Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ash, Ash Wednesday, Baptism, Cross, Jesus, Lent, saint, Sin
Paul writes: 1For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Jesus, who knew no sin, was made to be sin for your sake. Because you know sin.
Even though we typically open our worship with a confession of sin, and we hear the voices of neighbors and friends and family declaring that they have sinned, there is no time that we confess so publicly as tonight. Tonight, not only our chorus of confession, but the dark mark of ash on each one of us, will declare that we are steeped in sin.
Tonight all pretense to the contrary will be set aside. We can’t simply hum along with the drone of the corporate confession. It will take an intentional move: a standing, a kneeling; and an intentional acceptance: allowing ashes to stick to you, this sign of repentance declaring your sin, your need, for forgiveness.
On this night, we allow what is most intimate to be publicly displayed. Sin, failure, death. The fact that you are under their power will be made visible. No longer plastered over by a smile, no longer compensated for by hard work, no longer concealed. Tonight you declare with the psalmist, “I know my offenses and my sin is ever before me” (51:3) and “I am but dust.”
Maybe this is uncomfortable for some people. I see it as freeing. So much energy gets expended in trying to hide the brokenness of who we are. We work so hard to make sure people think we’re good people, happy, successful, doing it all, staying healthy. If we ever use that moment of self-reflection before our confession, it’s to think about our little sins that surely haven’t done much harm. Surely we’re not really so bad, and if we just keep working at it, we could make ourselves into better people.
We just don’t usually force ourselves to see the truth about ourselves. Tonight we do. Our hidden truth? We have sinned. We will die. Our sin is our distrust in God, our misplaced trust in ourselves and everyone and everything but where our trust belongs, in God. Our mortality is a condition of a this fallen creation.
When we don’t accept our own sin and mortality, we aren’t ready to accept it in others. We make up our own list of unforgivable sins, reasons to cast others out of our community of good people. Sin is something other people do, people who aren’t part of our community. And if there’s ever a crack in our own mask of perfection, we desperately hope no one notices, because we know how quickly we could find ourselves on the outside.
Tonight we make public the secret that holds us in fear: you and I, we are sinners.
Tonight, we let that identity be pasted onto our face, so that any who would look at us would know us for who we are. The truth about our sin can no longer hold us in bondage. We are freed from the effort of hiding it, the fear that someone will know of it. We have done wrong, we have not done right, we have been self-centered, we have turned away from God. No one can have power over us by whispering of it behind our backs, threatening to expose us, because tonight, we claim that right of exposure ourselves. The ashes speak for us, “Yes, I am a sinner.”
Yet, that is not the only identity we reveal.
That mark of ash is traced onto the indelible, invisible sign you always wear. Instead of simply being a dark spot, the dust is drawn into the symbol that God has already placed there. There, on your forehead, is the cross of Christ. With it you were marked and sealed on the day of your baptism. That sign declares that God has claimed you forever.
The cross on your forehead declares your identity as child of God, forgiven and made righteous through Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the only one who is faithful, the only one who is without sin. Yet he chose to be identified as a sinner, killed as a criminal, and cast away from God’s presence. He chose to wear our sin and descended into death. Yet these forces that seem so strong to us were no match for Jesus’ power. Sin and death could not claim him. In his faithfulness, he broke the power of sin and death. Jesus Christ is risen!
The cross becomes for us both a sign of sin as well as forgiveness, life and as well as death. There Jesus took on our identity as sinners and won for us his identity as righteous.
This story is written across our foreheads. The ash will wash off, but the sign of the cross will remain. The force that will win over us is the power of God, the gift of God, which grants us forgiveness.
It’s a story still being written in our lives, a battle still being fought, a transformation yet to be completed. We live each day between these identities of sinner and saint. We are people lured into and looking to embrace sin. The dirty mark we accept onto our foreheads is a recognition of the dirty, broken, darkness within us. In accepting this sign of ash, we confess our sin before God and before this community. We take on this sign of repentance, joining the faithful back to ancient times in humbling ourselves in ash to ask God for forgiveness. We join them in longing for God to act with mercy and lovingkindness.
God does. That invisible cross beneath the ash is a sign of God’s love for you. You have been forgiven through Jesus Christ and his faithfulness. God sees you through Jesus. In God’s sight, you are changed from sinner to righteous. What has been done, once, for you, in Jesus’ death, in your baptism, which unites you to that death, has made you holy and has erased your sin.
Year after year, we receive this sign of ash. Sunday after Sunday, we confess our sin. Even as we carry the identity of baptized child of God, made a saint through Jesus, we daily sin. We have been freed from sin, and yet continue to trap ourselves. So, tonight we confess, and we look forward to a new day on the horizon, when God will make all things new. A day when we will never again pick up the identity of sinner, and will rest in God’s presence as one of the holy ones. Until that day, may you find hope in the sign of the promise God has placed upon you.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: communion, ELCA, Jesus, liturgy, transfiguration, worship
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
We’ve gathered once again in this place. Maybe it’s something you do every week, maybe not so often. But, you’re here today. What is it that has brought you here this morning? What is it you are hoping to experience? Who do you hope to meet?
Can you put your finger on an answer to those questions? I think we might be surprised by the variety of answers we’d hear if we each shared.
If we were a techsavvy church, I might ask you to poll or tweet about your answers, but instead I’m just going to say what I hope we’d learn: that we have come this morning with different individual hopes and needs, searching for God to be active in addressing us. If we were to ask these questions every week, I would hope that we might learn that each Sunday, there are new things we long for from God. One week it might be forgiveness, another a sense of purpose, another insight into a question we’ve been wrestling with, another the joy of community. Some days we might find what we are looking for, and others we might come away from this hour more confused or hurt or lonely, when something has gotten in the way of the experience we expected. Many long for a connection with some great power, some benevolent being who watches over us, who has a purpose for us. Maybe that is some of why you are here today.
Perhaps there are too often times that we have expectations of our worship or experience with God, expectations that are not met and so end up breaking down our faith and our connection with a faith community. One such expectation might be to have a powerful emotional encounter with God. We might call this extraordinary feeling a mountaintop experience. It seems that there are many in our culture today who are looking for some sort of mountaintop experience.
People don’t always find a mountaintop experience, and if they do, it doesn’t always last. Some people cease to be a part of a worshipping community because worship doesn’t seem to be doing anything for them. It’s not filling their spiritual needs, or the emotional experience they identify as their spiritual need. Especially here in the Lutheran Church, using a rich and historic liturgy, some people dismiss worship as dry repetition of meaningless words and long for something flashier. They long for something more like the extraordinary mountaintop than the common kitchen.
Three of Jesus’ disciples experienced the mountaintop. We hear Mark’s account this morning. We call their mountaintop experience “The Transfiguration” because at the center of their experience is a vision of Jesus, as he has never been shown to them before. They may have longed for this extraordinary experience, but they find it so outside their expectations that they fumble in confusion. Our narrator helps us to understand this event and its meaning for disciples then and now by placing it within the context of Jesus’ teaching and actions. The mountaintop makes no sense on its own.
Our lectionary this morning begins with the narrator setting the scene, “six days later.” It ends with Jesus’ order to keep silent about this event until “the Son of Man rose from the dead.” What is recorded between those two phrases is an event that is meant to be understood within the context of what has come before and what is yet to come.
This event is the Transfiguration, an image change, a revelation of Jesus. It takes place in a liminal space, up on the mountain top, where the distance between the divine and human realms is most easily traversed. Jesus travels with his closest disciples: Peter, and James, and John. When they arrive at the pinnacle, the disciples see that Jesus is changed. His clothes are sparkling white, and his very presence is different. The disciples see him as more than the simply clad fellow traveller, more than their honored teacher. He appears shining as one who has stood before the face of God.
Then, they are joined with the greatest Hebrew prophets: Moses and Elijah. It was believed that these two would be present at God’s beginning of a new kingdom. Peter speaks, trying to make sense of the situation, and Moses and Elijah are gone. The disciples hear a voice, the voice of God, declaring of Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” (7) After that, the clouds clear and the vision fades. Jesus looks as he always has. Together, teacher and disciples descend the mountain.
This is a curious event. It reveals something about who Jesus is, but the text forces us to remember that this event cannot be the only, or even the most important word on Jesus’ identity, it must be read within the wider story.
We must look back, six days earlier. Then, it is Jesus who asks his disciples who people say he is, and to name who they say he is. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is the correct, but silenced answer. Jesus teaches about this Son of Man, who will undergo suffering, rejection, and death, before he is raised from the dead. Then, in front of the crowd, Jesus declares that those who seek to follow him will have a similar fate, in bearing a cross themselves.
The story that is yet to come includes Jesus suffering, being rejected, and dying. It includes his miraculous rising from the dead. Jesus commanded James and Peter and John to remain silent about this mountaintop experience until after all this had occurred.
This mountaintop transfiguration is not the whole story of Jesus. He is not only the Messiah, the Son of God, whose power and divinity are such that they are the source of Israel’s restoration and healing. Jesus is also the one who will bear the cross. Jesus on the cross is the source of the restoration and healing of all creation.
The revelation at the transfiguration is only one picture, one side, of God’s revelation in Jesus. The glory that became apparent on the mountaintop gave way to the glory hidden in the cross. Both narrator and Jesus underscore the importance of this point. The intense revelation of the transfiguration and the powerful image of messiah find depth, grounding, and meaning in the Jesus who dies on the cross, a vision of the absence of all power and divinity. God is revealed in the Jesus who shines with glory, and the Jesus who is marred with shame.
We are about to enter the Lenten season. We will remember but put aside this vision of the Transfiguration, the revelation of Jesus’ glory, as we remember but put aside our triumphant alleluias. As we follow Jesus’ journey to the cross, we remember that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God. This revealed identity is held in tension with Jesus’ path of suffering. Jesus is the one to whom glory belongs, but he is also the one who gives up that glory for you. Jesus spends his ministry among the sick and sinner, welcoming the outcast. Jesus gives his life to bring to God all who have been pushed away. Jesus’ faithfulness, in giving up the rights of his divine sonship, is what has won you the right to be welcomed as a son or daughter of God, forgiven, loved, and given life.
In both our church year and our faith lives, we celebrate mountaintop experiences. They can give strength and inspirtation. But they are not the only valid experiences of God. We neither live on the mountaintop, nor do we find all meaning there. The moments of powerful extraordinary revelation are only one part of God’s work among us to make Godself known.
In our worship, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, mountaintop and kitchen, extraordinary and ordinary coexist. In simple bread and common wine, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is present for us. These most basic of kitchen products hold the most holy, most essential gift for our salvation. Today, Jesus is revealed in bread and wine, broken and shared among us all. Instead of requiring us to travel to the mountain to meet him, Jesus comes to us in the most daily of acts: sharing a simple meal. In bread and wine, there is his life, given for us, given for you.
In our lives, we may have mountaintop experiences of God, when we feel certain in our faith, when we feel God has especially spoken to us, when worship feels powerful. We may have cross experiences, when it feels like God has abandoned us and handed us over to those who would destroy us. We may also have very ordinary days, in which it doesn’t seem we experience anything much at all.
Whether we recognize it or not, in our daily lives, our weekly worship, our worn routine and rote, God is there, and at work. Jesus comes to you, wherever you are, to gift you with life. God is active, in coming to you, seeking to address you as you are, in your own needs, your own hopes, your own experiences. God doesn’t always come to us as we have expected, but God comes as God has promised: in bread and wine, in scripture, in prayer; with welcome and forgiveness and life for all.