Today the Church reminds us that we are at war against our ancient enemy, the devil. There is no complacency. This spiritual warfare is serious. It’s been going on for thousands of years, since the very first days after Creation. But there is no dodging the draft. Everyone who is Baptized has been enlisted and is fighting. If the devil fought against our first parents, if he fought against Our Lord, what makes you think he’ll leave you alone? And if you think he is leaving you alone, then he’s already winning.
Ash Wednesday presents the great Christian paradox. We are dead, yet alive. The key ceremony of this day, which gives it its name, smacks us in the face, or the forehead if you will, with our own mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In the back of our minds, we all know this is our destiny. One day we will draw our last breath. One day this body will go the way of all flesh, the way God never intended for it to go. But because of our first parents’ sin and because of the sins we have added to it, death must come. But herein is the paradox. Even though we walk through this valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil because God is with us. He has sent His Son to bear our sin and be our Savior. We are Baptized into Him. So while we march towards death, we know that, as we will sing at Easter, death is but the gate of life immortal. Ash Wednesday calls us to repentance for our sin, for our willing disobedience. But it also reminds us that confession has two parts. First that we confess our sin, but secondly that we receive absolution for all of our sin. We are dead, but in Christ, we live.
Love…bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” As we stand now on the threshold of Lent, as we prepare to follow Our Lord from the cross to the grave and back to the Upper Room to comfort His terrified disciples, this is the theme. St. Paul’s great “Love Chapter” isn’t about weddings. It’s not even about the love we have for others. It’s about the love Jesus Christ has for you. For you He bears all things, even your sin. He believes all things, even that He drinks the Father’s cup of wrath to fulfill His will that all men might be redeemed. He hopes all things, even that all might repent, believe, and receive His full forgiveness. He endures all things, even the cross, to save you. So today He reminds His disciples that what He is about to endure He bears willingly. He goes to the cross in obedience to His Father and in love for His creation, the greatest love the world has ever known.
When god created the world, everything was “very good.” In that perfection, man was able to hear the Word of God rightly. Adam and Eve’s hearts were, by nature, good soil. The Word could take root and yield a hundredfold harvest. There was only faith toward God and fervent love toward one another. Unfortunately, the sower in today’s Parable isn’t the only sower. The devil also sows. He sows the seeds of doubt and unbelief. He sowed those seeds in Adam and Eve and there was an immediate harvest of death. Man fell into sin and lost the image of his Creator and the perfect relationship between God and His creation was destroyed. Because of sin, man’s heart now has rocks, thorns, trampling feet, and demonic, devouring birds, all ready to destroy the seed of faith and its fruits. Each seed bears fruit according to its kind, and we are now in the image and likeness of Adam, marred by sin, and we, too, are inheritors and breeders of sin and death. No one is exempt from this death-causing sin.
Mercy always seems like a ridiculous gift. That is, it seems ridiculous to the person who is watching someone else receive it. Unless you’re the one receiving the mercy, it’s a waste, nonsensical, a display of the giver’s ignorance, and any number of other bitter replies. We’re glad to be merciful for a little bit, but it has its limits. This is what lies at the center of the Readings for today, and what characterizes these three weeks preceding Lent. We can never understand the depths of God’s mercy because our eye is evil, that is, sin has clouded our judgment and on this side of eternity we can never fully comprehend our merciful God.
Twice in the Gospels God the Father speaks about Jesus. Both times He says, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Each time He makes this decree, the salvation of mankind is firmly in view. The first is at Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan. There Jesus set apart water to be a part of salvation, a lavish washing away of sin, shown as His righteousness flowed into the water and all the world’s sin flowed through that water and onto His innocent shoulders. The second time the Father speaks is at the event we commemorate today, the Transfiguration, as Jesus’ true Nature is revealed and is no longer veiled behind the common frame. There He speaks with Moses and Elijah concerning His impending crucifixion and resurrection. It is then that the Father declares Jesus the one by whom He is well-pleased. God the Father finds all His joy in the person and work of His Son who, out of love for His fallen creation, has taken on flesh and goes uncomplaining forth to His death, bearing the sin of the world, to shed His innocent Blood to pay the price the Law demands for sin.
As Jesus begins His public ministry, He begins it by teaching us to rely on Him for all things, and above all, to remember that the things of this life are secondary to the greatest thing He has come to give, which is our salvation.
A great mystery is declared today, for the Creator of all in the Jordan washes away your wickedness. And by His washing, He takes on the filth of your sin, the filth of the sin of the world. In exchange for your sin, He gives you His righteousness. By water, by that blessed flood and lavish washing away of sin, a great exchange takes place. The Sinless becomes the sinner, and you, the sinner, become the righteous one.
Audio of this sermon can be found here.
Faith motivates men to do strange things which seem contrary to common sense. “Strange” may be a description that some would use for the Feast of the Epiphany, as these wise men from the east leave everything behind and follow a star to see a baby whom men long dead say is the world’s Redeemer. But, “strange” is not something unique to the Epiphany of Our Lord. If you look all the way back to Genesis, this same pattern has been seen many times before.
If you wanted a Sunday that captures all the Church Year, look no further than this Sunday after the Nativity of Our Lord. The Church, in her Propers for this day, has given us everything from Christmas to Holy Week, to Easter and the season after Trinity. Today gives us Crib, Cross, and Altar.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.