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Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2007 final

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Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Text:  Joel 2:12-19

Next week, on March 1, will be the anniversary of the first service I conducted here at Trinity Lutheran Church.  By the grace of God, He brought us here to serve this congregation, and to allow me to continue on in my studies leading to, prayerfully, ordination into the ministry.

Last year, as we drove to Grafton, I was absolutely petrified.  My legs were shaking, my head was so full of stuff that I wanted to say, I was worried about presiding over the service correctly, applying the ashes--I was a basket case.  Tonight, I’m a little better than I was a year ago.  But it is still an awesome responsibility to stand before you as the person God has elected, and the person you have entrusted, to lead you in worship. 

As a church, we have come a long way from a year ago.  I remember that my message last year for Ash Wednesday was one of reconciliation and forgiveness.  Although it’s hard to forget those events in life that have caused us pain and sorrow, we are called to forgive anyone who has harmed us.  I do think, and I pray, that we have reached out to everyone who was formerly associated with Trinity in a loving, Christ-like manner.  For those who have decided to depart from our fellowship, we have wished them well and God-speed in finding a new family of believers.  I can only pray that I have responded with Christ’s love to each person who found it impossible to stay.

We have a leadership team that has made great strides in the process of bringing Trinity back from the brink of disaster to a place of Christian community in the great Lutheran tradition.  I stand in awe of this congregation for what it’s done, what it continues to do, and for its hunger to grow in serving Christ in our community.  Many of you perform needed functions for this congregation without any compensation or credit.  Thank you for what you are doing.  Our staff is working very well with the Vestry and other committees.  We have the right people in place to do the right jobs for the right reasons.  We pursue our mission which is to bring glory to God and proclaim the Good News of Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, and coming again, so that we can bring the lost into the family of God. 

Considering where we have been, continuing where we are now, and contemplating the future, we find ourselves at the beginning of the Church Year that we call Lent.  Historically, Lent was a time used by the church to prepare new Christians for baptism.  It was a wonderful experience for mostly young people, to go through 40 days of instruction, matching that of Christ in the wilderness, culminating with their baptism on Easter Sunday. 

The first day that begins the Season of Lent is this day, called Ash Wednesday.  In many modern cultures it follows a day called Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday.  In those cultures the Season of Epiphany is used to continue the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, best exemplified in Mardi Gras.  Mardi Gras concludes on Shrove Tuesday, with the final feasting of the masses and the crowning of human kings and queens in preparation for the lean days of Lent as we follow the real King on His way to Jerusalem.

We in the Lutheran faith see Ash Wednesday as that day when we are reminded of who we are as a fallen people, and what we need to do to contemplate what Christ did for us to bring us back into God’s family, not as friends, but as sons and daughters of our Holy Father. 

Much of what Ash Wednesday is about you have already heard and experienced tonight.  The ashes on our foreheads remind us of the words that were said, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  The litany from Psalm 51 tells us that like King David, we need to remember that our sin is a part of our nature, it has despoiled our relationship with God and with each other; therefore we are in desperate need of a Redeemer.

Ash Wednesday is a day that sets the stage for our hearts and minds to take an honest appraisal of our condition.  It is a day that we can use to make plans for how we can set aside time to be in closer fellowship with the Lord, to be more dependent on Him, as Jesus was in the desert for 40 days being tempted by Satan.  It’s a day that prepares us for Good Friday, that day of deep darkness in which the life of Christ was snuffed out by sinful humanity.

Ash Wednesday is a day that we are called not just to put on a pretense of repentance by submitting to wearing sackcloth and ashes, not just to shedding our garments of prosperity and our lives of luxury, not just to show up for an hour, say a few words, and go right back to what we were doing, but to tear open our hearts with fasting, weeping and mourning--the signs of death—our death.   Tonight, God is calling us to die.  The ashes tell the story.

I know what you’re thinking.  What I just said is not very good news.  God is calling me and you to die?  Isn’t that, well, sort of final?  But, Lord, I’m not ready to go yet.  Life is good, there is still much to do, and, well, I’m scared to die.

Please understand God is talking about a different kind of death, a rending of the heart. The Bible suggests that our hearts are the center of all that we are as human beings.  Rending our hearts in Biblical terms means our intellects, our conscious decisions, our emotions, and what we come to value at the center of our moral and spiritual life.   He is not calling us to a premature physical death from heart failure, but to a dying to our selfishness that is caused by sin and a rising to a heart of otherness that brings us the hope of everlasting life that is bound up in our Savior.

Listen again to what Joel has to say about our wonderful Father who never stops pursuing His lost children.

Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.

·        Our God is gracious; He is full of grace, giving us His redemptive love even though we don’t deserve it.

·        Our God is full of mercy, choosing to cancel the punishment that should be given to us because we are guilty of disobeying our Holy Father.

·        God is patient, not allowing His righteous anger at our continuing sin to overcome His expressed grace and mercy.  He runs after us even as we ignore Him.

·        God is overflowing in His love that never wavers.  He continues to bless us with His common provisions for the entire world, and He continues to love those of us He has elected to salvation even though we often do not measure up in serving Him or our neighbor.

·        God decides to turn aside from the just punishment and destruction that humanity deserves and instead bestows upon us a way of new life.

Joel then goes on to surmise that God, in displaying all of these loving attributes, may in fact do the unexpected. 

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?

The sentence is confusing, suggesting that God in His care for us has in fact left Himself a grain offering and a drink offering.  But yet that makes perfect sense, because God is the creator of all things.  The sacrificial system was designed from the outset to honor God with the very things He has given to humanity, the sustenance of life.  The people gather in assembly, calling all together old and young, to worship and celebrate the very holy offering that God has provided—His Own Son, our Savior, Jesus.

Even as we have heard and felt and experienced the depth of our sin tonight, seeing in the ashes that adorn our faces where we have come from, and where we will be going, for a time, the prophet Joel offers words of hope.  We are not to fear that which can only kill the body.  Instead, God is calling us to die to the ways of the world so that we may live for Him and for each other.  Christ will open our hearts to receive the power of the Holy Spirit who will enable us to embrace the cross as our only means of rising from dust to everlasting life.  St. Paul says it so well:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

All praise, honor and glory be to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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