Sermon Ash Wednesday 2009

March 8, 2009 at 12:55 pm Leave a comment

Texts for the day

It was a perfect Stewardship Sunday.

The church was filled to overflowing – it had rarely looked more beautiful.

The pastor was in fine form, preaching from his heart about the need for people to give

and what great opportunities were in front of the church.

It was a perfect Stewardship Sunday –

until the pastor said,

“And now, while we fill out our intention-of-giving cards,

the choir will sing a special dedicatory anthem.”

Imagine his surprise when the choir director gave the downbeat

and the choir launched into the old gospel hymn,

“Jesus Paid It All.”

Truthfully, though, that hymn might be just as thought-provoking tonight.

For it is our Christian faith that through his suffering and death on the cross

our Lord Jesus won the victory for us over sin, death, and the devil.

But Lent can become a time – does not have to, but can become a time

when we believe that the focus is upon us –

what we will sacrifice,

what we will give up,

what we will do for God.

So what if we were to hear “Jesus Paid It All” from our choir tonight

or sing it is a hymn?

Would we believe it?

And if we believed it, what would happen to Lent?

Would we just go home, not come back on Sundays,

not come back on Wednesdays for prayer and study,

let Jesus pay for Family Promise/Lycoming County and Food for the Poor,

and eat to our hearts content, because our debt has been paid

and there is nothing we need to sacrifice?

There are two ways to misunderstand the Gospel.

One way is to say that we have to work and work hard for our salvation.

The other way is to say that since Jesus paid it all, we needn’t lift a finger.

It’s so easy to get caught up in one or the other way of thinking.

And if we are caught up in either way of thinking,

we will misuse Lent.

We either will presume our Lenten disciplines make us more holy and acceptable to God,

or we will neglect Lenten discipline or any Christian practice

as something wholly optional and unnecessary.

But there is another way.

It is the way that takes seriously the words of St. Paul

in our second lesson.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,

so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

St. Paul writes to the church at Corinth

and tells them something utterly shocking.

He tells them that the Son of God came in the likeness of sinful humanity.

Jesus wore our flesh and bore our sins.

But Paul goes further – Jesus was made “to be sin.”

Jesus was made a sinner – by our fault and for our sake.

Almost five hundred years ago, Martin Luther explained it this way:

“And all the prophets saw this,

that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber,

desecrator, blasphemer, etc., there has ever been anywhere in the world.

He is not acting in his own person now.

Now he is not the Son of God, born of the Virgin.

But he is a sinner,

who has and bears the sin of Paul,

the former blasphemer, persecutor, and assaulter;

of Peter, who denied Christ;

of David, who was an adulterer and a murderer…

In short, he has and bears all the sins of all men in His body –

not in the sense that he has committed them

but in the sense that he took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body,

in order to make satisfaction for them with his own blood.”

This is the “Great Exchange” spoken of in Christian theology –

Christ takes our impurity, our brokenness, our disease, our sin.

He takes them away from us – he takes them upon himself –

and on the cross they die with him.

The serpent hisses at us still, but his fangs have been removed;

he cannot hurt us anymore.

But this is not yet an exchange, is it?

Christ has taken our sins from us; but in order for there to be an exchange,

he must give us something.

He empties himself of his own justice, his compassion, his love, his faithfulness,

his communion with God his Father,

and he gives it to us freely, in exchange for our sin.

“For our sake he was made to be sin who knew no sin,

so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

How should we then understand Lent?

How should we understand any sacrifice of luxury,

any gift of service, any time spent in worship, prayer, and study

which could otherwise be spent in other pursuits?

We should understand it as our participation in the life of Christ.

We should understand it as the Great Exchange taking place in our lives,

the peace, love, and grace of Jesus Christ spilling out from his heart into our hearts.

Both errors are corrected when we see things in this light.

We know that we cannot avoid the call to repent, to turn from sin daily,

to act and live as Christians.

But our self-denial is not an attempt to convince God or ourselves

that we’re really OK, that things aren’t as bad as they seem

or as bad as they once were, and that we’re going to get it right from now on.

Instead, they become our attempt to empty our lives of everything that does not save

so that God can fill our lives with the One who saves.

Our prayer is not our pious striving,

but it is Jesus praying through us;

our giving is not the act which earns us God’s love

but it is Jesus’ own gift of mercy and justice flowing through us.

Our confession of sin is not a half-hearted mumbling

of sorry-about-this and meant-to-get-to-that

in the hope that God will understand that we really have quite a complicated life;

but if we confess, we confess everything and make no excuse –

our unwillingness to forgive and the anger to which we cling;

our lustful looks and thoughts, whether or not they give rise to acts;

our constant striving for more and our refusal to be content with what God gives;

our use of words to tear others down and not to build them up;

our lying to ourselves that if we just had what we wanted, we’d be happy;

our failure to fear, love, and trust God above all things.

We confess all these things because we would be free of them;

we confess them in the bare hope that Christ’s promise is true,

that he really does take our real and damnable sin upon himself

and gives us his own divine blessedness in exchange.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These words of judgment we will hear in a few minutes

call us to humility before God,

who created each one of us and one day will call each of us back to himself.

What difference does it make that the ashes which are the physical reminder of death

are traced upon us with the sign of the cross?

It makes all the difference in the world.

For Jesus, the eternal, immortal Son of God,

heard those words addressed to us and accepted them as his own.

On the cross, he took upon himself the shame, sin and death that is by right ours.

We are marked not with the sign of our death alone, but his death with us and for us,

in hope and faith that the eternal life which is his by right

becomes ours by his grace and love.

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Entry filed under: 1.

Sermon Feb 22, 2009 – The Transfiguration of our Lord Sermon Lent 1 – Mar 1, 2009

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