Repentance and Reformation. Ash Wednesday 2017.
Ash Wednesday (7 p.m.)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Joel 2:12-19, 2 Peter 1:2-9, St. Matthew 6:16-21
March 1, 2017
Repentance and Reformation
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
That is the first of the 95 Theses that sparked the Reformation. The first word of the Reformation of God’s Church was about repentance. If your life needs to be reformed, if a family needs to be reformed, if a congregation or the whole Church needs reformation, this is where it begins—with repentance.
But a Christian life not only begins with repentance. The entire life of a Christian is one of repentance—an ongoing, daily “changing of your mind.” A change in how we think, look at the world, what we love and hold dear, what we believe, with the result that we return to God.
This the reason ashes are imposed today. Ashes are a physical way of saying that our way of thinking and living must change. Ashes are what remains to people who have been destroyed.
Look at pictures of a place that has been through a war, like Germany after World War 2, its cities pulverized to dust, rubble, and ashes by the rain of bombs falling from the sky. You see people with wide eyes hiding in blackened, charcoal shells of houses, their faces dirty from the ash that is everywhere. They haven’t just been going through a hard time. Their country has been laid into the dust and destroyed. The ashes of what they once had smeared their faces black.
Do you recognize that that is how you are? A shell of what you were created to be, sitting in the ashes of the glory you once had, not knowing when fire will rain down from the sky to consume what is left of your life?
In ancient times, in the Bible, when people grieved and mourned, they sat in ashes, they sprinkled ashes on their heads. They did this to show that they had been destroyed. Frequently, along with the ashes, they stopped eating food—they fasted. People do that when they are too full of pain to fill their stomachs; they also do it when war or destruction has so ruined their worlds that there is no food to eat. When God had punished people in the Bible, or when it seemed like He was about to punish them, they would sit in ashes, they would fast, and they would cry out to God from their destruction: “You have destroyed us; please bring us back to life.”
They understood correctly who the God of the Scriptures is. He is the God who, out of a handful of dust, made man in His image, and breathed in His nostrils the breath of life. We were created with glory to bear the image of the one God. But when Adam and Eve rejected the Word of God, they lost their form, just like the palm leaves in the fire. The image of God was destroyed. They lived out the remainder of their lives under a curse until their ruined bodies returned to dust. God gives life. God also destroys life that turns away from Him.
But God is able to bring back the life He destroys. He is able to gather the ashes of the palm leaves and make them once again the green branches they once were. He is able to bring back human beings that have been destroyed by sin; to raise to life flesh and bone that have returned to dust, and to restore the lost image of the Creator to human bodies and souls.
But when He does that in a person, or a household, or a church, it always begins with repentance, with a change of mind.
If a person is a burnt wasteland, a bombed-out ruin, he hasn’t started to come back to life yet until he recognizes he has been destroyed. Until our ruins are rebuilt and no sin remains in us, a Christian cannot be comfortable and satisfied. Could a person who has lived through a war be comfortable and content while his country is burning, his home is ashes, and he is sleeping on a cot in a refugee shelter? No! He will not be content until his home is rebuilt, the fields of his nation are sprouting grain, the roads are paved, there are schools for his children. So Christians can’t be content while sin remains in them.
As we seek to renew our life of repentance this Lent, it is important to remember that repentance has two parts. The first is contrition, which is heartfelt sorrow and terror over our sins, the recognition of God’s wrath against sin revealed in the Law, together with the desire to be free from sin and its destruction. Contrition is necessary, but it is not something we can do or make ourselves feel. It is God’s work within us, and there is only one way that God has promised to work it. That is through His Word—in particular, through the preaching of His Law.
If you listen seriously to the sermons that are preached to you instead of sitting in judgment on them, as so many do; if you allow yourself to be taught God’s Word by the pastor God sent you; if you faithfully read the Scripture; and if you take up the Small Catechism, learn the ten commandments with their explanations, and look at the way you live in light of them, God will work contrition within you—not because you have done a good work by listening and reading, but because He desires that all be saved and come to repentance. His Word is the instrument He uses to create repentance within you.
He will give you a contrite and broken heart, which is the sacrifice of God, which He does not despise (Ps. 51). He will not only terrify you with the threat of His wrath, but if you believe in Christ, He will also create in you the sorrow that comes from having offended the God you love.
Ashes a biblical symbol of the destruction sin has brought upon us. But there is another kind of ashes in the Bible—ashes used not to grieve, but to purify.
In Numbers 19, God commanded that a red heifer should be sacrificed and burned and its ashes mixed with water. This water was used to purify those who were made unclean through contact with a dead body. An animal, completely consumed in the fire, reduced to ashes on God’s altar—those ashes, that residue of a destroyed life, when mixed with water, made a person clean from the impurity that came from contact with death.
God has provided another, much greater life to be consumed in the fire of His wrath for your sins—the life of His Son. In Baptism, the ashes of His sacrifice on the cross, the fullness of His death for the sins of the world, are joined to water and poured upon you to cleanse not only your body but your soul from death. Not only His death under the wrath of God, but His resurrection into life free from the condemnation of the Law. In Baptism you become a participant in both. You are joined with Him. On the cross, the burning wrath of God fell on His soul as He carried your sins as His own. You also were brought to an end with Jesus.
But God is able to raise up again and put back together what He has utterly destroyed in His wrath. And He did. He raised Jesus from the dead on the third day. And in raising Jesus, He raised you and all people up, put us all back together again as a new creation, as children of God. He raised up our ruins, brought our ashes together and re-formed them, remade us in the image of the glory of God, so that we will never taste the second death.
This is the second and most important part of repentance—not only sorrow for our sins, but faith that our sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus. By faith I mean certain confidence and trust that although we cannot free ourselves from spiritual destruction, God has done so. He destroyed our sins in the wrath that He poured out on His Son who bore them. Then He raised up the one who bore our sins, freeing Him from the curse. Instead of ashes He gave us a beautiful headdress, a crown of victory (Is. 61), like the Old Testament priests who wore a crown that said, “Holy to the Lord.” This crown is placed on our heads by God, because Jesus, our head, is alive again. His battle with sin is over and He has emerged in righteousness and victory. He is our crown of righteousness and sanctification. He was poured on our heads in Baptism. By faith we wear His holiness as our crown.
“The entire life of a believer should be one of repentance,” Luther wrote in the first word of the reformation. That means not only a life of sorrow over our sin, but a life of confidence and trust that God has dealt with our sin. A life in which we daily return to God, not only with sorrow over our destruction, but with firm trust that our destruction has been swallowed up by life. Then instead of transforming us to ash from outside, God, who is an unquenchable fire of love, transforms us from within into the image of His Son. He burns away our old self until Christ appears in us.
Repentance begins with the recognition of sin and ends with the certain trust that our sins are forgiven—not because we feel that they are, but because the Gospel of God declares them to be. Where the pure Gospel of God is preached, it will work this change of mind—contrition and faith. And this repentance—true repentance– always brings reformation with it. Wherever an individual, family, or congregation is given this change of mind, and clings steadfastly to the promise that their sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake, that individual or family or church will begin to reorder its life according to God’s Word. It will begin to produce fruit that pleases God. May God graciously create and strengthen this repentance in us this Lent.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria