What are you giving up for Lent? You’ve probably been asked that, or have asked it yourself. Of course, there’s the regular stuff – giving up ice cream or pop or TV or social media. What you give up, if you choose to do that, isn’t what’s important. The underlying reason we talk about fasting or giving things up for the season is what’s truly important. The reason we give things up is for the mortification of the flesh, that is, attempting to bring our bodies into subjection. But as soon as we attempt to do that, even if it’s just for a few hours, we find out how difficult it truly is. We realize that our desires and impulses control us, body and soul. And the control they have is not good. Only by the Holy Spirit’s help can we do anything to control our sinful bodies.
What happens when you have to give something up? Think about medical testing. The doctor puts you on a fast—no food or water after 9 PM. What’s the only thing you can think about? Food and water! Your mouth has never been this dry, your stomach never so painfully empty. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t finish dinner and dessert until 8:45. At 9:10, the feeling sets in. Your stomach knows that you’re denying it something. Even though it doesn’t need the food right now, it’s going to want it later. And the next morning is filled with growling that puts lions to shame. You have told your stomach no, and it is retaliating as hard as it can. And it’s not just the stomach. Tell yourself that you won’t gossip. You won’t complain. You won’t check Facebook when you really should be working. You won’t tell the lewd joke, even though it had the perfect setup. Tell your body no to something and you’ll instantly be gripped by pain and an almost uncontrollable desire to do that thing you just said no to. It’s then that you realize that toddlers get the bad reputation for temper tantrums, but your body is certainly doing its best to rival the most unruly of toddlers. No matter how many years old your body is, tell it no and the inner terrible twos toddler comes out, with all its screaming and kicking and throwing and demanding its own way.
Our flesh does not want to be brought into subjection. Our flesh is corrupted. Our flesh is in the image and likeness of our father Adam and our mother Eve, who gave into temptation and now all of us, their sons and daughters, have bodies that do not want to say no to temptation. They have eaten of the fruit that seemed good for food and was pleasing to the eye and now they do not want to go back to simply looking at that fruit from a distance. That fruit is sin. We do not want to give up the adultery, the greed, the lying, the cheating, the gossiping, the laziness. We are addicted to these things, and all we want to do is feed the addiction.
Which, of course, demonstrates to us that we are not in control of our bodies. As St. Paul reminded us, we are not fighting against flesh and blood, but against the demonic powers of darkness that dwell in the flesh. This body of death wars against the Spirit, against that which God would have us do. That’s why Lent so often talks about giving something up, whether it’s fasting from food or sweets or anything else. It’s so we realize that our bodies are out of control. They need God to correct them, to bring them under the control of the Spirit. Left unchecked, we merit nothing but death and push ourselves to it quicker.
That’s why we put ashes on our foreheads tonight. That black, gritty cross was placed on your forehead with the divine pronouncement in Eden: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. We have sinned against God and one another in thought, word, and deed. We deserve death, temporal and eternal. Our bodies cannot be brought into subjection. As hard as we try, this body of death wars against the Spirit.
But that bids us stop and consider a very important point. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” while it is a statement of what we deserve, it is a statement of God’s promise. That sounds backwards, but it’s true. By death, this body is recreated in God’s image and likeness. Yes, this body dies and returns to the dust from whence it was taken. But what happens on the Last Day? “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” That’s why the ashes are in the shape of the cross. By Jesus Christ, death has been changed from a punishment, to the way God takes us to be with Him and the way He takes us back to what He intended us to be. On the Last Day this body will be given back to us without original sin, without the toddler demanding its own way, without lusts and cravings and everything else that fights against God. Death is swallowed up in victory. The cross and grave to which we will follow Our Lord over the next 40 days overcomes what Satan wrought.
Throughout this holy season of Lent we will hear about spiritual warfare. We will realize more and more that we fight against our bodies, against the devil who wants to take us to be with him and uses our fleshly desires to lure us into sin and death. But we realize that we do not fight alone. We will hear on Sunday that Jesus has already defeated Satan’s lies and temptations for us. We heard it tonight: If we confess our sins, Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We are forgiven in Jesus, by His death and resurrection, given to us in Baptism, in Absolution, and in the Supper, received by faith. We are given the Holy Spirit who fights with us and for us.
Whether you’re giving something up for Lent or not, the Lord will be with you through this time and through your life. He knows how difficult the devil’s temptations are, how alluring all the things he dangles in front of you, to try to get you to walk away from faith and your salvation, thinking sin is no big problem. Remember that Jesus, your High Priest, sympathizes with you in every weakness—every temptation, every doubt, every difficult moment. He knows what it is to be tempted, to have the devil pursuing you. So that’s why Jesus pursues you all the more. He will stop at nothing to save you, even giving His life for yours, placing Himself between you and the devil. He is glad to deliver His saving gifts to you by which your faith is strengthened for your struggle against the devil and against the flesh. Take heart in His very name, Emmanuel, God with us. He is with you always to help you and to give you eternal life.
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.