served 12 pounds of bacon. We as a congregation ate our way through a 10 pound bag of pancake batter. We ate at least three quarts of Mrs. Butterworth’s. When you are making pancakes at the same time it is hard getting an exact count, but I think we had around 60 people come to our little pancake carnival. This is healthy, maybe not the food, but the gathering. The following morning for imposition of ashes we had roughly 12. We made the minyan, but the numbers paint a picture.
As a society, as a people, we love the carnival. We might even be at the point where we claim carnival as a right. We’ve got to fight for our right to party used to be ironic. But the somber registers of a penitential call are quickly put out of mind. Even suggesting the need for something as bloodless as personal reflection, as compared to the full throated call of Repent, the Kingdom is near, is beat back with cries of anti-fun bigot, puritan, Pharisee and the ever popular “look at the log in your own eye”. Yes, the devil can quote scripture to full effect.
What the Christian faith exhorts, what the watchman on the wall exhorts, is and always has been the same:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Ti 4:16 ESV)
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Gal 6:1 ESV)
Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. (2Jo 1:8 ESV)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22 ESV)
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phi 4:8 ESV)
So, this exhortation is one about priorities and necessary rhythms. It is not a call to skip the pancakes. But it is a call to remember the ashes the next morning (or evening as well this year). To truly feast requires a fast. To receive the gospel in its sweetness requires the sour scouring of the law. The way to Easter passes through Calvary.
Text: Joel 2:12-19
Joel is one of the 12 short little books at the end of the Old Testament. 12 so called minor prophets. And we don’t really know when he wrote. The best guess is that he is early. He is the 2nd of the 12 short prophets which are thought to be roughly chronological. But the larger historical situation might not be that important to hearing Joel’s message. The immediate event that spurs his prophecy was a plague of locusts of unusual size. One day the field are ripening, a good harvest looks probable, fair winds are blowing…and the next those winds bring uncontrollable clouds that devour what was so promising.
Fathers hide the remaining wheat from wives and children – because they need seed for the planting. The daily bread becomes not so daily. The rich and privileged bail themselves out, while the poor are left to glean after the insects.
What was probably shocking to Joel’s original listeners was that he described God as being at the forefront of that army of locusts. That the plague of locusts was a warning – a mirror – for Israel to recognize their spiritual state.
We don’t really have trouble with locust any more. Our pesticides take care of such plagues. We can’t control the weather, but if Florida freezes or Iowa floods, we can always just ship stuff in from California or Kansas or Argentina. And it is dangerous making a comparison from Israel to any modern state. The church is Israel – not the United States.
But I don’t think it is much of a stretch to look at financial contagions, foreclosures and persistent unemployment as a swarm of a kind. Some people saw the signs building – but there isn’t much you really can do. Nest eggs are guarded jealously after in hopes they “come back” like seed stock. The rich and privileged bail themselves out, while everyone else is lectured about moral hazard. And all of it swimming in a devouring cloud of 15.4 trillion in debt – almost $50K for every man, woman and child in America. $250K for my family alone – more than 5 years wages. Given the bacon I ate yesterday I might not have 5 years.
A mirror to see our spiritual state?
But the promises of God remain. Joel quotes Moses – after the golden calf episode. “Return with all you heart, with weeping and with mourning. Rend you hearts, not your garments. Return, for the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He relents over disaster.”
And where does God relent? Where are hearts rent? “Call a solemn assembly, gather the people, consecrate the congregation. Elders and Children and infants. The Bridegroom meets the bride there.”
The later prophets would rail against hypocritical gatherings. Israel would rend garments and not hearts. But Joel’s prophetical call is timeless because God’s work is timeless. The bridegroom still meets the bride here. God is gracious and merciful and abounding steadfast love.
The Lenten season is one of repentance. For looking in the mirror. For rending hearts. We put a very solemn note with the Ashes. An outward symbol of the examination of the heart. But like the cross, a symbol the reflects hope. Because this God is faithful. With Him there is forgiveness. Amen.
This morning we took psalm 51 as our text. We know the famous portions – restore unto me the joy of your salvation – but the last four verses spoke a couple of points to me.
Psalm 51: 16-19
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
1) The purpose of repentance is restoration to the community of God; it is not just private.
2) The purpose of repentance is not a hang-dog sorrow, but a preparation for joy.
Look at the progression in the verses. The Lord refuses the formal sacrifice which leads to a broken spirit. The broken spirit (repentance) leads to God rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. That is a communal ideal, Jerusalem the city and people of God. Being restored to the city of God leads to being part of the community’s worship; sacrifice is accepted. Personal repentance is necessary, but repentance is not just a personal bath. It is a rejoining to the people of God.
The Lord welcomes and restores sinners. Dust I am and to dust I will return, but I have not been cast away from God’s presence. The Lord has promised salvation. He builds the walls and does good to Zion. We are a people held in His palm, in His memory. The restoration first seen in Christ, is then displayed in this collection of remembered and reformed dust. The Lord remembers his dust.