ASH WEDNESDAY 2018

For the first time since 1945 today is Valentine’s Day. One of the things being encouraged is clothing. Pajamagram.com makes big sales because of this day! Many stores do, for we love our clothes. Can you imagine if stores sold only one style of clothing?

 

Ø  I remember a Wendy’s commercial years ago which showed a fashion show in the Soviet Union. A large, stern woman in a military uniform introduced the model: a chunky middle-aged woman in a plain, grey dress. “Day vear!” she announced as the model walked the runway. Next was “Evening vear!”, and the model walked the runway in the same dress, carrying a flashlight. Last was, “Svim vear!”, and the model came out with a beach ball.

 

The first fashion show, in the Garden of Eden, was worse than that. After Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God, they immediately realized their nakedness. They knew their sin, and were ashamed. So, they made poor clothes: garments of fig leaves to cover themselves, lest the Lord see their shame and discover their sin. It did not work. They were the wrong kind of garment.

 

We have beautiful clothes to hide our nakedness. But they don’t deceive God and hide from Him our shame. Our man-made garments are but filthy rags. And what they attempt to cover is even worse.

 

The ashes that mark us this day do not only mark us as mortal. They mark us as sinful. Our hearts are filled with shameful sin. Imagine your desires and thoughts being laid bare for all to see. How ashamed you would be! Evil thoughts, sexual desires, selfish wants, impure motives, jealousy, anger, envy, drunkenness, strife, idolatry; Jesus says they fill our hearts. We may be able to hide them from those around us and fool them, and they may fool us, but the Lord God sees what fills every heart.

 

From dust we came, and to dust we shall return. We are born into this world sinners, and our journey is back to the ground, back to dust. All of our attempts to cover up our sin, and every effort to make up for them, always results in the same destination: dust. Born to die, we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

 

It is into such a sorry spiritual state of affairs that God speaks through the prophet Joel. The people of Israel had turned away from Him. They had been unfaithful in word and deed. They had whored after other gods. The Lord therefore gave them over to disaster. They were oppressed. They suffered, and wept in their distress. So, God sent Joel to cry out, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” The ancient tradition was to express terrible anxiety and distress by tearing your garments. But the real problem was a corrupt and sinful heart. Only rending the heart could begin to heal the problem.

 

Rend your hearts and not your garments! Repent! Return to the Lord! David tells us in Psalm 51 that what pleases God is “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” Repent! Return to the Lord. This is our Lenten journey. Repentance is a return from exile. Our sin separates us from our God. Our sin exiles us from His presence. He sees our sin and shame, and they exile us from Him.

 

We gather here this day to put on ashes, to repent of our sin. It is ever before us. By our own strength and effort we cannot return from our sin-stained exile. We cannot return to the presence of our God. The ashes remind us of this. But our ashes are in the sign of the cross. They remind us of a gracious and merciful God.

 

 “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” says Joel (2:13). We, who can do nothing, have a God who has willingly done everything; who has turned to us. Ashes show our sin; ashes in the sign of the cross declare that God has turned to us.

 

The cross! An instrument of torture and death became the means by which God cleansed our hearts and exchanged our garments. The cross—the place where Jesus was raised up in our place. The cross—the place where He who knew no sin became sin for us. The place where Jesus was stripped of His robe and hung there naked in the garments of our sin—naked before God and bearing His punishment. Jesus was clothed with our sin so that it might be washed away by His blood.

 

A gracious and merciful God offers up His only-begotten Son so that the sin that exiles us from His presence might be washed away and we might be restored to His presence—this is the journey of Lent. And where does it end? Not at the cross, or even at the empty tomb. The journey ends in the courts of heaven!

 

Listen again to the words of St. John as he describes those who are gathered around the throne of the Lamb in His kingdom: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”” The great multitude who are worshiping their Savior wear no fig leaves; they are not adorned in filthy rags. They are clothed in white robes, robes that have been cleansed, washed in the blood of the Lamb. Their garments of sackcloth have been exchanged for robes of righteousness. This is what is before us!

 

Christ journeys to the cross to make us His bride and beautifully clothe us. His blood washes away all sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus washes our robes and makes them white. This was His Father’s plan and will. God has clothed us with garments of salvation and robes of righteousness; with Christ Himself! The exile is over! God now journeys with us to carry us to His presence, and to the wedding garments our Bridegroom has provided for us! Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!!!

 

In Jesus’ name. Amen.