Video of the service here.
The Word of God that confronts us this Ash Wednesday comes from the prophet Zechariah: [Zechariah 1:1-6].
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Yahweh remembers.” That is what the name Zechariah means. Yahweh, the God of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, remembers. Tonight we will begin to see what that means, as we let Zechariah lead us through this Lenten season. The prophet Zechariah was the son of Berechiah, which means “Yahweh blesses.” He lived and worked toward the end of the sixth century, about 515 years before Christ. He was probably a priest (Ezra 6:14; Nehemiah 8:4?) who had been in exile with his people after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. After seventy years, the people were allowed to come back to Jerusalem by the Persian king Cyrus (2 Chronicles 36:21-23). Zechariah prophesied at the same time as Haggai, whose book comes right before Zechariah’s. While Haggai told the people to rebuild the ruined temple, Zechariah spoke to them of their ruined hearts. Surely, Yahweh would not be happy with a rebuilt temple if the hearts of His worshipers remained as they were. Thus says Yahweh through the mouth of the prophet Hosea, “For I desire steadfast love and not [only] sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than [mere] burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).[i]
But steadfast love and the knowledge of God were exactly the things that the people of Jerusalem did not have. “Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says [Yahweh] of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares [Yahweh]” (Zechariah 1:4, ESV). The people of Jerusalem, the parents and grandparents of the returned exiles, did not listen to the prophets such as Jeremiah (e.g., Jeremiah 44). They did the same evil as their parents and grandparents before them. They came to the temple, pretending to be pure, but they were tracking the filth of their idolatry into Yahweh’s House. They could not drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. They could not partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. They provoked Yahweh to jealousy, thinking themselves stronger than He (1 Corinthians 10:21-22). Because of this, they found themselves weeping by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:1).
Yahweh is a just God; a righteous God; a holy God. He remembers His wrath against those who refuse to repent. And He calls all people to remember: you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19). Remember, says Yahweh through the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel, “your ways and all your deeds with which you have defiled yourselves, and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed” (Ezekiel 20:43, ESV). Remember that there is no one pure, no one clean, no one without sin. Remember that your sin is worthy of death. Feel the ash on your forehead: you have been marked for burial. “Thus declares [Yahweh] of hosts: Return to me, says [Yahweh] of hosts, and I will return to you, says [Yahweh] of hosts” (Zechariah 1:3, ESV). The people of Jerusalem did not and would not return and, in a foreign land, they recognized that Yahweh had dealt with them according to their ways and deeds (Zechariah 1:6). In other words, deserving of exile, exile is what they got. The question for us is this: will Yahweh remember our sins and exile us to the hell of our deserving, or will He forget our sins and remember us in mercy?
If exile is the only way that God deals with sinners, then there is no hope for us. The evils of Judah are multiplied in our lives. We have ways of sinning of which the inhabitants of Jerusalem could never have imagined. Dust and ashes are highly appropriate in our case. But Yahweh will not be accused of remembering His people only in wrath, and forgetting His promises of mercy. Exile was not and is not the end for the people of God. Yahweh remembered His people and brought them back into their promised land to worship Him again (2 Chronicles 36:23). No less has He done for you—but even more. The promise was there in the book of the prophet Ezekiel: “And you shall know that I am [Yahweh], when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds, O house of Israel, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 20:44, ESV). The long exile in sin and death is over for you in Jesus Christ. For the sake of forgetful, unhearing people like you and me, the Son of God exiled Himself into His creation. Because of this single Israelite, whose ways and deeds were flawless, Yahweh has not dealt with us as our ways and deeds deserve.
The ashes you bear are a reminder of how deathly serious is your sin. They are ashes of exile and weeping in a foreign land. But as you go home tonight and wash them off, let that water be a reminder of another cross that was marked on your forehead: the cross of baptism. It is true that you are marked for burial, but the marking is of a burial that has already taken place: you were buried with Christ by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, you too might walk in newness of life forever (Romans 6:4). As you move through the book of Zechariah this Lent, remembering your sin, know this: because Yahweh forgot His Son on the cross of your sin, He always remembers you in mercy. Return in repentance to Yahweh your God; He has already returned to you in the flesh of His Son. [Psalm 103:8-14]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/1/17