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
All Saints’ Day
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 5:1-12
November 1, 2015
“Saints in our Weakness”
Today is All Saints’ Day. What is a saint? A saint is a holy person. “Holy” means “set apart for God.”
On the altar, veiled by a cloth, is bread and wine. Later it will be consecrated, hallowed and made holy by God’s Word to be the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The consecrated bread and wine are holy things. We treat them with reverence, not like common bread and wine. In the same way saints are holy people. They are not normal, common, unclean people. They are God’s people, set apart for Him, filled with a treasure that is not of this world—the Holy Spirit of God.
And where do you find these holy people, these saints? You find them where the thing God uses to consecrate and make holy is. You find the saints where God’s Word is, because it is God’s Word that sanctifies, cleanses, and makes the saints holy.
That means you find the saints of God not in a monastery somewhere, or out in a cave fasting. You find them in this congregation and others like it, where God’s pure Word is proclaimed and taught.
Yes, you yourself are a saint, you who are baptized and believe that Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins. That is the way the Bible addresses and describes Christians, people who only believe in Jesus. The first reading from Revelation says the saints are those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14) In the epistle John does not tell us to doubt and question whether we belong to God. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1) And whenever Paul starts his letters he addresses the churches he writes to as congregations of saints. “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints,” Romans 1:7. “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” 1 Corinthians 1:2. “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus,” Ephesians 1:1.
Why are we saints? Not because of our works, but because of the works of Jesus. All our sin was given to Him, and He wore it as His covering on the cross and bore God’s wrath against us. Scripture doesn’t say merely that Jesus bore our sin, but that He became sin for us. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) Just as surely as God made Jesus to be sin, so surely are we righteous for Jesus’ sake. And if we are righteous, then we are also saints.
This is why so much of our effort at witnessing is misguided. We look at our unbelieving neighbors as if they had something to give us, by making our numbers larger or by adding to our offerings. No! We are God’s saints through Christ. We long for the salvation of our neighbors for their sake, not for ours. We don’t need the help of the world; we already have everything, because we are God’s saints.
This is where worldly wisdom barges in with scornful laughter. “You are God’s saints? You don’t need anything the world has to give? Are you crazy? Look how few of you there are! See how you are barely paying your bills, and you are only doing that with the gifts people left you when they died! And look at your sins—your own private sins that no one knows about as well as the obvious sins that afflict the congregation—disunity, disregard for God’s Word, pride, factions and jealousy. You are supposed to be saints, and you have everything? Then why does God let you be weak and suffer and be dragged through the mud?”
Surely you know that voice as well as I do. Sometimes it comes out and speaks openly. Other times it is present as nagging doubt. Whether we are speaking of the congregation or ourselves as individuals, we don’t often feel like saints who have everything. The reason is because we are weak, we suffer, we see our ongoing sinfulness. This shouldn’t happen to saints, says our reason. They should be like the saints we see pictured in Revelation, who are dressed in white robes, carry the palm branches of victory, and sing hosannas. God should lead the saints from victory to victory, from glory to glory. If we are really saints, there must be something wrong with our sainthood.
But if we paid attention to our Lord’s words in the Gospel reading today, we would see that the reasoning of our flesh is incorrect. In the beatitudes, the “blesse are’s” that Jesus speaks at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the saints on earth in terms that contradict our reason. He calls blessed not the spiritually rich but the spiritually poor, not the happy but the mourning, not the church that is loved by the world but the one that is persecuted by the world and cast out as evil.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus. The saints are not rich in
spirit. They don’t come to God with their own righteousness, with something to boast about. We come
before God with the awareness of our ongoing sinfulness and spiritual poverty. But in our ongoing
struggle against our sinful flesh we have the kingdom of heaven. That’s because our righteousness, our
spiritual riches, are outside of us. Jesus is our “wisdom form God, righteousness, sanctification, and
redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:30) We have no righteousness in ourselves that could save us. We
possess the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus. We believe that all Jesus is and has done is for
But we believe that in the midst of sin’s raging and storming within us. That is why Jesus says, “Blessed
are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We mourn because we are constantly afflicted by our own sinfulness and unbelief. In addition we live in a world of death and suffering. We long for the day when we will be in Paradise and the Lord Himself will “wipe every tear from our eyes.” (Rev. 7)
And so throughout the beatitudes Jesus describes the saints not as living what might be called a “victorious life”, but as living with weakness and suffering. We are blessed in the midst of that weakness. In fact Jesus says we should rejoice in our weakness. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12) It’s one thing to bear with weakness and suffering, and something else to rejoice in it. But Jesus says to rejoice in weakness and suffering. It is not a sign that you are not a saint; it is the normal experience of saints.
There should be no surprise in this if we thought according to faith in Christ and not according to the flesh. Because what happened to the Holy and Righteous One, Jesus? He exemplified these beatitudes. He was poor in spirit because He bore the sins of the world. Look at Him going down to the Jordan to be baptized with sinners. Look at Him in agony in Gethsemane and crying out, “My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” from the cross. He was meek and lowly in heart, so meek that He would not cast away the most unworthy sinner but invites them to come to Him so that He may stoop down and wash their feet. He was pure in heart, as no sinners are except through faith in Him. He, the Son of God, was the peacemaker, because He made peace with God for us by His suffering and the shedding of His blood. And He was persecuted for righteousness. Because as He fulfilled the Law for us and gave righteousness to the sinful and lost, the leaders of the Jews reviled Him and spoke all manner of evil against Him until finally they had Him put to death as a criminal, as a blasphemer.
So you are a saint, baptized into Christ. And it is not a shock when you are weak, you suffer, and you continue to struggle against sin. You are born again into Christ in your baptism. You were remade into His image where you used to have the image of Adam. Adam was proud and tried to snatch the glory of God for Himself. But you have put on the image of Christ, who was “a man of sorrows and familiar with grief” (Is. 53). Your proud Adam died with Him and dies daily, so that you might be raised up with Christ in the glorious image of His resurrection.
No! says your sinful flesh. No, I do not want to live by faith. I want to see the glory that is supposed to be mine as a Son of God. I want to experience it. I want to see signs that Christ is really among us, not just receive His promise that He is when He gives me His body and blood.
Repent. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is yours now in your poverty of spirit. He calls you a saint. He gives you everything. “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Beloved, we are God’s children now.” (1 John 3:1-2) Do you want something greater than what your Lord experienced on earth? “A servant is not greater than his master” (John 15:20). But even under the cross and weakness you are a saint through faith in Him. You have the kingdom of heaven.
That is what we Christians rejoice in. In the midst of our suffering, sin, and weakness, we already have God’s kingdom. God is pleased with us. Jesus gives us His very body and blood which was crucified and poured out for us on the cross to assure us that the kingdom of heaven is now ours, that our sins are forgiven. “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:2) We rejoice not only that we have God’s favor now. We rejoice in the sure promises of our Lord of what is to come for us. We will be comforted when the Lord wipes away every tear from our eyes. We will be satisfied with righteousness. We will receive mercy on the day of judgment. We will see God. We will be called His Sons before all creation when He judges the living and the dead.
Soli Deo Gloria