Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I’ve struggled with how to preach today. With so much going on on the world stage right now, I won’t pretend that it has been easy to write a sermon or to focus on it. I imagine you’ve had trouble keeping your focus on your respective vocations, too. In the last week, we’ve seen a new war unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time appear in Europe. We’ve seen videos of civilian casualties. We’ve seen young people sent to fight for a cause that isn’t their own. We’ve heard the use of nuclear weapons threatened for the first time in decades. We may even know people directly affected by what is happening. It’s a frightening time, full of worry, and this is all piled on top of rising inflation, a coronavirus pandemic that, while abating, is still lurking in the background, and so many other things. At times like these, many of us might be tempted to give up hope. Because when it seems like we’re all staring into the void, where is hope to be found? What are we to do, when our deepest apocalyptic fears seem to be playing out right before our eyes?
The disciples once asked Jesus about this. Luke tells us:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? 3 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Luke 13:1–5 (RSV)
What do we do when we see calamity? We repent. Calamity is a wakeup call. It’s a wakeup call that reminds us of sin. And not sin that somehow effects our destruction–you’ll note Jesus doesn’t say that specific sins merit specific punishments. No, far from it. No one’s specific sin caused these terrible things. Instead, Jesus challenges his hearers to look at themselves instead of asking “why” something happened or seeking to assign blame for the cause of a tragedy. Jesus challenges them to repent, or else they will “likewise perish.” The response to tragedy should be repentance, not on the part of the victims, but on the part of everyone. That’s what Jesus had been preaching. Like John before him, Jesus had been “proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV). Such calamities, says Jesus, are signs of the times, and they indicate that God’s judgment will be meted out against all people. Therefore repent before it is too late and you perish forever, not dying bodily as the result of a homicide or being crushed by a falling building, but for all eternity, with no hope of restoration. Death is the wages of sin. So our first reaction to such things should not be “I’m glad that’s not me.” Instead, it should be, “Lord have mercy on me, for that should be me.” κύριε ελέησον.
Luther famously opened his 95 Theses with the following statement: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” This is Christ’s will for us. Rather than looking to assign blame or pointing fingers, or saying like the Pharisee in the parable, “Thank God I’m not like those sinners,” we should be moved to repentant prayer, dying daily to sin and rising to new life in Christ, remembering our baptism and the grace given to us. It’s a lifelong activity, repentance, and it’s never too early or too late to engage in it.
And this is why Ash Wednesday is such an important day. Ashes are a symbol of repentance. Many throughout the Old Testament repented in sackcloth and ashes: Job, the King and People of Nineveh, Mordecai. An utter abasement of the self—an identification of the self with the death one deserves, of being dead in one’s sins while calling out to God for new life. For we are dust, and to dust we shall return. You and I wear ashes on our foreheads today as a physical reminder of our “dustiness,” of our eventual fate. It is a memento mori, “remember that you shall die.” But that’s not where we are left. We don’t merely say “sorry” to God. We don’t only lay in the dust, repenting in the face of what we know to be what we deserve. Jesus doesn’t tell us to apologize and then hope for the best. That’s not God’s way. Instead God gives us real hope. Hear what the prophet Joel says:
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster….
19 The LORD answered and said to his people,
“Behold, I am sending to you
grain, wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
a reproach among the nations.”
We only know that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love when we trust in him, trust his words. With that trust comes eternal life. We don’t stay down in the dust of our bones, but we are brought up from the grave. For God is abounding in steadfast love, and for the sake of Christ forgives us all our sins. As Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So for Christ’s sake, we are made whole and restored.
So when calamity strikes, we should seek to draw closer to God, and to trust in him more fully. When we see all that happens around us in the world today, our eyes should be fixed upon him alone, our hearts fixed to him alone. This is why Jesus condemns the “hypocrites” or “play-actors” (that’s what hypocrite means in Greek) who make a great show of their supposed repentance and prayer—it doesn’t come from a place of genuine trust. Their hearts are not fixed upon the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, but on their own reputations in the eyes of others. That’s the difference between worldly actions and Christ willing that our lives should be ones of repentance. When we become more aware of the evil in the world and the evil in ourselves, we ought to cling to him more closely and call upon him more loudly, repenting of our sins and trusting him for our salvation, giving him thanks for his sacrifice for us. For where our treasure is, there our hearts shall be also. And when we have our hearts fixed on Jesus, our most priceless treasure, we have no reason to fear in the face of disaster or tragedy or sin. We are of dust, and we shall (excepting that Christ comes again soon) return to dust, but we shall be raised and made incorruptible, washed thoroughly from our iniquity, and cleansed from our sin. For now is the favorable time, now is the day of salvation!