Ash Wednesday 2016 (February 10)
In the pages of Scripture, time and again we see God’s judgment on sin. From Cain’s sentence of wandering outside of God’s presence; to the heavens crashing down and the seas bursting forth in an explosive torrent of water; to the Red Sea crashing upon the Egyptians; to the earth swallowing up Korah, Dathan, Abiram; to the terrible choices God gives to David – a public punishment for his very public sin; to the bears God sent to maul those who mocked Elisha and the God Elisha served; to the famine and unspeakable horror which God brought upon Jerusalem – not once, but twice: first through the Babylonians, and later through the Romans…
…time and again, we see the terrible, violent, deadly judgment of God.
- We cringe at the carnage,
- We wince at the peril;
- We shake our heads in disbelief, mentally reassuring ourselves that God’s judgment isn’t as swift or vicious as it sounds;
- We quiet our quivering souls with the false hope that hell cannot be as severe as it really is, or that somehow, some way, “eternity” doesn’t really mean forever, or that maybe, just maybe, God is like the unfair parent overreacting to every little sin…
…and absent all that, maybe I’ll be lost in the crowd – because everyone else is doing it, and I won’t be the only one.
All that is in the background, all that is understood and casts its shadow over this Ash Wednesday.
But even with the intense, visceral, slam-dunk judgment of God that we see depicted with ferocity and finality in the pages of Scripture…there is something worse.
- Worse than expelled from the family and the church, as Cain was?
- Worse than the flood?
- Worse than the entire Egyptian army bobbing in the Red Sea?
- Worse than the earth opening its maw to swallow that rebellious faction, or the famine and plague promised to David, or the fierce attack of bears defending God’s honor?
What could be worse than that?
We see it right here, in Revelation 3:
These are the words of the faithful and true witness: I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
What could be worse than famine, flood, plague?
Having God say, “Fine. Have it your way.”
That was where the Laodiceans stood: having given up on God, God says he is ready to give up on them:
- Spit them out like yesterday’s coffee – bitter, stale, distastefully lukewarm;
- Pay back their apathy, their disregard, their take-it-or-leave-it approach to Christianity with his own apathy, disregard, and desertion;
- These people, who had been at a rolling boil a generation earlier…now saw their faith life as nothing more than tradition, going through the motions on Sundays with no earnestness, eagerness, or attention to the Word of God; perhaps knowing some basic truths from the Word of God, but having no eagerness to dig in and study God’s Word for themselves.
And rather than sending some catastrophic, cataclysmic judgment – God promised, instead, to let them go. Respond to their apathy with apathy.
That’s why we’re here.
On Ash Wednesday, there are no excuses. There’s nowhere to hide. We’re all equal. Each of us has a feeling that is more than a bit uneasy on the inside. We know this occasion marks the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross, and we know that he goes to the cross for the sake of OUR sins - not his own.
And tonight, Ash Wednesday, is the day of remembering what it is we bring to the table: dust and ash. Nothing of value, nothing of worth, only the carbon which composes our chemistry; our best deeds, stained an ashen black, working its dreadful disgustingness into the tiniest cracks of motivation, attitude, word, action.
Whether we are among those who have grown so apathetic as to give up on worship, Scripture reading, prayer – or whether we attend the modern Temple as meticulously as that Pharisee – the message is the same:
All alike have gone astray.
Tonight is the time of seeing ourselves as we are, seeing ourselves as we know ourselves to be, seeing ourselves through the lenses of God’s justice…
…are we really so far removed from the Laodiceans?
As always, God’s church at this place and every place is one generation from extinction.
- And each day, Christian apathy adds another weight to the scales of justice.
- Each day, Christians are distracted from eternity and spiritual life by all the pressing, urgent needs & demands of earthly life.
- Each day, Christians buy into the idea that we have so much time before God takes us out of this world – so much time to change, to turn around…
How much cooler can this heart get?
But Jesus knocks.
Jesus visits his congregation again, saying: Here I am! I stand at the door and knock!
He has not spit us out - not yet. He visits us once more, with the eternal riches of heaven that this world cannot buy; with the beautiful garments of his perfection, which this world could never design; with the medicine for our eyes and for our souls – medicine which even Mayo could not invent.
Christ stands here today.
We heard his warning; yet his voice calls out, once more: Child, you have been forgiven! You have a new life that extends beyond today, you have a place sitting with me in heaven!
Let us take courage from his words - from his Sacrament. And, dear friends: see Christ’s zeal for you - his jealous love for you - once more. He sends his terrible ashen warning for a loving purpose: calling you and me to refocus our eyes on the One who has given us sight; calling you and me to be adorned once more in the garments of salvation, the garments of the Bride of Christ; calling us to recognize the riches we have in him. With faith re-kindled by the Holy Spirit, let us enter this Lenten journey with the white-hot joy of life with Christ – AMEN.