Ash Wednesday 2016

Ash Wednesday
February 10, 2016 A+D
Matthew 6:1-21

In the Name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Lord does have mercy on us-on all of us. He does not hate or detest anyone. For if He abhorred us, why then would He create us and give us life? And if His will is to destroy us or be cruel to us, why does He allow us to continue to live? And if He simply wants to condemn us, why does He continually make His Word, His Sacraments available to us? So this is Our Lord’s will—to look beyond our sins, and to spare us from His righteous wrath. For the Lord truly does love us. He truly does want to save us from ourselves, from our self-inflicted misery, from our strong-willed desire to follow temptations, and from our refusal to trust Him and turn to Him at all times. (See Wisdom of Solomon 11.24-26.)

So every year Our Lord calls out to us in the words of the prophet Joel: “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”

So rend your heart, and not your garments;
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. (Joel 2:13ff)

Now that is why we are gathered today. That is why we dedicate ourselves to this forty day Lenten fast. That is why we assemble and gather for the Holy Supper, and why the Lord Himself sanctifies you with His absolving word and life. For you beg the Lord to have mercy on you, to heal you, to strengthen you, and to renew your zeal for Him. And so, in the secret of your heart, you pray with the Psalmist:

O Lord, deal not with us according to our sins:
Nor punish us according to our iniquities.
O Lord, do not remember former iniquities against us;
let Your tender mercies come speedily to meet us.
For we have been brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name.
And deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins, for Your name’s sake! (Pss. 103:10; 79:8)

You pray this prayer, as a Christian, and you come to the Table where Christians gather, not because of what you can do or give to the Lord, or because He wants to see you grovel before Him. It is not because you can move Him to tears with your confession, or because He is pleased to see you expose your sins and your fears. It is not because “confession is good for the soul,” in some kind of magic remedy, or because your admission of guilt and your rightly worded prayers will finally relieve you of your burden. And it is certainly not because your heart-felt, sincere believing will finally get you the things you’ve hoped for.

Rather, you are gathered by the Spirit at this Divine Service to hear once again the Lord’s mercy. (If you were to look back through the bulletin in the liturgy up to now, you would see that mercy is the common theme).

For you often forget this simple word, and the devil encourages you to shove it aside. And because of that, you latch on to words that urge you to do something for God, rather than latching onto what the Lord says He has done and will give to you. And so, time and again, Our Lord speaks to you His mercy, and re-plants within you His own Body and Blood. For that is finally what invigorates you—not your promises, but His.

That is why the Church urges you to begin again her annual Lenten discipline-with its fasting and prayers and self-sacrifice. For the Lord’s Church desires that you refocus on Our Lord and His unending love for you, which is shown most clearly and most pointedly in His death on the cross and with His glorious resurrection from the dead. For that is what you need. Not another self-improvement program, and not another way to tell yourself and others how unworthy you are. For that’s all about you. What you need, what animates your life, what strengthens you for your journey through this life, and what sees you through each temptation and affliction-is nothing, but Our Lord’s sure mercies.

And so you fast. Not like the hypocrites who want to show off their piety, and be complimented for their commitment. And you fast, not like those who believe that you can be godly if you imitate Jesus.

But you fast because you hunger and thirst for the Lord’s righteousness which He gives in His Sacrament. You fast because your desire is to live from the strength the Lord gives in His Word and Supper. You fast because you want to discipline yourself so that you set your mind on heavenly things. And you fast because you not only want to be reminded of Our Lord’s self-sacrifice-you also desire to taste the fruit of His labors and be satisfied with what He sets before you. For you have heard that the Lord is merciful, that He is compassionate. And so you pin all your hopes, fears and longings to the Lord and His mercy, insisting that nothing distract you from the love He is and gives.

That is what Our Lord means when He says, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” For it is not His desire that you figure out a way to get your life together, now. Rather, He desires that you simply take Him at His Word. He is your heavenly treasure. He delivers that treasure to you, in the font, at the altar, and in the words that absolve you. And by His Spirit, He gives you the faith to lay hold of Himself and His gifts-to believe that they are truly for you, and truly do you good. By His Spirit, you are able to lay up for yourself treasures in heaven.

And when you do so, then a new prayer comes from your mouth-a song of praise, and a faith-felt sigh of relief. For you extol the Lord because He has lifted you up. He does not let the devil or his agents rejoice over you. You have cried out to the Lord and, from the treasures of His mercy, He heals you. He reaches out for you, and pulls you into His loving embrace. He gives you His mercy, and you have no more reason to turn into yourself or turn away from Him. He loves you, and you have nothing to fear. For His grace and favor is your life, and His mercy endures forever. (See Psalm 30.)

In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.

The Rev’d Michael N. Frese
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana

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