Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Sermon -- Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014)

JOEL 2:12-19

In the name + of Jesus.

     “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)  This is what Jesus said about all of the ceremonies, charities, and actions of his disciples.  It is not that Jesus is opposed to ceremonies, charities, and actions.  Far from it!  He said in our Gospel, When you give to the needy…”, “When you pray…”, andWhen you fast…” (Matthew 6:2,5,16, emphasis added)  Jesus’ words presume that you will observe ceremonies, give charitably, and do righteous acts.  The issue is that such acts are not for show. 
     The fact is, anyone can get a cross of ashes on his forehead today.  Anyone can fast, or pray, or give alms to the poor.  Anyone can put on sackcloth and rend his garments.  Those things are easy.  They have all the appearance of being holy and pious.  But if they are only appearances, they are useless.  They are worse than useless; they are deceptive.  They Pharisees put on a good, pious show in all of their deeds.  The Pharisees received the admiration for their piety and had their egos stroked by words of praise.  They even believed they were worthy of that praise.  They had convinced themselves of how good they were.  But they were deceived by their own deeds.  God is not impressed by impressive shows.  There was no reward for the Pharisees.
     Nor is there any reward for you if you take pride in your acts of righteousness.  We all want others to think that we are good people.  If the truth makes us look back, we don’t hesitate to lie and impugn the reputation of others so that we can still look good.  Like the Pharisees, we have an ego which loves to bask in the praise of others.  And like the Pharisees, we can be deceived by it.  We all like to take an inventory of our good works, and we give ourselves high marks because, well, we love ourselves.  Our family and friends love us, and they tell us so.  So we must be good.
     This is what the Lord says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?  ‘I the LORD search the heart and test the mind…’ (Jeremiah 17:9-10)  The Pharisees were guilty.  The Old Testament Israelites were guilty.  We are guilty.  We all deceive ourselves with our righteous acts.  But God knows. God sees the heart which is eager for the praise of others and expects a reward for good deeds.  God is not impressed by impressive shows, and God is not pleased by empty rituals.  Repent.
     Through the prophet Joel, the Lord calls for true repentance.  “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”  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. (Joel 2:12-13)  Rend your hearts and return to your God. 
     Why return to God with all your heart?  Because you recognize that your heart is lacking what it needs.  You do not have the righteous life that God demands.  But the Lord has revealed that he is gracious and compassionate.  He relents over disaster, that is, he is not eager to see you perish in your sins.  Rather, he sent his Son to take from you all that is sin and wickedness.  Jesus has atoned for every time you have lived to make yourself look good, and that often at the expense of others.  Jesus did not try to come up with excuses why he should not be charged with sin.  Even when he was being falsely accused, Jesus did not reply.  For, he was absorbing into himself the sins of all.  All your guilt, all your shame, and all your wickedness Jesus accepted as his own without a word of protest.  Then he was put to death for your sins, but that is how he has paid for them.  The Son of God has died for you so that you would be granted a pardon for all of your sin. 
     The Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. (Joel 2:18)  The Lord is jealous for you.  His forgiveness does not mean he gives you license to sin.  Rather, he calls you to repent so that your sins do not drag you away from him.  The Lord is jealous for you.  He is not willing to let the devil claim you, so he has rescued you from the devil’s clutches and destroyed his kingdom.  The Lord is jealous for you, wanting you to be his for all eternity.  Therefore, his compassions never fail.  He is abounds in steadfast love.  He always forgives.
     Rend your hearts.  A broken and contrite heart—these God does not despise.  Rather, he has compassion.  He mends the heart that is broken.  He restores those who are crushed.  He cleanses you and makes you righteous in his sight.  You may recognize that you are not as righteous as you should be.  That’s good.  You ought to remember that righteousness does not come from within you—from your ceremonies, charities, or deeds, no matter what their quantity or quality.  Righteousness comes from your Lord, Jesus Christ.  Therefore, return to your God with your heart rent.  Confess your sins, and do not fear, even when you return with the same sins.  God does not despise the broken hearted or the penitent.  The Lord is merciful, gracious, and compassionate toward you.  The Lord is jealous for your salvation.
     So, rend your hearts and return to your God.  He is the one who supplies all that you need for your forgiveness and salvation.  While the smudge on your head may bear witness that you are sorry for your sins, it is the blood of Christ that actually pays for them.  And your Lord pours out the blood of Christ upon you so that you can continue to be comforted and confident of your salvation.  Joel wrote: 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.” (Joel 2:19)  The grain has been made into bread, and the wine is here.  Here is the feast which removes every reproach from you.  The blood of Christ which cleanses you of all sin is delivered to you from the chalice.  The body of Christ which bore your sins on the cross is delivered to you by the minister’s hand.  This is where broken hearts find healing.  For this is where your loving Savior delivers you the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
     Rend your hearts and return to your God.  He is gracious and compassionate, and he heals your heart of all of its brokenness.  Your sin and your smudge may have marked you as one who is going to die, but Jesus has marked you as one who has eternal life.  He has taken away your sin and the sting of death.  The Lord has sent his anointing, his bread and his wine, and he has satisfied all of your longings for peace.  You don’t have to put on a show for anyone.  Instead, look to the Lord who has shown you his goodness and mercy.  The Lord is pleased with your acts because he is pleased with you!  He is jealous for you and for your salvation.  Return to your God, and you will always find pardon and peace.

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

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