Ash Wednesday, 2017
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ash Wednesday is a day for telling the truth. Not the shiny, pretty lies that we want to hear; not the pretty surface the world wants to see, but the truth. And the truth is, we are sinners. God created us to be good, but we have turned away and gone astray. There is goodness in even the worst of us, because God’s good work can’t be completely broken … but there is also sin in even the best of us. Some of that sin we choose; some of that sin we learn from those around us; some of that sin we inherit from the general sinfulness of humanity. In one of the creation stories in Genesis, God creates us out of the dust of the earth, molding us like a potter molds a vessel. Then God breathes life into us. Then we don’t trust God and turn away from him. And sin breaks into our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and all of creation, bringing death and pain as its constant companions. And so we will someday die, and whether we are buried or cremated, our mortal remains will eventually crumble to dust, the same dust God originally created us out of.
Now, our reactions to the great truth of our sinfulness vary. Some of us deny it; some of us would be gold-medal contenders if “self-justification and excuses” were an Olympic sport. We’re not really sinners, we think; we haven’t done anything that bad. If you find yourself thinking this, I would suggest taking a good, hard look at yourself. Would your spouse agree? How about your kids, your parents, your friends—your enemies? How have your actions and inactions caused pain for yourself and others? How have your actions and inactions increased pain and hate and fear and suffering in the world? I guarantee you, that no matter how good you think you are, you have done things that have added to the suffering in the world, and you have failed to act when you could have brought healing or hope. We all have. And most of us avoid this truth with self-justification and self-righteousness. Some people can even take a bad thing and talk about it as if it were something good! Parents who abuse their children, for example, often believe that they are helping their children—toughening them up, say, or getting rid of whatever traits they don’t approve of. But whatever form the self-justification and denial takes, it prevents us from dealing with the reality that every single one of us is broken and sinful, and that even the best human society is riddled with sin and brokenness and darkness.
But denial and self-justification isn’t the only response to the truth of sin. Some people take it far too much to heart. People who have been abused are often manipulated into believing that they are worthless because of their sin and thus deserve whatever abuse is heaped upon them. People with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses often believe that their sins are so deep and dark that they can’t ever be redeemed or loved. Even small mistakes—even things that aren’t mistakes at all—are seen as huge gaping chasms isolating and dragging them down. They know the truth of their sin so well that they cannot see that there is a truth greater than sin, and that is the love of God.
We are broken, sinful creatures, every single one of us, and that is the truth. We make the world a darker, more painful place by our actions, by our words, and by the things we leave undone and unsaid. This is the truth. Little by little our sins add up, increasing the death and pain in the world. This is the truth. But there is another truth, deeper and greater than this one, and that is the love of God. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, not even ourselves. Not even our brokenness, our pain, our sins. Nothing in all of the universe can stop God from loving us. Even as we sin, even as God hates all the ways we destroy ourselves, other people, and all of God’s creation, God does not stop loving us. God will always love us, even while he condemns the things we do to ourselves and others. God’s love is stronger than God’s condemnation; God’s forgiveness is greater than God’s judgment. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This is the truth that we cling to as Christians; this is the truth that caused God’s Son to be born as a human, to die for our sake, and to rise again in glory, so that we might be saved. We tell the truth about our sins not to revel in gloom, or to prey on people with anxieties, but so that we can understand what God has done for us—and why it was necessary.
Our sins are many. They harden our hearts, they blacken our hearts and souls and minds. They lead us astray, sometimes convincing us that their path is the path of righteousness. Our sins have caused us and others real pain, real suffering, real death. We cannot sweep this under the rug, and we shouldn’t try to. Because when we acknowledge our sin, God relents from punishing. When we acknowledge our transgressions, God who is faithful and just forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. When we admit the darkness in our hearts and lift them up to God, God creates in us new hearts. But that cleansing, that washing, those new hearts can’t come as long as we deny that we need them. We can’t be reconciled to Christ if we already think we’re in good with him, but the second we admit our need, change becomes possible. Salvation becomes possible.
We are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are sinners, and we will someday die. Yet we are also beloved children of God, who loves us, forgives us, and reaches into our graves to give us new life in his kingdom. This is most certainly true.