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.
Tonight we begin the season of Lent with a word God’s people have heard for nearly 2,800 years: Return. Since the Prophet Joel wrote those words from the Lord, “Return to Me with all your heart,” God’s people have heard them and responded in various ways. Some, in faith, have done what God asked and repented of their sin and found forgiveness. Others, like Pharaoh, have hardened their hearts and ignored the call. Tonight God calls out to us all: Return.
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 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.