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.
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