Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would prefer to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51.1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial. But why do we do these things? What’s the point? The short answer is to develop the habits of character that will be necessary for us to live as citizens in God’s promised new creation and to be signs of his new creation to others. And so tonight I want us to explore briefly what that means for us as we enter this season of Lent (and beyond).
In our epistle lesson, the apostle Paul urges us to be reconciled to God. But how is that possible? The whole history of salvation contained in Scripture is littered with human sin and rebellion against God. Indeed, our sin and rebellion is what necessitated God’s rescue plan for us in the first place! From Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God in the garden to king David’s sins of adultery and murder that prompted the heart-wrenching and poignant Psalm we recited tonight, sins all the more astonishing and dismaying when we consider the fact that David was a man after God’s own heart, to the ongoing rebellion of God’s people Israel that the prophet Joel addresses in our OT lesson, to our own individual sin and rebellion in all of its variety.
It seems that our sin-sickness is encoded into our very DNA, the product of the Fall and its awful aftermath. Our suspicions are confirmed when we read the chilling observation the Lord made to his prophet Jeremiah about the human heart: It is desperately sick and beyond understanding (Jeremiah 17.9). As a result, we are separated and alienated from God with no hope of being reconciled to him. This means, of course, that we still remain under God’s curse and that death and separation from God, now and for all eternity, is our destiny. As Paul observed in his letter to the Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23) and of course the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23; cf. Genesis 3.19). This is why ashes are imposed tonight. They remind us that we are dust and to dust we will return, and they also serve as a visible sign for our need to repent or turn away from our own selfish sin-sickness.
And even if we consider ourselves to be Christians and acknowledge the desperate plight of our human condition that we have just surveyed, many of us continue to be rebellious toward God’s love and grace for us as manifested in Jesus Christ by acting as if we are the ones responsible for pulling ourselves out of the black hole of sin by embarking on all kinds of programs of self-help spirituality. We resolve to read the Bible more or be more regular in our prayers. We resolve to give more to charity or do more volunteer work in hopes that this will result in getting our ticket punched. It won’t because our strategy of self-help has about as much chance of succeeding as most of our new year’s resolutions do. And even if we are successful in becoming more “spiritual,” whatever that means, it does not address the problem of our sin and the alienation and separation from God that it causes. In short, left to our own devices, our sin and the evil it allows to operate leaves us dehumanized as well as separated and alienated from God and people who are utterly without hope so that when we read exhortations like Paul’s to be reconciled to God, we are tempted to consider them to be cruel nonsense.
At this point I am pretty sure what some of you are thinking. Fr. Maney, not only are we hungry from fasting today and sick of this miserable winter that seems like it will never end, now we have to listen to another one of your heart-warming and feel-good sermons! Thank you for making us feel lower than a snake’s belly, dude! We are so glad we came out to listen to you tonight. You can thank me later. But first hear God’s final word on our hopeless condition.
To be certain, the great and dreadful day of the Lord is coming as the prophet Joel warned in our OT lesson. We must all one day stand before the judgment throne of Christ. But as Christians, we have received a great and wondrous gift from God our Savior and his name is Jesus. And when by faith we believe that God has done what is impossible for us to do by becoming human and dying on a cross for us to atone for our sins, our hopelessness turns into joy and real hope because the cross of Jesus is our “Day of the Lord.” As Paul tells us, for our sake, God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin for us so that we could become the righteousness of God. In other words, God became human and went to the cross to pay the death penalty for our sins so that when we stand before the judgment throne of Christ we can be confident that we will hear the verdict of “not guilty” pronounced in our favor. Not because we are good, but because God is gracious and merciful. This is what the logic of justification by grace through faith is all about. God’s future verdict of “not guilty” is made known to us now so that we can hear it now and be freed from the fear and crushing guilt our sin can cause. In the cross of Jesus, our penalty has been paid. And because we believe it has, we also believe that we will share with Jesus in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.5).
If we really believe this, I mean really believe this, it changes everything. We no longer have to fear dying. We no longer have to fear standing before Christ and hearing the damning guilty verdict and being swept away into hell forever. This is all God’s gift of love offered to everyone freely. It is terribly humbling because it reminds us that only God can end our predicament and hopelessness. No wonder Paul urges us not to accept in vain God’s gift of grace offered in Jesus. But what does that mean? It means that we continue to act as if the cross of Jesus does not matter in reconciling us to God. It means that we continue to labor under the delusion that we are responsible for our salvation and rescue from evil, sin, and death by how we act, as if our actions will somehow magically make us good in God’s eyes.
Rejecting God’s grace offered to us in the cross of Jesus Christ is like the woman who, when receiving an engagement ring from her boyfriend, remarked that it was too plain and went out immediately to replace it. In doing so, she not only grieved her boyfriend, she essentially rejected the gift offered her. Likewise, when after hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ offered freely to each of us, we ostensibly accept it but then we continue to act like we really believe in the delusional program of self-help and salvation, we reject God’s offer of love and mercy.
No, says Paul. We are reconciled to God only in and through Jesus and his great sacrifice on the cross. So stop deluding yourself into thinking you can somehow find favor in God’s eyes based on your own merit. Stop acting like your salvation is some distant event in the future as was prophesied in the OT. Your salvation is here and now, won for you on the bloody cross of Jesus. Take hold of it right now! Don’t wait! When you do take hold of it, you will find yourself to be a new person, freed from your fears and hopelessness. With the help of the Spirit, you will find yourself developing an eternal perspective so that you won’t focus so myopically on your current situation and problems. And if you don’t believe me, look at my own example. I suffer mightily to preach the gospel faithfully. I am utterly scorned and held in derision. But that’s just an illusion. Because I am Jesus’ I am held in high regard. People look at me and think I am dying. But I am wonderfully alive because my Savior is alive and I share his destiny. So can you.
And because Jesus is alive and because we have his Spirit given to us, it is now possible to put aside all the old nasty habits and evil in which we once engaged. See? This is why I told you that you would be a new creation, i.e., a new person! And what’s more, being a new person who is recreated in Christ in the power of the Spirit, you will find yourself training to live in God’s promised new creation when it comes in full at Christ’s return. It’s not here yet, but it’s coming and you can help bring it in by acting as a new creation in Jesus. So pay attention to me and my teachings because I am teaching and living the real gospel in person and nothing else will be able to free you from your bondage to sin and the inevitable hopelessness and guilt that accompany it. Reject my teachings and you reject the gospel. The stakes are that high.
And while this is all God’s gracious gift offered us, God expects us to respond to his call to us. We have to say yes to his invitation to us to accept the gift of his Son offered freely to everyone. This is where we need to pay attention to Jesus in our gospel lesson tonight because he is telling us what we need to do to bring our behavior in line with our faith. Real faith always manifests itself in action because our actions always stem from our beliefs.
The problem is that even after we accept by faith Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we still live with our fallen nature and our brains have to be remapped so that our behaviors come into line with our new nature and this involves practicing the new behaviors until they become second nature to us. This is hard at first, but as with any learned behavior, the more we practice it the more natural it becomes. I know this isn’t particularly sexy or spectacular but it is the way things typically work. And notice that the behaviors may not look differently from self-help spirituality programs that we just talked about. We still might resolve to read the Bible more and pray more regularly, for example. So what’s the difference? Motive, which is what Jesus is addressing here. When we really believe that it is Jesus and Jesus alone who has healed us and caused us to be reconciled to God, it frees us from the onerous burden of trying to get our ticket punched and allows us to focus on imitating our Lord in our whole pattern of living.
This will necessarily involve some changes in our life and this is where our Lenten disciplines come into play. What in us is interfering with our desire to follow Jesus so that it needs to die? What aspects of our lifestyle keep us focused on our selfish desires rather than Jesus? These are the things that we must think about during Lent and these are what should be the focus of our Lenten disciplines. But here we must keep in mind what we just said about changes in behavior and the need to develop new habits.
Let me give you an example to illustrate this. Over my life I have probably lost close to 500 lbs—literally. But here I am today, doing my best imitation of the Goodyear blimp. Losing that weight was hard and it took a lot of discipline. I felt so good, physically and psychologically, after losing it and I looked better too. So why couldn’t I keep the weight off? Because I failed to develop a change in eating behavior necessary for me to keep the weight off. I still love the junk food more than the healthier stuff. So my time of diet was similar to the season of Lent. I focused on doing the right things to lose weight. But then the diet ended, like the season of Lent ends, and I found myself going back to my old behaviors. Forty days, so to speak, weren’t long enough for the new behavior patterns to be fully encoded on my brain. Neither will you likely find the 40 days of Lent to be enough time for your targeted behavior to be really changed.
Now of course, this is an imperfect analogy. We are promised, for example, to be given the Holy Spirit who helps us in our weakness. But the point remains. If we want to turn away from our selfishness and dehumanizing behavior so that we can enjoy the perfect freedom of being God’s fully human people, we must kill our old fallen nature with its accompanying behaviors with the help of the Spirit and replace them with new ones. Real piety, i.e., our sweat equity in developing real righteousness, will always lead to changed behaviors, love, joy, peace, righteousness, generosity, to name just a few. And we do it all in response to God’s great love offered to us and poured our for us on the cross.
What needs to die in you with the help of the Spirit so that you will become a new creation and more fully human? What lifestyle changes need to occur? This should be the subject of our Lenten disciplines and beyond. It’s never easy, this repentance and self-denial business. But it is what we are required to do if we ever hope to produce the fruit of righteousness that will necessarily flow from our changed and grateful hearts so that we can rightfully claim our prize that is in Jesus. That is why having an eternal perspective and asking the Spirit to help us in this work is so critical. So this Lenten season, let us embrace the challenge because when we do, we will surely be embracing the Good News that is ours in the death and resurrection of Jesus, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.