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.
Why Ash Wednesday? Why the ashes? Why a forty-day fast from Alleluias, the Gloria in Excelsis, full-throated rejoicing? If we know what’s coming, why can’t we just live however we want? Because sin is nothing to be proud of. It’s not something to rejoice in. God asks for repentance. And that’s more than an outward show, as Joel told us this evening. This is a rending of hearts, not garments. We shouldn’t have ashes put on our heads and go about life as if nothing is wrong. Don’t forget that you are a redeemed child of God, but don’t let that be license to sin. Repentance—true repentance—is not just being sorry for what you have done, but striving to turn from the bad behavior. Repentance is imploring the Holy Spirit’s aid to live a life that is pleasing to God. Repentance is avoiding things you know tempt you do sin.
If you give anything up for Lent, let that be the reason. Self-denial is good. Being reminded that this flesh wants nothing more than sin and self-satisfaction is a good thing, because the body needs to be brought into subjection. But don’t give up frills. Your problem isn’t chocolate or wine or pop. It’s sin. Serious sin, meshed into your daily habits, thoughts, feelings, desires. Give up going down those dark alleys that you know cause you to walk right into sin. We all know that we do it. We nurse those pet sins, those things we love to do. This Lent, give that up. When temptation comes and the flesh gets that itch to sin, pray. Pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” Pray, “Deliver us from evil.” Pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Pray, and the Holy Spirit will guide you here, where Jesus will answer those prayers with Himself, with His Body and Blood, with His Word.
And the greatest thing that He gives to you is His repentance. In a little over forty days we will see how Jesus gives us this delivery from temptation and evil. He takes on all of our gluttony, our lies, our cursing, our disregard of God’s Word, our dishonoring of parents and other authorities, every hateful word and deed, every sexual sin, every bit of laziness. Jesus takes all of your sin onto His shoulders, repents of it for you, and dies for it for you. He turns to God and says, “Father, forgive them,” and then turns to you, the miserable thief, and says, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.”
That’s why those Ash Wednesday words come back with a promise. What you heard tonight, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” comes back at the committal of a Christian. As we commit the body to God’s acre, we hear very similar words: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Our Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.” Thanks be to God that Genesis condemnation didn’t stop there! Ash Wednesday ends in Easter because the cross ends in resurrection. Death ends in life.
And that life is given to you! Yes, we remember that we deserve but grief and shame, death and dust eternally. But God wasn’t content with that being our future, our lives an aimless moat, a deathward drift from futile birth! Christ came into our hall of death, breathed our poisoned air, drank for us the dark despair that strangled our reluctant breath. Tonight, the next time you come to this rail, the Body and Blood of Christ will cross your lips. Christ feeds you with Himself, the same dust that was on the Tree, the same Blood that stained Calvary’s dirt, now raised from the dead. With that gift that gives life He promises unending life. Even when the dirt is poured over your casket, though you lie in dust and ashes, Christ has given you His life, His victory over the grave. Death has no right to you. You belong to Christ.
You are dead, yet you are alive. Rejoice in this paradox, dear Christian! You are dust and to dust you shall return. But death is not the end of your story, just as it was not the end of Christ’s. Because you are alive in Him, your repentance is met with absolution, full and free. The Blood of Jesus cleanses you from all sin. Though your flesh awaits its raising, your soul continues praising. In Christ, you are a child of paradise.
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.