The Rev. Paul J Cain
Ash Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A month and a half ago we were celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas, the Gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the gifts given and received under the Christmas tree. [There’s still snow on the ground, but] Other words fill our ears this evening.
Return. Fast. Mourn. Repent. Call a solemn assembly. Gather the people from infants to the aged. It sure sounds like Ash Wednesday. The prophet Joel wrote about it. The Church doesn’t hear the prophet Joel much. This Old Testament text is the only one in the Three-Year Lectionary. And it shows up only on a Day of Supplication and Prayer, like many congregations observed after 9/11 and for Ash Wednesday.
One of the many jokes about Lutherans is that we tend to act as if every day was Lent. There’s some fact behind the humor. Maybe it is because Lutherans take seriously the Lord’s call to return to Him, to make that 180 degree turn of repentance every day. What does such baptizing with water indicate? Luther asks. Answer: It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, is our annual reminder of the discipline and benefit of daily contrition and daily repentance along with the gifts of daily bread for which we pray.
Return. Fast. Mourn. Repent. Call a solemn assembly. Gather the people from infants to the aged. Yes. This text sounds like Ash Wednesday and Lent.
It is too often forgotten that repentance is a part of the Christian life. What need do people have for a Savior when they refuse to admit they have sin? A pig wallowing in the mud doesn’t wish to be saved from it. A sinner wallowing in sin is having just as much fun. The Lord’s job is not to spoil your fun, but to preserve you from earthly and eternal harm. Sin leads to ruin in this world and the flames of hell after this life. God has the big picture in mind. Repentance is part of the life of a Christian.
It is also too often forgotten that repentance is a work of the Lord, God the Holy Spirit, within each Christian. If repentance were our work, would we not then be contributing to our own salvation? It is not our own doing—that’s what Paul says about salvation. Not by works. Neither earned nor deserved. So it is with repentance.
Repentance is a gift the Lord gives to a Christian. We’ve all been to the doctor’s office. We’ve all heard the unpleasant and uncomfortable news about a diagnosis. Whether it was for us or for a loved one, we know how bad news sounds and feels. But then treatment begins. And improvement can usually be seen as long as the prescription is filled and taken, the exercises are faithfully done, and we watch our blood sugar, salt intake, or the levels of carbs, calories, and fat in our food. Because of the treatment we then see the diagnosis as good news, although it was a shock at first.
What would happen if you didn’t go to the doctor? You would miss out on the treatment. What if you went to the doctor but didn’t follow the medical advice? Again, you would miss out on the treatment.
When you confess that you are a sinner, you identify yourself as one of the people Jesus came to save. It is not a pleasant admission, but when you confess, you agree with the assessment the Lord has already made in His word. You are a sinner. Repentance is a gift of God. It is a turn from the bad to the good. And we know why repentance is to be daily. We sin daily.
The Lord has other gifts in store for His people. You are His people because He has placed His Name upon you in Holy Baptism. You invoke His Name at the beginning of the Divine Service and He blesses you threefold at the end with the words of the Aaronic Benediction. You call upon Him to open your lips at the beginning of Matins and Vespers and the grace of Christ, love of God and fellowship of the Spirit is with you.
The gifts of the Lord continue. His Word is life. The Bible is not merely a “manual” for the Christian life. God does provide divine direction in times of difficult decisions, yet His primary purpose is to invite and prepare you for eternal life.
One of these means is Holy Communion. As I finished preaching a very different sermon on this same text from this very pulpit last Ash Wednesday, I realized something important. It had to do with verse 19. Please look at it again with me.
19The Lord answered and said to his people, "Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.
Grain, wine and oil. Grain, wine and oil. These words ran through my mind. And then we received the Lord’s Supper together. You had the “light bulb” moment, too, perhaps? Even this Old Testament text from Joel points us to the Sacrament of the Altar.
Return. Fast. Mourn. Repent. Call a solemn assembly. Gather the people… The Lord has again gathered His people around His Gifts: invoking His name in the remembrance of His Baptism, confessing our sins for the purpose of hearing His Absolution, reading, preaching, and truly listening to His Word, and receiving His Body and His Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. "Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied…” Amen and amen. But what about the oil?
Psalm 23:5. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Oil was used for anointing. Oil was used to mark prophets, priests and kings. Christians used it in connection with prayer for healing. Oil reminds us of the Holy Spirit, of ancient rites of Baptism and Confirmation. Then there is the phrase “The Anointed One. Translate it into Greek and you get “Christ.” Jesus Christ is the one anointed with heavenly oil, the water of John’s Baptism and the perfume of the woman to be the One who would save His people from their sins. Grain, wine, and oil. The Body and Blood of the Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Some gathered here may remember the days of announcing for Holy Communion well in advance. It may have been the month, week, or even day before, visiting with the pastor in his study after waiting in line. With the intention of regaining some of the benefits of that earlier practice, we encourage you to use and bring the communion cards that came in your offering box. And don’t worry if you forget—we have extra here as you arrive in the entry way. Just ask an usher or an elder. These cards serve you as you prepare heart and mind for the Lord’s Supper. St. Paul calls upon us to examine ourselves. They serve the congregation by helping us in record-keeping for the sake of better pastoral care.
A month and a half from now we will be celebrating the Resurrection of Christ on Easter, the Gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, the gifts given because of the Good Friday Tree, and the Gifts received here and now under bread, wine, water, and words. God has good Gifts for you in Christ Jesus. Amen.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
12"Yet even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13and rend your hearts and not your garments." Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. 14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? 15Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. 17Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, "Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?' " 18Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. 19The Lord answered and said to his people, "Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.