Here is my Ash Wednesday sermon…not because I am convinced of it’s internet worthiness, but because friends have asked me to share it since I posted on the topic twice this week.
Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 • Psalm 51:1-17 • 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 • Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Welcome to Spring Training!
That is what Lent is: Spring Training for the Christian life. You know Spring Training. It’s where players:
– Find out what they’ve got.
– Learn new skills.
– Figure out what they still need to work on.
Today, Ash Wednesday, is Opening Day.
Now that you are in the ballpark we are going to spend the next 40 disciplined days getting ready for the regular season- life.
I am not a baseball guy. I don’t know much about the game. But one thing I do know is that the person who throws out the first pitch is generally a pretty bad baseball player. Have you ever seen a first pitch? Sometimes it goes into the stands. Sometimes it drops off of the pitcher’s hand and rolls to a stop halfway to the plate. It us usually thrown out by some famous non-baseballer: an elderly ex-Senator, an opera singer, or a guy who made millions inventing the home latte maker.
Unfortunately, our first liturgical “pitch” on Ash Wednesday, like most first pitches, is a bit off kilter. You should probably know that I am a HUGE prayer book fan. So much so that I am accused of having a crush on all things Anglican. My evangelical friends are adamant that I am a non-objective shill for the Episcopal Church. I can’t help it though. The wisdom and care and catholicity of our prayer book is legendary. But, in an effort to prove them wrong, I have scoured the prayer book and found two things that I wish were not there: One of them is the opening prayer from tonight’s service. I suspect that whoever wrote the opening prayer for Ash Wednesday must be famous – It’s that bad. The theology umpire in me calls, “Foul.”
Here it is again: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made (We are looking good through the windup) and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: (still not bad) Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins (Oops. Problems on the release.) and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; (And the ball is in the dirt.)
The idea that we are somehow “worthy” in our lamenting or forgiven BECAUSE we are penitent is a theological “Swing and a miss.” We are not rendered worthy through our repentance and we aren’t forgiven through a perfected penitence. That prayer makes it sound as if we are cute and cuddly- as if God is lucky to have such holy creatures as us on his team.
The truth is that we are forgiven because God is so forgiving. It is God’s nature to reconcile fallen humans to himself. It is God’s nature to make all things right…satisfying both his holiness and love in Jesus Christ and giving a new nature freely to humans. It is our nature to jack things up. Give me a relationship: I’ll mess that up. Children: I’ll mess them up. A political system: Oops. A planet: Our track record there isn’t so good either.
Forgiveness, you see, is given not earned… given to humans at the Father’s initiation and the Son’s expense…and that we are drawn to by the Holy Spirit’s wooing – The entirety of the trinity is involved in human salvation. Given the mess we have made of things, the basis for our forgiveness can hardly be our penitence.
We ARE forgiven because we WERE forgiven…on Calvary. That forgiveness was proven three days later as a risen Lord strode from the mouth of an empty tomb. And that is why we are penitent: We have seen the great acts of God on our behalf and we walk in gratitude of God’s love lavished upon us. Obedience is the response to God’s favor, not the price of it. God’s provision provokes our response.
And so, in anticipation of celebrating those holy mysteries at Easter, we begin tonight Lenten disciplines, either giving up something that we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity: self-denial and self-discipline to remind us of the greatness of our God.
Luckily our liturgy pivots rapidly from the off target opening pitch as we move quickly to the Old Testament prophet Joel. Joel reminds us that God has a right to be ticked at our forgetfulness of God. Joel asks us to “rend our hearts and not our garments.” God desires an internal brokenness – for brokenness allows God’s love to seep through the cracks in our hard outer shells of self-reliance and transform us from the inside out.
Then we have Psalm 103 in which, just as a good dad “has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him – he remembers that we are dust.” He remembers. Do we?
Then comes our Gospel passage: “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” Jesus says, in effect, “Don’t trust in your very religious religiosity.” Can you think of a single time Jesus had something positive to say to those very religious Pharisees who trusted in their religiosity? Neither can I.
Finally, in 2nd Corinthians, chronologically the last of tonight’s passages to be composed, Paul entreats us, “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”- Paul spells it out: the righteousness of God comes, not from us: It is “of GOD.” The relationship between our repentance and God’s forgiveness is “because of” not “in order to.”
This passage, by the way, is finishing a sentence in which Paul is exhorting the Church, us, to be “Ambassadors for Christ,” bearers of the message of reconciliation…So “You be reconciled,” Paul says, “because for our sake he made (Jesus) to be sin”…the one who had never known sin, “so that” (because of, in order, with the result) “that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God. “
Let that sink in:
-The holy God of creation, whose moral perfection was such that the greatest of his servants, Moses, could only see God’s back as he passed by.
-Whose holiness was so terrifying that, when Moses went up the mountain, the Israelites could only stand at a distance gazing up at that terrifying cloud.
-A God so pure that the ark representing his presence couldn’t be touched with human hands, even to protect it, without them being struck down…
THAT God has declared us to be THAT “righteousness” in his sight.
…and, then, even further, he longs to give us the ministry of reconciling others to his holiness and love.
A high and holy calling awaits us. That is why our humility before God is not just a nice ashy experience for ourselves – We are to be a light to others. We are to increase in love and mercy as we seek Christ. And that increase in love is supposed to be public. Public in order to help to others come to know the love of our Savior, Jesus.
Lent is God calling us deeper into deep – to remold us into the image of his Son and to send us to gather our friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers to his love.
And so we come tonight to be marked outwardly with ashes to remind ourselves inwardly that we are dust.
But we are redeemed dust. Grateful dust. Dust with a purpose.
And then we will come again to the table with hands outstretched to receive the grace of God anew.
It is a slow process, this becoming like Christ – A long obedience in the same direction. Consuming Jesus and being consumed by him. So, this evening, I exhort you, engage and cooperate. Engage with the prayers. Cooperate with the symbols. Surrender afresh to the Lord of the prayers and symbols, and come, kneel, reach out your hands and receive, and, as the Psalmist said, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”