Relent – Ash Wednesday

Audio here.

Video of Vespers here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Even now, even after everything you and I have done and left undone—even after broken commandments, broken families, broken promises—“‘Yet, even now,’ declares [Yahweh], ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments’” (Joel 2:12-13a, ESV). Even now, repent, turn away from your sin. Weep over your sin: weep out of the guilt from which you cannot free yourself; weep because death has taken those you love and death will take your breath, too, because your sin and my sin has death as its proper end. Mourn the lost chances, lost opportunities, lost gifts.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast” (Joel 2:15, ESV). Fast, if you will; remind yourself that you do not live by bread alone. Fast from everything to which you are addicted; fast from the things that sap your time and your energy, but give nothing but cheap entertainment in return. Fast from the junk we all consume in super-sized portions, but that damage our bodies and souls. Do we call these things life? Much of what makes up life is really the detritus on the road to death. And just so that we do not forget, we have ashes on our forehead. Ashes from the palms of the Triumphal Entry. Ashes from the palms of rejoicing. It is fitting to burn the palms of rejoicing to make the ashes of sorrow. There is no rejoicing unless sin is done away with. Unless sin is done away with, we are mere ash and dust, and our rejoicing is nothing but smoke in the wind.

So we have called this solemn assembly, and you and I have gathered here: this congregation: old, young, even nursing infants. Here, tonight, with the black cross of death on our heads, let us weep and say, “Spare your people, O [Yahweh], and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2:17, ESV). Look with compassion on us, O God! You have made us and we are your possession. You created us and give us everything we have and everything we are. Those gifts should have caused us to rejoice, but we have burned them in selfishness. We should have given thanks, but we ground them to dust under our hurrying feet.

Relent, O God, and do not bring on us what we deserve. Relent, O God, of the temporal and eternal disaster our sins call forth from your heaven. Return, people, and put your sin where it does not belong: on Christ, your Lord. Return, people, to Yahweh your God, for only He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and great in steadfast, unconditional mercy and love. His anger burns slowly, reluctantly; its full, righteous inferno is reserved only for the devil, the devil’s angels, and for those who cling, in the face of God’s mercy, to the works of the devil. It is not meant for you.

Unexpectedly and uncomfortably, your God repents of His wrath and the disastrous consequences He has righteously attached to sin. It is the Word of God that has brought words of repentance, and weeping and mourning to your lips. And it is in the Word of God made flesh that God Himself turns back from His wrath. Jesus has taken that wrath in your place; His cross means life for you because He is alive and His Body will never return to dust.

Even now, after everything you and I have done and left undone, the Father calls us back to Himself through His Son. Even now, with ashes dirtying our skin, even with the reminder of the death we bear in our flesh—even when our bodies are dust and the sun goes dark and the stars fall from their places; even then, those who hold in faith to the promises made at this font will find that the cross of water will wash away the cross of ash forever. Lent is for renewal, not by your own effort and work, but by the Word of God heard regularly, the Sacrament eaten and drunk regularly, and the mercy of God given and given again.

You wear death for now, and it is right to fast, and weep, and mourn in this age. But there is a day when we will see Christ remove our filthy rags and put on us the white robe, washed clean in His blood. Then, finally, you will never again return to the dust from which you have come. Then, finally, we will be restored to the full joy of our redemption, and the praise of our God will resound throughout the whole creation, without ceasing and without interruption.

Thus says Yahweh: “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations…. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of [Yahweh] your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am [Yahweh] your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:19, 26-27, ESV).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/25/18

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