A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First Lutheran Church
Ash Wednesday – February 9, 2005
Text: Joel 2:12-13
<Mark sign of the cross on forehead with ashes>
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love”
We mark ourselves with ash as a sign of sorrow and repentance. The ugly black smudge is a reminder to us – an outward sign of the invisible sin that pollutes our hearts. With ash on our forehead we are forced to face the awful fact that not only do we do sins, but that we are sinners, right down to our very bones. When we look in the mirror to see that ash, we see on our faces the future of all sins and all sinners: Charred. Black. Dead. Above all, dead. That’s the point. There is no future in sin, no future for sinners, except to return to the dirt from which we came.
Sin is a dead-end street, a one-way road that ends in the grave. And everyone who wears the ashes on their forehead or in the deeps of their heart is on that road – we cannot turn ourselves around, cannot stop until we come to the inevitable end. How horrible! Is there no way out? Is there no hope for the people of the ashes?
Our only chance is a clean start. The only way for us is to be plucked off the path of sin and taken back to the beginning. We have just one great hope – that someone somehow might save us from the wreckage of our sin-smeared lives and give us a new beginning.
Jesus is the one who can save us. The power of his cross to forgive is greater even than the power of our black-streaked sin to kill. We mark our foreheads with the ash to remind us of the sin and death that plague our hearts…but with the ash we draw the sign of Jesus’ cross, his promise that those who cry out to him in sorrow and penitence will never be lost to him, that each heart-cry of repentance will be met with his life-changing forgiveness. Confessing our sin and receiving Jesus’ freely-given forgiveness is the one way we can ever get the fresh start we so desperately need. We trust his cross to conquer our ash.
I had intended to talk to you about confession and forgiveness tonight. I had planned to use this time to introduce to you the practice of individual confession and forgiveness, as a practice that might be a blessing to you as you walk with Christ to the cross this Lenten season. I had hoped I might reflect with you on the power of confessing the sins that trouble you and burden you, and of hearing a brother or sister speaking with the authority of God – “Go in peace. Your sins are forgiven. Jesus died to save sinners…he died to save you.”
I had hoped to talk with you about these things, and perhaps we will still have the chance these forty days and nights of Lent to do so. But today is a day to me of darkness and gloom, as the prophet Joel wrote. It is a day of clouds and thick darkness. I stand before you this evening as God’s servant, your pastor, and yet I am the first to put on black smudge of sorrow and repentance. In the clouds and darkness and gloom, I knew today that I needed to heed the voice of God myself before I could begin to speak to you about confession and forgiveness. In scripture the Lord chastised me, “Rend your heart!” In silence he goaded, “Lead by your example.” In prayers he encouraged, “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart.” If I am to speak to you about confession and forgiveness, it can only be as one who also wears the cross of ash on his forehead – as one who also needs to confess and receive forgiveness himself. And so it is as a sinful, broken, beloved child of God that I wish to enter into this season of repentance with you by offering my confession, as plainly and humbly as I know how, with fear and trembling, trusting that Christ will see to the forgiveness.
I have not worked as hard for you as I should; I have not worked as hard as you need or deserve. When given a choice between leisure and fulfilling my calling, I know of too many times when leisure has been my choice. And when I have worked hard, I’ve greatly desired my work to be seen and admired. That excessive pride in simply doing one’s duty is unbecoming for a servant. In all of these things I have sinned; I repent and seek forgiveness.
I have not loved you as I should; I have not let the love Christ has for you rule my own heart. I have nursed anger and resentment against the people God has given me to shepherd – I have been too quick to prod, and too slow to call; too eager to lead and too reluctant to tend. I have spoken in frustration when I would have done better to keep silence in love. I have allowed individual conflicts to color my view of the entire flock, painting over in broad strokes a people created with the finest touch of our Master’s brush. In all of these things I have sinned; I repent and seek forgiveness.
I have not committed my life to our Lord as I should; I have not cultivated in my own life the disciplines of prayer and study. Each week I climb into the pulpit to proclaim God’s word to you, and yet in my own life I have barely made time for it. I have struggled to fit prayer into my life, all too often to find my mind wandering hopelessly. I have made my home all too often in spiritual deserts, emerging once a week to the oasis of the Lord’s Day only to retreat again at the final amen. I have not loved scripture as I ought; I have not prayed for the church, the world, and all people according to their needs. In all of these things I have sinned; I repent and seek forgiveness.
I confess these things before you and before God with fear in my heart. To make confession is always to risk the unthinkable – remaining unforgiven. But we followers of Jesus are called to live into that risk, to take a chance on our Lord and on our brothers and sisters. There is no other way to receive a clean start – only confession and forgiveness. Only the cross of Jesus Christ.
I make my confession tonight because I am a sinner in need of Christ’s love, just as we all are. I long to make a clean start this Lent. The Lord is calling to us, “Return to me with all your heart!” He has said to his people, “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” He has urged us to rend our hearts – to tear them in two in sorrow for our sin, so that he can put them back together in his love for us.
In the darkness of this day, under the darkness of my smudged forehead, in the darkness of my torn-apart heart, I start this Lenten journey with you, returning to the Lord our God. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He has nothing but open arms and forgiveness for ash-people like us who come weeping, bearing the mark of his cross upon our brows.
Merciful Lord, grant us the courage to confess our sins and the humility to receive your forgiveness. Grant us the grace to forgive one another and to be forgiven. Grant us the will to return to you and the joy of a clean heart. We ask all these things in the name of your precious Son, Jesus Christ, by whose cross alone are we saved. Amen.