Ash Wednesday + Jonah 3:1-10 + March 1, 2017
Order of the Confessional Service - Pg. 46Order of Holy Communion - Pg. 20
I WILL - || cry out | to | God | Most - | High, *
To God who performs | all - | things - | for | me.
|| And in the shadow of Your wings I will | make | my | re- - | fuge, *
Until these calami- | ties - | have - | passed | by. (Psalm 57:2, 1b)
|| Be merciful to me, O God, be mer- | ci- | ful | to - | me! *
For my | soul - | trusts - | in | You;
|| And in the shadow of Your wings I will | make | my | re- - | fuge, *
Until these calami- | ties - | have - | passed | by.
|| I will cry out | to | God | Most - | High, *
To God who performs | all - | things - | for | me.
|| He shall send from heav- | en | and | save - | me; *
God shall send forth His mer- | cy - | and - | His | truth. (Psalm 57:1–3)
Almighty and Everlasting God, our Father, Who hatest nothing that Thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent, create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of Thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with the Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Collect for the Beginning of Lent
O Gracious God, Who retainest not Thine anger forever, but delightest in mercy and pardonest iniquity, Who wouldst be gracious to Thy people rather than pour out Thy wrath upon sinners, we beseech Thee, forgive us all our sins, and enable us by Thy Holy Spirit to go and sin no more; for the sake of the bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.Amen.
Grace and Peace be unto you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1) Ash Wednesday without ashes seems a little odd, like it defeats the purpose of the day so that we might as well just call it “Wednesday.” There is a reason though. Two actually. We have not imposed ashes on our foreheads for a few years now because of the irony of Ash Wednesday. Rubbing ashes on one’s forehead is a visible sign that tells everyone you’re penitent, humble, and contrite over your sins. But in the Gospel lesson appointed for this day Jesus chides the Pharisees who “disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting” (Matthew 6:16). Christ doesn’t want His disciples parading around their piety. Your repentance is for God and no one else. It’s not meant to be a matter of showmanship for all the world to see. Instead Jesus says, “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:17-18). I’ve always thought it ironic that on the day in which Jesus tells us not to disfigure our faces, especially so as to be seen by men, the church goes about putting a temporary disfigurement on the forehead of the saints. And although no one accepts the ashes with the thought of recognition and being seen, the temptation is ever-present to quietly judge everyone else if they don’t have ashes on their heads, as it the wearing of ashes were commanded by God or that they make someone a better, more pious Christian. That’s getting in the territory of the Pharisees, doing man-made works of piety so that others can see those works.
2) The second reason is the purpose of the ashes. The purpose of putting ashes on the foreheads of the saints is to remind them of their sin and their mortality, both of which the world around us refuses to admit. We are commanded to repent. The Law condemns us in our sins and when we think we have no sins left the Law condemns us as sinners. It shows us that not only is the fruit bad, but the tree itself is diseased and dead. This messages is necessary. All the prophets preached repentance. John the Baptist preached repentance. Christ Himself preached repentance throughout His ministry. At Christ’s command, so did His apostles. But we are not stop with repentance or even make it the main event. Repentance isn’t the end. If we come here to sorrow over our sins and lament them, then go home, we’ve accomplished nothing. If we walk out of this sanctuary and the lasting mark left on us is the reminder of our mortality and our sinfulness, then we’ve missed the point and gotten it only half right. And something half right is still wrong. Repentance is only the first thing God wants to give us on this first day of Lent. He commands repentance so that He can then give us forgiveness. Or as Dr. Luther teaches us in the Small Catechism: “Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the pastor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.”
3) We don’t want to forget the second part. The second part is why we come here as often as we do. The second part is the part that gives us joy and gladdens the heart. The Lord says in Joel 2:13 that “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.” He commands repentance so that He may forgive sinners. Consider how we address the Lord in the Collect for Ash Wednesday. “Almighty and Everlasting God, our Father, Who hatest nothing that Thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” Consider how we address the Lord in the Collect for the Beginning of Lent. We pray “O Gracious God, Who retainest not Thine anger forever, but delightest in mercy and pardonest iniquity, who wouldst be gracious to Thy people rather than pour out Thy wrath upon sinners.” God desires to forgive. That is why He condemns sin. He wants to give sinners joy and gladness. That is why He strikes sinners with terror through His Law. The Lord desires to give life. That is why He kills our sinful flesh with the command to repent. That is all the repentance is, sorrow over one’s sin and the desire to leave it behind and amend one’s life. When we repent, in fact, as often as we repent, our Lord pours out grace and mercy on us by freely forgiving us all our sins for Christ’s sake.
4) Consider today’s first reading from the prophet Jonah. The Ninevites prove to be an incredible example of precisely what God desires to do with sinners. Jonah walks a day’s journey into the ancient metropolis. To cross the entire city would take three days. Archeology shows us that the city’s circumference was 60 miles, so Jonah walked roughly 20 miles into the city and cried out, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Through the preaching of His prophet, the Lord condemns the mighty Assyrian city. And while we might expect such a message to be met with silence or ridicule or even persecution, the Ninevites do something Jonah doesn’t expect. They hear the Word with an honest heart. The Lord threatened them with death, but not only death. The Lord threatened their great city, their metropolitan culture, their booming economy, in other words, civilization as they knew it. “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” From this message it seems as if the only thing the Lord was interested in was smiting sinners. From this message it might appear that the only thing the Lord is about is the first part, the repentance part, the part that demands sorrow over sin. The prophet writes “so the people of Nineveh believed God.” They took God at His Word. They agreed with His verdict that they were decadent and detestable sinners. They believed that He would do what He had threatened to do. But in that stern message of Law the Ninevites hear something else as well.
5) They believe the Word and this causes them to repent of their sins. They show the standard outward signs of repentance. A fast is proclaimed. All the citizens don sackcloth, “from the greatest to the least of them.” This news spreads like wildfire, so much so that it reaches the King, who repents Himself! “He arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes.” He humbles Himself, then He commands His subjects humble themselves according to the customs of the day. No one gets food or water. Fasting when you are penitent is how you feel God’s anger in a very physical way. This was not just for the people but for the animals too. Animals can’t repent because they don’t have rational souls. But even the livestock of Nineveh taste God’s anger. Soon the great city of Nineveh is filled with the sounds of wailing, both man and beast’s cries for mercy filling the air. The sackcloth, ashes, and fasting are simply external signs of the reality of their hearts, for the King commands, “Yes, let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” Let everyone turn. Let everyone repent. Let everyone sorrow over their deeds and amend their lives. All this happened because of the simple preaching of Jonah. “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
6) The king of Nineveh understands something about the Lord. He understands that repentance is never an end unto itself. He repents, and all Nineveh with him, so that God might change His verdict and show mercy. “Who can tell,” he says, “if God will turn and relent and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” The King of Nineveh, a pagan, shows us the goal of repentance, the goal of sackcloth and ashes and wailing and lamenting. The goal of repentance is mercy. “Confession has two parts.” Repentance and faith in the promise of the Gospel, faith that God will forgive the sins of all who repent because He loves all that He has made and does not desire the death of sinners but that sinners repent and live. “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.” God saw their works, not their sackcloth and ashes. He saw their work of turning away from evil. He saw their repentance and their sorrow over their sin. And because of that He forgave them and relented. His threat was to destroy the mighty city and all in it. But through repentance and faith they were spared. The Lord changed His mind and cancelled the verdict against them, forgiving their sins and not imputing their sins to them. They sought mercy and that is precisely what they found in the true God.
7) So even now, God “commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), but not only so that they sorrow over their sins, but that they receive the absolution which Christ earned for all men by His death upon the cross. God the Father shows mercy to everyone who confesses their sins and flee to the throne of grace, Jesus Christ, and pleads His merits, His perfect life, and His sacrificial death as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He wants you to repent and acknowledge your sins of thought, word, and deed. He wants you to see that its not only your actions but who you are, not just that you sin but that you are a sinner. But He wants to show you this so that He can cleanse you and absolve you and remove your sin. We could impose ashes upon ourselves as an outward sign of our repentance. It’s a free thing, a man-made custom of the church. But I’d much rather have you walk out of here thinking about the absolution rather than your ashes. God is more interested in what’s going on in your head than what’s put on your forehead. He desires repentance and faith in His absolving Word, spoken by the pastor as if from God himself, because it is God’s Word, as Jesus says, “He who hears you hears me,” (Luke 10:16) and “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:23). Your Lord does not want you to leave this place with a sour face or a gloomy disposition. He wants His Christians to be joyful, glad, and cheerful, rejoicing that their sins are forgiven and their guilt is removed. He wants you to repent today and every day, so that He may forgive you today and every day, for He “delightest in mercy and pardonest iniquity,” He “wouldst be gracious rather than pour out wrath.” Look to the Ninevites. If they found mercy so will we, for we have the promise of Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.