A Sermon for Ash Weds
Dr. Shawn Bawulski
Delivered at COGS, 03-06-2019
When I lived in Phoenix my church did a children’s lesson every week during the service. Usually just a few minutes long, the pastor would call all the kids to the steps up front, sit down at their level, and talk them through a lesson. One Sunday the lesson was about heaven, and a 4 year old kid raised her hand. “Yes?” said the pastor. In a loud and serious voice, this kid said, “Before heaven, first we all have to die. We’re all gonna die, you know.” All the adults in the room chuckled. Maybe the timing was inappropriate, but the kid wasn’t wrong.
We’re all gonna die, you know.
Life is serious and risky business, and no one gets out alive. Our time in this dusty body is short. And we do not know when it will end.
My first point this Ash Weds is that you are mortal. In just a few minutes each of us will hear this when ashes are rubbed on our foreheads: “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We all live with this truth hanging over us. We seek out things to preoccupy our minds to distract us from it. Sometimes we act out in desperation from it. The existential anxiety of our “dustiness”, so to speak, is something all humans experience.
Today, as Christians, we speak this truth out loud. We put it on the forefronts of our minds and mark it on the forefronts of our heads. We are creatures of dust.
You are dust, and you will return to dust. It is important to sit in that truth during the Lenten season. Easter is the Christian promise that while we return to dust, we won’t stay there forever. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Remember that you are mortal.
My second point this Ash Weds is that you need forgiveness. Sometimes on this day people say, “Repent, and believe the gospel.” We need forgiveness, and we need to hear this, for two reasons.
Reason 1: We need to hear this because we are sinners.
We are sinners because we are born in sin. Our sinful condition can be traced back to the beginning of human existence. It is like a spiritual disease, passed on from our parents all the way back to our first parents. As we will soon read in Psalm 51 verse 6, the psalmist says, “Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother's womb.” We are sinners because we are born in sin. We are also sinners because each one of us ratifies our sinfulness with our own sins that we commit. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Paul writes in Romans. All of us. Sin has corrupted every aspect of our being: our minds, our wills, our emotions, our relationships, our bodies, our words, and our actions. We sinners need forgiveness.
Reason 2: We need to hear that we need forgiveness because we must repent.
God has told us that his forgiveness requires our repentance. What is repentance?
Repentance is a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of life direction. To repent is to turn away from sin and turn towards God. Repentance begins when we first come to faith in Jesus, but it doesn’t end there. It is an ongoing process and posture for the Christian.
What does repentance require? Several things:
Most importantly, it requires God’s openness. If God isn’t into it, the whole thing would be futile. But he is open and willing that we should repent. Joel 2:13 says that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. In fact, God is so open and willing that for our sake God made Jesus—who knew no sin—to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). We can repent because God has provided the opportunity and the ability for us to repent. He is open to it, and Jesus commands us to do so.
Repentance also requires an awareness of sin: we ask ourselves, what do I need to turn away from? This requires careful self-examination, which is a focus of the Lenten season.
Repentance requires genuine contrition, which means truly being sorry, not just sorry we got caught. This speaks to repenting with the right motives. In the gospel reading today, Jesus speaks about bad motives for our piety: being seen and getting social recognition. If we our repentance is true, then it will be directed towards God, not towards the recognition of others.
Finally, repentance requires us to do it together. Some sins are corporate sins that we’ve all committed together. We inherit them, we carry them, and we continue them. Just to name a few: racial injustice, gender based violence and discrimination, and the destruction of the earth’s ecosystems. And there are so many more. Corporate sin requires corporate repentance. Our reading from Joel chapter 2 talks about how, in public, we repent together for the sins we’ve done together.
We need forgiveness, and we must repent from our sins.
On this Ash Weds, we remember that we creatures of dust are mortal, and that we need forgiveness.
So today we ask, “What do I need to turn away from?” and “What do we need to turn away from?”