Ash Wednesday 2017

Ash Wednesday
March 1, 2017 A+D
Matthew 6:14-15

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit.

If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

This is a hard saying and one that we desperately want to explain away. But what if they don’t deserve forgiveness, what if they aren’t really sorry, what if I am not ready? The truth is this: Christianity is a religion completely based on forgiveness. If you will not forgive others then you are not a Christian. We all need to repent.

In Joel 2 when God’s people were oppressed because of their sins, God called upon them to return to Him by consecrating a fast. They then abstained from food and drink, as a mark of their sorrow, and to curb their flesh. When they had indulged their palates, their souls became weak and their faith was nearly quenched. By their sins, they made themselves easy prey for the devil and then found themselves in a terrible situation.

Their goal in this fast was not simply an outward ceremony, but it was to rend their hearts and prepare them for God. In this repentance and hope they found that the Lord God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, even for notorious sinners.

We too, are set in the midst of many oppositions and conflicts. We are surrounded by temptations not only to sin but also to luxury, to become soft. We are a people of unclean lips, used to getting our way, who have been taught that the customer is always right and that we just need to be true to ourselves. Thus we are quick to feel insults against us, to take offense, to be annoyed with others and to think the world is filled with stupid people. We are good at nursing grudges and gossiping. We are  a people who do not want to forgive those who have wronged us and we are a people prone to making excuses.

We need to repent. We need to rend our hearts.

If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Our case is nearly the same as that of Joel 2, but not exactly. We mainly face spiritual enemies. We struggle to act as Christians, to live in the forgiveness that we have ourselves received. Our sins, the worst of which, in a sense, are committed in our hearts, leave us vulnerable to Satan’s attacks.

So today, let us consecrate a fast. Let us wear ashes. Let us not simply repent in the abstract, in a generic way, but let us dare to search our hearts and find what we harbor there against our neighbors, what past sins we are holding on to, what secret wrath we are hiding. Let us then ask God to give us the strength to recognize and fight this enemy, the enemy within, the very opposite of Christian virtue, the slackness, if not out-and-out refusal, to forgive, to be charitable to our neighbors. Let us ask God to give us the power to amend, to change, our sinful ways, and to bear the fruit of hearts that have been rent by His Word, that desire in Him to do His will, that gladly forgive those who trespass against us.

Let this be a Lent where we give up grudges and anger, where we forgive our neighbors and our enemies, where we pray earnestly for those who have wronged us and ask God to bless them. If we do we will not find this to be an easy Lent. It will be hard. It will hurt. There might be tears. But let us move forward, nonetheless, in the firm expectation that growth comes from pain and struggle and with the certainty that whereas forgiveness is hard for us, it is not hard for God. For He has not held out on us, but has loved us to the end. There is no sin, no matter how petty or nasty, no matter how shameful or vile, for which He has not been punished, for which He has not paid. And that includes the ugliness in us that doesn’t want to forgive – He died even for that.   In that certainty let us look into our hearts and ask God to purge us of this vice, to restore us more fully to His image.

Rend our hearts, O Lord, and let no discord or discontent cling to us but give us a pure faith that expresses itself in good works. Drive all things inconsistent with your Gospel away from us. “Let the light of truth dispel the shades of deception; let the swellings of pride subside; let wrath yield to reason; let the darts of ill-treatment be shattered, and the chidings of the tongue be bridled; let thoughts of revenge fall through, and injuries be given over to oblivion.  Let everything in us which You did not plant be removed by the roots and never seen again.”[1]

Give us, O Lord, the courage to not only forgive the innocent and those whom we misjudged, but also give us the courage to forgive the guilty. Give us the charity to put the best construction on the actions and motives of others. And let us pray with confidence, without holding anything back, by your power and Spirit: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

This is a good way to enter into Lent, mindful of our weaknesses, our propensity to sin, and our shameful cooperation with the devil. It is not easy to admit, but the fact is we easily fall into all kinds of judging and hating and we make excuses for it. But let that not deter us from God’s promises. For we make this commitment, we consecrate this fast, not without knowledge of the past and the future. We know the past – not only that we have been terrible sinners but also that Jesus has died for us, for all our sins, that He has taken our punishment and paid our ransom. We know that we belong to Him, that He forgives us. We also know that He is risen from the dead for our justifcation, that He works in His Word and Sacraments. There He gives not only forgiveness but also power. He gives strength against sin. He works sanctification in us. We do not rend our hearts simply for the sake of rending them. We rend them that they might be prepared for Him to enter in. And He enters in by Word and Sacrament. Rending gives not strength, but His filling and His mending in the Gospel do. So let us not only rend, not only consecrate a fast, but also let us set our hearts to be present for the Divine Service this Lent, to lift up our rent hearts to the Lord so that He might mend and fill them in the Sacrament, that He might also fill our minds with His Word and stop of our ears from hearing evil by His Holy Absolution, that He might work in us according to His promise and in the certainty that we have been baptized into Him.

So also, let us go into Lent with hope, with the certainty of what will come to pass. We do know something of the future. As the Lord has been in the past, He will be in the future. He does not change. So He will be and is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. And we also know that He is coming back, that He will deliver us from this present evil which infects us, that He will complete the good work in us which He has begun, that He will raise us and all the dead to life again and give to all those who believe in Him, even us, eternal life.

This sort of Lent, a heart-rending sort of Lent, as painful as it might be, when coupled with the Spirit filling and mending hearts by His Word, this is what leads to the most joyous of Easters.

Forgive us our trespasses, O Lord, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

[1] This prayer, modified slightly, and the general tone of this sermon come from a sermon by Leo the Great. “Sermons,” in Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Lett Feltoe, vol. 12a, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895), 152–154.

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