Ash Wednesday: What’s love got to do with it?

Ash Wednesday 2018
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

If you haven’t yet noticed, in being the church who lives in the world, we come together to usher in the season of Lent on the day our religious calendars mark as Ash Wednesday, on that which our secular calendars mark as the day of love…

With this, as we come together to enter into the season of Lent, on the day of Saint Valentine, we’re left to answer the thought provoking question given to us in the Grammy Award winning song, “What’s love got to do with it?”

For our religious purposes, and our real reason for being here this evening on Ash Wednesday, we are to set the tone for the Lenten season. We mark our foreheads with crosses of ash as a sign of the season ahead… as a sign of sorrow for the suffering of Christ to come and of repentance for those sins we commit… and too, as a sign that reminds us of our mortality… Echoing the language from our funeral liturgy, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, we set our minds, at this onset of the season, on one of its’ primary themes… death…  “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Practically speaking, Lent is in many ways, our most honest season of the church year… a reality shown, through our self reflections of wrongdoings and brokenness, and too, that we are indeed dust and to dust we shall return… that we are all, each and every one us, going to die at some point in our lives… ashes to ashes, dust to dust… the honest truth… For those of us who have carried the ashes of one we love, you know there is no better truth of the phrase…

Spiritually speaking, today is about far more than self reflection and the reality of our mortality… than realities of life and of death… It is about what we do while we walk among that which God has created, and even more importantly, why…

As our assigned Gospel for the day speaks:  “When you give to the needy, do not announce it… as the hypocrites do…” “And when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father…” “…do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen…” “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

According to Jesus, how we live our lives matters. And too, so does our motivation for why we live in the way we do. As Saint Paul writes in today’s Epistle, “not to accept the grace of God in vain…” but to live “as servants of God” “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech…”

That while, as Lutherans, we believe God’s grace to be free… a gift given apart from works… our lives should still reflect gratitude for such. That we shouldn’t accept the grace of God in vain, but rather live as faithful servants of God because of it…

And so, today we are called, we are asked, as we are throughout the season of Lent, to intentionally reflect and solemnly repent for those moments when we fail to live in this way… Those moments when we live out our faith in ways simply to draw attention to ourselves… when we keep those treasures that God has blessed us with to ourselves instead of giving them back to God… when our actions are those of anger and hostility, hatred and intolerance, selfishness and boastfulness, wickedness and unfaithfulness………… When our actions are those that separate us from God and neighbor, and the two from each other…

For Luther, these acts of reflection and repentance, when done appropriately, are those that should cause us to tremble… that our bodies should shake uncontrollably. As he describes his Easter book, in what has become known as True Contemplation of The Cross:

“Take this to heart and doubt not that you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins certainly did, and when you see the nails driven through his hands, be sure that you are pounding, and when the thorns pierce his brow, know that they are your evil thoughts… The whole value of the meditation of the suffering Christ lies in this, that man should come to the knowledge of himself and sink and tremble.”

It’s in this way that we are called to repent and draw our focus throughout the season of Lent… As if it were our sins that nailed Jesus to the cross and pierced his brow… if it were our sins that keep him there today…

Through this genuine personal reflection, proper righteousness is achieved… that which comes, not by seeking human approval, but by conforming to the will of God and imitating his perfection… not with personal or social ethics, but by faithful observance… by offering ourselves, our time, and our possessions not that others would see us, but because that is what God calls us to do.

So… What’s love got to do with it? Everything

The Good News is for us on Ash Wednesday, as Luther continues in his Contemplation of The Cross:

The greater and the more wonderful is the excellence of his love by contrast with the lowliness of his form, the hate and pain of his passion. Herein we come to know both God and ourselves”

True repentance, should cause us to tremble… yet all the more so, should true forgiveness… The gift rooted in love, that through honest remorse, allows us to come to know both God and ourselves… that frees us from those offenses we are unable to free ourselves from… that lifts our guilt and the weight of our sin… that restores us from our brokenness, and gives us the gift of new life both in the here and now and when we return to dust as well…

In a few moments, we will confess our sins in the presence of God and one another and come forward to the table of forgiveness, where we will be marked with crosses of ash… May you tremble in as you reflect on that which you have done against God and neighbor, and even more so as you experience the forgiveness of the cross and the new life given in His resurrection. May it give you strength and courage as we journey through the season of Lent. And may it lead you to live the life of sacrificial love that Christ Himself calls you to live.

Amen.

~Pastor Andrew Geib

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