In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Twenty-first century activisim is a social media post. Not that many years ago, caring about something would have meant action. Just 50 years ago, people stood up in Selma, Alabama to fight racism. They endured beatings and other atrocities to prove that a human is a human and has an inherent, God-given dignity no matter their skin color. Today, we have an emotional response and go back to life as normal. When Paris suffered terrorist attacks in November, countless people put a filter of the French flag over their Facebook profile pictures. When over 270 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the terrorist organization Boko Haram in 2014, Twitter was flooded with people using the hashtag “Bring Back Our Girls.” One might see altered pictures or a trending hashtag and think “Wow! These people are really doing something to fix the problem!” But nothing could be farther from the truth. The filter only lasted a few weeks, and the hashtag stopped trending within days. When it was time for real action, for terrorists to be found and punished and schoolgirls to be rescued, public attention was long gone. But, in the minds of countless people, they had done something to fix the problem, they made a difference. But a picture doesn’t fight terrorism and a hashtag doesn’t undo abduction. We must stop mistaking feelings for action.
So what does all of that have to do with Ash Wednesday? Quite a bit, actually. And though I made it sound like a new phenomenon, it really isn’t. As a people, we have always been prone to superficial responses while the necessary action never happened. That’s what tonight’s Old Testament Reading is all about. “Rend your heart, and not your garments,” says Joel. Joel was writing to a people who were good at looking repentant, wearing sackcloth and ashes, while not really repenting of their sin. But that wasn’t just something that affected God’s people in 800 B.C. It’s a reality for us still today. Especially on more solemn days like Ash Wednesday, we can make ourselves look repentant, while not really intending to amend our sinful life. We think that if we look the part, God will be happy and ignore what is really in our heart.
That struggle between emotions and reality is what Lent--and really the whole Christian life!—is all about. When we gather in the Divine Service and confess our sin, that confession is supposed to be a life-altering one. We are supposed to stand here, say out loud “I, a poor, miserable sinner” and be hit between the eyes with a spiritual two-by-four. That confession should knock the wind out of us, should bring us to the deadly reality that we are sinners who deserve grief and shame, even hell. When we confess our sins we are supposed to confess not only that we are sinful, but that, by God’s help, we intend to sin never again. This confession isn’t supposed to be done out of obligation, something that’s just another part of the service we do because it’s in the book. This confession is supposed to be a life-altering thing, a sobering reality that we have offended a holy and just God who is merciful to us to forgive our sins, and we don’t want to make light of that mercy, to treat it like it’s something cheap. Just like we shouldn’t floor it to take off from an officer who just graciously gave us a warning instead of a speeding ticket, we shouldn’t leave God’s house, forgiven and restored, and go back into sin like it’s no big deal.
Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the whole Christian life is a time of repentance, a time where we come face-to-face with our sin, the price God paid to forgive it, and plead the aid of the Holy Spirit to keep us from sinning. And God wants that repentance to be real, not a manufactured, emotional repentance. The ashes on our foreheads aren’t supposed to be a superficial thing, washed off when we get home and forgotten about by tomorrow morning. The repentance, the act of throwing ourselves upon the mercy of our loving God that characterizes Ash Wednesday, Lent, and especially Holy Week, is to be a lifelong action.
But that doesn’t mean our lives as Christians should be miserable, a constant thought of “Oh! How awful I am!” That’s not what repentance is all about. Yes, there is a serious side of repentance. But repentance is never without joy. Why? Because we know the full story. We know that absolution, that comforting word of full forgiveness because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, follows our confession. It’s the same reason blind Bartimaeus and the ten lepers and everyone else in the Gospels confidently cries out “Jesus, have mercy on me!” They plead that mercy boldly because they are confident He will give it. It’s the same reason we can sing the Kyrie in every Divine Service, repeating their words, “Lord, have mercy upon us,” with joy, because we know that He has had mercy and He always will have mercy. So our life of repentance is simultaneously one of joy, knowing that because we are Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our sin is forgiven, drowned in the flood of Jesus’ Blood, and sin, death, and the devil have no claim on us. In the eyes of God, we are not sinners, but Blood-bought heirs of His kingdom, holy and sinless just like His Son, in whom we live, move, and have our being.
So how do we get to a place where our repentance is real, our turning from sin a daily action and not just a passing thought? The answer is easy. And just like our forgiveness for sin isn’t something we accomplish, neither is this change in heart! We can’t create in ourselves new and contrite hearts, so we have to come to the only One who can do that. Only the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God read and preached and freely dispensed in the Sacraments can make new hearts. So this Lent, and really the rest of our lives, the best we can do to have this action God desires is to come to church! Each time we are here, God does all the work of washing our hearts, giving us His Holy Spirit who leads us from sin and to the holy will of God.
So in this season of Lent it is appropriate for us to take an extra day in the week to place ourselves in the Lord’s house, once again to hear again His Word, to focus on His Passion. It’s good for us, outside of here, to make Jesus Christ the center of our conversation, to make the reading of His Word and prayer a center of our family life. And this isn’t to pat ourselves on the back, to boast what good Christians we are, but in order to be continually transformed by the Word of God, to have the Holy Spirit constantly strengthening our faith by pointing us to Jesus, to His Word and Sacraments, and to His death and resurrection in our place.
By Jesus Christ our repentance is taken from mere emotion to a way of life. He creates in us what He wants in us. By Him, we don’t just hate our sin and lament its effects in our life, but we go out with joy, knowing that He has forgiven us all our sin, and will always forgive us gladly, because He wants us to be in heaven with Him. The Prophet Joel reminds us that, while the Christian life is all about repentance, it is also about a merciful God, one who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. So as you come to this Altar to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ tonight, throughout Lent, and throughout your life, lament your sin, plead the Holy Spirit’s work to keep you from it, but also rejoice. By what you are given here, God does all the work. Because He is gracious and merciful, He will keep you all the days of your life, forgiving you, loving you, and protecting you until you stand in glory, parted never from your blessed Savior’s side.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
1 John 1:5-9
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).