Sermon for Ash Wednesday - Matthew 6:16-21
Ash Wednesday is this weird day. It is a holiday, by which I mean “holy-day”, which is what the word comes from. Days designated by the church with sacred significance. Somewhere along the line these days got coopted for representation as vacation or trips. “Going on holiday” as our cousins across the pond say. But Ash Wednesday is a holy day, a holiday dedicated to something rather morbid. Something we don’t want to think about. Nothing too horrible though. Just the realization that you will die. That’s fun, right? A day the church has, in order to remind us that one day, whether sooner or later, you will die. You will fall asleep in Jesus and await the resurrection from the dead. Await the heavenly alarm clock as it blares in your ears. Being reminded of this is not the first thing to come to mind when you think of a holiday, but so it is for you tonight.
Ash Wednesday has been the fitting beginning to Lent for over 1000 years. Back in 325, the church spoke of Lent being these 40 days of fasting and repentance in preparation for Easter. Denying oneself ordinary things, portions of meals, meat, other regular necessities for the sake of discipline of the mind and body. Learning that one cannot live by bread alone. Protestants tend to not adhere to these old school ideas so much because we like our freedom in Christ. We like that we can remind others that Easter is every day for us. We have received the benefits of the forgiveness of sins, the defeat of death, the coming resurrection through the promises won on the cross, and yet, we forget. All the time. We normally live our lives as those who will live forever, who will never suffer for any reason, who can have anything we want. So, the idea of fasting, abstaining, prayerful devotion, dedication of one’s mind and body to regular religious discipline for us seems anachronistic.
But I wonder if it is. Not that there is this necessity for you to beat yourself with rods or hand over a pound of flesh in order to appease some vengeful deity. That is not it at all. It is this thought of disciplining the whole self. Bringing our whole selves into our devotional practices. The religious life, specifically faith in Christ, becoming a whole-body activity. Something that includes either adding or subtracting from what we do normally for a period of time. Special dedication of our daily lives to something more, not for the sake of salvation, or eternal rest, but because we know we need it. We need to be reminded of our frailty. Our mortality.
The Puritans, you know those sad pilgrim folk who hated all fun? They came up with this phrase, the mortification of the flesh. They take it from the Sermon on the Mount, the parts we usually like to skip out of Matthew 5, where Jesus says – If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. Better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. Better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Now, we in the ELCA usually don’t like to talk about this because we have tried to neuter hell. To get rid of any notion of divine punishment, which is good in many ways. Our understanding of hell has changed over the years for better and for worse. But there is this sense from Christ here, not to think of ourselves as fearing hell as much as this desire to discipline ourselves. To see our sins for what they are. To take on other things that might “cut off” the sinful part of us that we might grow in faith and love. Might grow in sanctification as we understand our sin, but also understand the gifts of God in Christ. Knowing ourselves more that we might know our weaknesses and our need for the strength of Christ. That is the embodiment of repentance. Of turning. Of realizing the things that do truly take us away from God, away from his gifts, and finding ways to cut those off in order that we might be drawn closer to God in prayer and devotion.
I have a thought for you. Make a daily journal and account for every minute of what you do during the day. Have your kids try it, too. Just one day. Maybe tomorrow. Then look at the times spent for different things. Work. Play. School. Cooking. Meal time. Phones. Social Media. TV. Video games. Fortnight. You may eventually find a pattern. The same thing at the same time. We tend to have those schedules, whether we know it or not. What of those schedules could be lost for a few weeks up to Easter? Are there certain things in your life that take up time that could be forfeited? Things or events that drain on your life? Why not challenge yourself? To say, I am going to fast from this. I am going to cut this off and throw it away. For the sake of myself, my faith, my soul, my sin.
In Confirmation we have spent these last few weeks talking about discipleship. About being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus dying for your sins, now what? We have talked about this life in Christ not being just a one-off. Not being just a one-time thing and then we don’t think about it anymore. That our life in Christ becomes exactly that. An actual life focused on knowing Christ. Following Christ. Living in him. Having this faith inundate every part of us that we might know more fully the gifts of salvation and the Gospel life we received from God. Paul, when writing to the church at Corinth, speaks of bodily discipline. Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown. So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
This is not a salvific work, or a work of holiness to make us this holy church or whatever. It is a trial by fire to know that we are sinners. Knowing our sin more and more helps us know our Savior more and more. Knowing ourselves as sinners, as dust, as mortals, changes the way we see our God and one another. Each day becomes gift, given from above. Each person you see not as an enemy or a competitor in the food change, but as a fellow sinner. Fellow mortal. Fellow hunk of dirt in this pilgrimage of life.
In a few moments you will have the opportunity to come forward and be reminded of your death. Reminded that you are dust and to dust you shall return. All are invited to come forward, but please take time now to meditate on this thought. The warning we have from Christ in our Gospel text is one of taking repentance lightly. Going through the motions. Or having our piety on display. “Look at me so penitent.” Instead, receiving your ashes, it is that moment where your outward beauty is removed. Dirt smeared upon your head in the form of a cross to tell you, “You need the cross.” Knowing that in the brutality of the execution of Jesus on that cross, all your sin died, death lost with the empty tomb, and now you hear that you will be dust again. Dust that was made alive by God through the Spirit, and so you too will be again.
Lent is the most important time of the year for us. As you make this journey, may your minds be drawn to confession, to prayer and repentance. Bring fasting of some kind into your daily discipline. Remove from you those things that draw you away so often. Those things that make you forget your Jesus. Relinquish yourselves into the arms of Christ to be carried forth unto the day of your burial. May you, by the grace of God, do Lent well this year, whatever that looks like, so that your Easter, your day of victory, when Christ has destroyed sin, death and the devil, becomes even more sweeter. Lent being for you a time not to taste the bitterness of your own sinfulness, but to be prepared for the ever-increasing sweetness of your Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.