This sermon was delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018. Though we are in a very different season of the church right now (the middle of summer is quite a ways off from when this was given), it’s still beneficial to think on the subject of repentance, because it’s never the wrong time to admit fault, and be transformed by grace. Enjoy!
–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian
So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!”21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. 6 1 Since we work together with him, we are also begging you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 He says, I listened to you at the right time, and I helped you on the day of salvation.[a] Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!
3 We don’t give anyone any reason to be offended about anything so that our ministry won’t be criticized. 4 Instead, we commend ourselves as ministers of God in every way. We did this with our great endurance through problems, disasters, and stressful situations. 5 We went through beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. 6 We displayed purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity. We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love,7 telling the truth, and God’s power. We carried the weapons of righteousness in our right hand and our left hand. 8 We were treated with honor and dishonor and with verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as both fake and real, 9 as unknown and well known, as dying—and look, we are alive! We were seen as punished but not killed, 10 as going through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and as having nothing but owning everything.
(2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10)
Today is a most peculiar holiday.
As the world around us celebrates St. Valentine’s day, giving gifts and celebrating romantic love, you have chosen to come to church to embrace a ritual, an observance that St. Valentine would very much have approved of, much more than giving chocolate or flowers. Today, we celebrate Ash Wednesday, and undergo a season of prayer, fasting, and sacrificial giving.
The practice of wearing ashes is a very old one, older than the church itself. Wearing ashes is a traditional Jewish practice, one used as a way of signifying to the rest of the world that you are in a state of repentance, fasting and sacrifice. We carry on the tradition, not out of blind obligation or because we always do it, but because this practice is important. The reasoning for it is in 2 Corinthians.
Ambassadors of Christ
Scripture can often feel like it is sending mixed signals when we come to the topic of public displays of faith.
The psalms tell us that God does not desire a sacrifice of a goat or a bull, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Joel tells us to rend not our garments, to not tear up our clothes in public as a show of faith, but be heartbroken instead. Jesus even makes a point of the showy religion of the Pharisees, and tells us instead to pray in secret, to give without thinking about it or saying anything, and to fast without telling anyone.
So to have ashes on our heads seems to fly in the face of those scriptures. Jesus says to fast in secret, but we put something on our heads to show the world that we’re fasting. Why do we do it then?
We do it because, as Paul says, we are ambassadors of Christ.
With ash on our faces, we have an opportunity to share our faith with the world in a way that is not self-aggrandizing, self-important, or self-centered in any way. Ashes represent the dust of the earth, the dust that we are all destined to return to when we die. Ashes remind us of our mortality, that we have a limited time in this life to repent and turn towards God. Our life is finite–God is infinite. Living in the glory of God gives us salvation, a way to live after death, and be resurrected. In the meantime, though, we are reminded of our limitations, and in the face of the fully glory of God, we are compelled to honor him.
Lent is a season of praise, believe it or not. It’s praise through action. In giving up something important to us, in refraining from luxury, in giving of our gifts both monetary and otherwise, we praise God. We give him the sacrifice of thanksgiving that God truly desires, and truly deserves.
So as an ambassador of Christ, we are a witness to the world on Ash Wednesday.
We witness to the world that we are not holier than them, but that we are in need of holiness. We do not lord our fasting over anyone, but instead confess that we have been given much, and that we have been ungrateful, and need to reflect upon the blessings God has given to us.
Our witness will not go unnoticed. If someone sees the ashes on your head, that means that you have been marked for accountability, by all of us. We must bear each other up, every burden and every sin. We all bear the weight of our own crosses, as we walk towards Easter and the resurrection. As we wander in our wilderness in Lent, we walk not alone, but together. When we bear Christ on our heads, it is not a show of self-importance, but a cry for help. God, we need you, and we need you now. All of us. I need God. You need God. It’s a mark of humility. It’s a mark of thankfulness. It’s a mark of repentance.
Repentant, and Humble
And that’s the kicker. Lent is a time of repentance. And we are called to humility.
Ash Wednesday isn’t about you. None of this is. That’s the whole point. Faith, religion, devotion–this is not about us. It’s about God. It’s about becoming more like God, and centering our lives around God. Lent is a preparation for God’s full glory revealed in the resurrection. We must remove ourselves from the center of our world, because our lives are temporary. God is eternal.
So this day, remember that we are to live as ambassadors for Christ. We must be devoted to the Gospel. Today, this day, repent, and believe in the Gospel. Amen.