Sermon for Ash Wednesday (3/5/14)
Theme: Remember the Cleansing Power of Godly Sorrow
Text: 2 Corinthians 7:8-13a
I have a letter here, it’s address to you – at least it is address to that stubbornly sinful voice inside each of you. You have it too, let’s read what it says…
Dear Members and Friends of Christ Our Savior,
Ashes to ashes… dust to dust.
If you take nothing else away from today – if you learn only one thing from this entire Lenten season – let it be this: You are going to die.
I don’t care how alive and healthy you feel right now, the moment you were conceived you started marching toward your death.
It doesn’t matter if you eat organic, or processed food. It doesn’t matter if you exercise five days a week, or zero days a week. It doesn’t matter if you take a daily multivitamin, or smoke a pack a day. It doesn’t matter if you are a daredevil, or the kind of person who washes his hands fifteen times a day. It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, young, old, male, female, tall, short, fat, skinny, smart, or dumb – you are going to die.
I don’t know when. I don’t know how. I don’t know what it will be like, or what will cause it.
I do know that it will happen. I do know that it could come at any moment. Whether that moment is today, tomorrow, next week, next year, or next decade, I know that unless Judgment Day comes first, each and every one of you will find out what it is like to die.
It probably will hurt. You probably will have to suffer before it comes. It probably will be more than a little scary. It will hurt those you left behind.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
You can try to hide from it. You can try to avoid it. You can try to delay it. You can try to forget that it is coming for you. But nothing you do will be able to keep your heart beating when death comes for you. And ignoring it doesn’t change the very real fact that death could come for you today.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Life wasn’t supposed to lead inevitably to death. That’s why, no matter how hard you try to ignore or minimize it, death scares you. Death hangs like an impending storm cloud on every person’s horizon. It’s there in you nightmares, in your depressed moments, in your deepest fears. Death is coming, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Ashes to ashes… dust to dust.
If you take nothing else away from today – if you learn only one thing from this entire Lenten season – let it be a recognition of your own mortality. You are going to die, so stop living as if death isn’t going to come. Stop living as if death is some far distant, easily ignored possibility. You are going to die, so start preparing yourself for that right now – not tomorrow, not next week, not next year – right now.
And the preparation I’m talking about isn’t a Last Will & Testament or a life insurance policy, because trust me, when you are dead, money isn’t going to be important to you.
You need to be prepared to meet your God…
So let me ask you? If you died today, would you be prepared to meet God? Would God be happy with the life you are living?
Is a life full of envy a life prepared? Is a life full of thinking that you need, and want more than you have now a life God approves of?
Is a life lived in semi-retirement a life prepared – retirement as if there is a limit to what God can expect of you in a day, retirement as if there is ever a time when serving myself becomes more important than serving others? In other words: is a life full of self-serving laziness the kind of life God approves of?
Is a life full of mixed up priorities a life prepared? Will your kids soccer skills, and social life be more important than God’s word when you die?… when they die? Will an extra hour or two free from church and God’s word a week really be important when you die? Is a life full of things placed higher on your priority list than God the kind of life God approves of?
Believe me, I could go on and on listing the sins that make us unprepared to meet our Maker. But friends, suffice it to say, this should not be. End this foolish way of living. Stop pretending as if death is not right around the corner. Stop pretending that judgment is not right around the corner. Start living in a way that will matter for eternity, not in a way that sounds good today. Do you think it is a small thing to look at your God and spit in his face? Do think it is a small thing to sin?
Ashes to ashes… dust to dust. You are going to die. Start living like it and repent. Repent and turn from your evil ways.
All the best, Pastor Hoff
So there you have it, my Ash Wednesday letter to you. How did you like it? What did that letter make you feel? What did that letter make you want to do?
I hope it hurt. I hope you actually listened and became as disgusted with your sin as I am – more importantly, as God is. I hope that this letter made you sad, not because I’m a sadistic freak who likes to see you sad, but because I, like Paul, know what a good thing sorrow can be. I, like Paul, know what a cleansing power sorrow can have.
It is my prayer that this letter, that this Ash Wednesday, and really this whole Lent will do for you what Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians did for them.
You see before the second letter to the Corinthians was written (the one we are looking at today), there was a first letter. In 1 Corinthians, Paul had some issues to tackle. You see, the Corinthians were allowing sin to rule their lives. They had lost focus. They had stopped preparing themselves daily for the death that was sure to come. They had started to act as if certain sins were ok. It was no big deal if they harbored a little sin here, or a little sin there. As long as they kept coming to church, as long as they kept faith in Jesus, what harm could a little sin cause, right?
Wrong. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in no uncertain terms, he told them to hand over to the devil anyone who willing allowed sin into their lives. I don’t care what the sin is; it is never ok to sin.
This is something that we all need to come to terms with. There is no such thing as an acceptable amount of sin in my life. There is no such thing as a minor sin.
We need to come to terms with this so that we can see and fully understand who we are and what we deserve. We need to understand this so that our hearts can be broken, so that we can stop making excuses and be sorry for every sin we have committed. We need to understand just how sinful we are so that we can repent – so that we can fall on our knees and cry out to God from the depths of humility, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
It’s my prayer that his letter, this Ash Wednesday, this Lent will work true sorrow and repentance in your heart and mine so that I can say to you what Paul said to the Corinthians in his second letter.
“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it… I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended… Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.”
It is my prayer that this Lent we would stop excusing sin in our lives. It is my prayer that we would remember our own mortality, and the judgment that is to follow. It is my prayer that this true self-examination would work in us true repentance.
And what is true repentance?
It’s that tax collector on his knees, head down, humility intact, begging his God to have mercy on him.
True repentance is those Israelites, keenly aware of the punishment they deserve for their sin as the poison of the snakes pumps through their veins, looking to the only place where forgiveness and healing can be found – looking to God to save them in his mercy. For them it was a bronze snake on a pole. For us it is the Son of God on a cross. The message is the same: turn from your sins, look to God, and live.
True repentance means realizing your mortality, stopping the excuses, saying you are sorry, believing in God’s mercy, and then allowing that repentance to produce in you:
“Earnestness, and eagerness to clear yourselves.” True repentance works in us the desire to do what is right today, not tomorrow or the next day, but today. True repentance that believes in God’s mercy wants everything I do to be a deliberate act of thanks for the forgiveness I didn’t deserve, but I have.
True repentance produces:
“Indignation, alarm, longing, concern, and readiness to see justice done.” True repentance works in us the understanding that no sin is an acceptable sin. True repentance helps us see things from God’s perspective – helping us see how disgusting every sin is.
I, like Paul, know that you already have this repentance – this sorrow over sin and the faith that God has had mercy on you. But I also know, like Paul, that this side of eternity repentance needs to be a daily thing.
It is my prayer that this letter, this Ash Wednesday, this Lent, you would remember what a cleansing power Godly sorrow has – and put it into practice every day of your life until your life on this earth is done.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
But also remember that with God there is mercy, forgiveness, and a new life in heaven. Amen.