Ash Wednesday Homily
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Curious words we hear from the prophet Joel today. Blow a trumpet. Sound an alarm. Alert FEMA and the FCC to issue an Emergency Broadcast. This one though is not a test. It is the real deal. From the height’s of Mount Zion in the Holy City the shout must go out. For a real and dire emergency announcement needs to be made. For a day upon which even the most seasoned of weather reporters would want to cover is coming. A day of pitch blackness, thick clouds and hanging fog, so dense that it obscures even the most powerful of the sun’s rays. It is a dark and dreary day of which Joel speaks, indeed, for it is the Day of the Lord.
Joel warns Israel, the Lord is coming and He is bringing with him His judgment upon the people. They have turned away. They have ran after their false gods. Thus the verdict from God is guilty and the sentence death. It is the judgment pronounced from of old. Eat of this and you shall die. He ate and we have received the due fruits of our betrayal, death. And now Joel comes to warn the people of their impending fate at the hands of the pure and Holy One of Israel. Therefore sound the trumpet and ring the alarm and proclaim from Zion. Yet the message of Joel continues in a curious way contrary to our natural inclination from impending doom. Hollywood has shown us that whenever impending doom threatens and disaster strikes, we run away. We run to the farthest spot away from it as possible. If the day of darkness is falling upon Israel, one might think South America would be a nice place to visit that time of day. Fight or flight is woven into the fabric of our biological nature and when confronted with such darkness, fleeing feels and sounds right.
That is not what Joel is given to say to Israel, but rather a curious word. Do not run away. Do not seek to flee from His judgment. And do not fight or resist Him who comes, but rather rend your hearts and turn towards Him. Do not run away from Him, but run to Him. The prophet’s word tells them to go against Israel’s nature or first reaction, like the unnatural response of turning the steering wheel into a skid. Neither flee nor fight, Israel, but turn and repent. For the Day approaches and brings darkness, gloom and your judgment, but it is also brings His grace and mercy for you.
Curious words, which could be said of the whole of Ash Wednesday. We heard curious words from our Lord Jesus as well. At the sermon on the mount He tells His disciples when they fast to wash their face. Today marks the beginning of Lent and with it our own season of fasting and we have begun Lent by making our faces dirty. He also tells them, not to do acts of righteousness for others to see. Yet here we are gathered together in a public place, to make public confession, from which we will leave marked for the public to see where we have been. Rather curious indeed! So why this day of dark words, dark foreheads, and dark ashes?
Our Lord’s word to us is clear, that we are to be careful to not practice our righteousness for others to see as a spectacle of our religiosity. And if that is what these ashes represent, then His injunction would be binding upon us and we shouldn’t be wearing them. Yet that is not their true function or at least that is not what they are intended to be. They show no sign of our righteousness, but rather our unrighteousness. They are the sign of our judgment, a token of the prophet’s words warning about the Day of the Lord, as they are coupled with God’s word to Adam. “You are dust and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:19).” This is God’s express judgment to Adam and to all who are born after him. They are the Words of the Lord.
Our dark foreheads today do not show our righteousness, but rather that the dark words of our Lord have fallen upon us. That according to our flesh we are united to Israel and under the same Divine verdict and sentence, guilty and death. For all who are here will find themselves in their own grave of deep darkness, overtaken by death, and returning to the dust from which we came. Thus the ashes proclaim our judgment and the darkened Day that draws near for us. Yet if I have done them right, you should leave here not only with a dirty forehead or black smudge, but with the image of the holy and life giving cross imprinted upon your brow. Covering over the same cross that was traced upon your head at Holy Baptism. Yes in ashes we receive the sign of our judgment, but curiously enough they come to us in the form and shape of our redemption.
The prophet’s word fulfilled as the day of the Lord draws nigh, but it comes with mercy and healing. The blackened cross—which we Lutherans should be incredibly familiar with as it is the foundational piece of Luther’s rose—is the sign of death. But it is the sign of death’s death. In the cross we find that Jesus proves the words of Joel true. His patience, His loving kindness are there as he relents and delivers His people from their fate. By His death, he destroys death and sin. Taking upon Himself our condemnation, our sin and our sentence. To all He gives life through the offering of His own life. This is why on Luther’s Rose the black cross is set upon a red and vibrant heart. For the dark and deadly cross gives us life to those who turn to receive from Lord not His judgment, but instead His grace and mercy. Those who have not rent garments, but their very hearts, lamenting with St. Paul, “who will save me from this body of death?” That is what is given in these ashes today. Though we might think them an insignificant thing, the ashes on our brows are a rather powerful sermon spoken directly to our lives. And also through them we becoming walking and living sermons for the world to see. Bespeaking a righteousness that will never come from ourselves, but only comes to us from the righteousness of another.
Cruciform ashes become the proclamation from God, which shapes the whole of these 40 days and the whole of our lives. We are all Dead Men and women Walking and the Day of the Lord is coming, but He is coming to bring mercy to the sinner, liberty to the captive, and life to the dead. For the same God who forbade us to eat from the fruit of the tree in the garden, also curiously enough says to us “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” We ate from the tree of death and have died, we eat now the bread of life and drink from the the cup and we live. In Christ, in His Cross, in His bread and wine our life is restored. For that is the true purpose our Lord comes, not to curse but to bless. Not to condemn or let us perish, but to save, rescue, and restore us to joys of paradise.
Therefore let us enter into these 40 days turning with hearts rent and yet full of faith i taking seriously the prophet’s call and responding to the goodness he brings. Neither fleeing nor fighting, but running to Him. Turning aside from being filled by the passions, desires, and riches of this world and flesh and to be filled with the mercy and love of God given to us in Jesus Christ. That is the true purpose of Lent, returning to the Lord our God who again shows to us how truly gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, He is, both to Israel and to us.