- Exodus 24:8–18
- Psalm 2:6–12
- 2 Peter 1:16–21
- Matthew 17:1–9
- Joel 2:12–19
- Psalm 51:1–19
- 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
- Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21
Yesterday, with ashes imposed upon your foreheads, many of you were forced to confront your fallen, sinful state and the mortality that flows from the same: ‘For thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.’
Death is the end of all flesh, the end of the whole of this creation that has been subjected to futility. In Adam, all men sinned. Original sin is "that horrible, dreadful hereditary sickness by which the entire human nature is corrupted." Original sin is not your nature — for your nature was created by God and is "very good"; rather, original sin is a disease that clings to your nature — it is a disease that is always fatal. You will die from original — and your own actual — sin. This is the end of all flesh.
When God descended in His glory as a devouring fire at Mount Sinai, He delivered unto Moses and the Old Testament Israelites the Law, and the Law proved to be death. Adam and Eve failed — they ate of the fruit; Old Testament Israel failed — they rebelled and whored after other gods; and you and I fail — we sin daily, constantly, unceasingly. Does your mind wander when you read or hear the Word of God? Do you trust — absolutely and without any doubt — in every promise of God? You have failed to keep the First Commandment. You worry because you do not trust God; you grasp because you do not believe His promises; you do not tithe and give of your blessings because you do not trust His Word. He tells you to turn and be healed, but you continue in your stubbornness and your rebellion. Adam and Eve chose death in the Garden; Old Testament Israel chose death in the desert and in the Promised Land; and you and I choose death every day.
If we were to rely upon ourselves and our own efforts, then there would be absolutely no hope. We cannot fear, love, and trust God as we ought and our hearts are forever seeking idols before which we can prostrate ourselves. Those ashes on your forehead were not a mere reminder — they are a promise: for the wages of sin is death.
"Yet even now." Yet even now, turn and He will heal you. Rend your hearts and not your garments, for the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart. And yet you could not have turned from your evil ways. In sin and trespass, you were dead, and the dead do not turn. And yet God is generous and merciful beyond measure and abounding in steadfast love.
The Church Year is divided into three parts: the Time of Christmas, the Time of Easter, and the Time of the Church. Ash Wednesday marks the end of the Time of Christmas and the beginning of the Time of Easter. In under six weeks, we will be celebrating the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, but let us return, for a moment, to the just-concluded Time of Christmas and then refocus on Lent, because there is no Easter without Christmas and there is no life without His death.
In His steadfast love, God sent Christ to the little town of Bethlehem, to a humble birth in a manger to a virgin betrothed to a poor carpenter. The eternal Word, Who was with and Who is God, became flesh. That same child just a few decades later would be nailed to a cross for your sins. Christmas leads to Easter, but only through Lent, just as death leads to resurrection, but only through the Cross.
‘Yet even now, turn.’ God knew that you could never turn on your own — the dead do not act — but death cannot stop Christ. "For our sake, He made Him to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God." Although those ashes on your forehead were meant to remind you of sin and death, you must also remember that your sins were nailed to a cross in Jerusalem — just outside the city — nearly two thousand years ago. The Son of God and Son of Man — true God and true Man — died so that you might live.
The ashes remind us of the price paid — the blood that has bought us. Christ crucified for sinners is our only hope. He did what we could not do; He kept the Law — He lived a life without sin. And what is death? The wages of sin. So death could not hold Him, for death has no claim on the One Who was without sin. So, on the third day, He rose again from the dead, leading a host of captives in His train. Christ is the death of death and so in Him we have new life.
You need not turn and be healed, for Christ Himself came to you in Word and Sacrament. In your Baptism, you were drowned to this world — to sin and to death — and raised again in Christ. As we confess in the Nicene Creed: ‘We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.‘ He is ascended, but He is not gone. He meets us in Word and Sacrament, just as He promised to be with us to the very end of the age.
So serve your Lord with fear — for great are His works — and rejoice with trembling — for wondrous is His mercy and steadfast His love.
We are to repent and not to receive the grace of God in vain, and this is precisely what He has enabled us to do. We love Him because He first loved us; we worship Him because of His awesome power and His unfathomable works; and we rejoice because He brought us from death to life. The disease of original sin yet clings to us, but we no longer fear death, for He conquered sin, death, and the grave. He stormed the gates of Sheol; He bought us with His blood; and He gave us the right to call God our beloved Father, for we are now sons and daughters of the Kingdom. When God sees you, He sees the atoning work of Christ, He sees a beloved child. Your sins will not be remembered; you have been justified — declared righteous — for the sake of Christ and His work.
We now rejoice in the Law for its sting is gone. Our treasures are no longer here where rust destroys, moths consumes, and thieves steal; our treasure is in Heaven — imperishable and secure. The Son of Man was raised from the dead, and so we, too, shall rise to a new life. Although He found us in dust and ashes, dead in sin and trespass, Christ has clothed us in white, wiped away our tears, and welcomed us as brothers and sisters with the words: "Rise, and have no fear."