Ash Wednesday Sermon
March 5, 2003
The Need for Repentance
When had things happen, people assume there is a
reason. Most religions try
to explain why bad things happen to people.
Some teach that everything in the world is under the control of
various spirits. If
something bad happens to you, an evil spirit did it.
Others teach that if something very bad happens to you in this
life, you must have done something in a previous life to deserve it. The words of Jesus that we consider this evening were
addressed to Pharisees who thought they were faithful to the teaching of
the Holy Scriptures. They
believed that there was a cause and effect relationship between doing
bad things and bad things happening to you.
They had all heard of how Pilate had committed an atrocity
against certain Galileans. He
had them murdered. Then he
mixed their blood with the blood of the animals they were going to
sacrifice. That was a
deliberate, cold-blooded act of cruelty, to say nothing of being a
terrible sacrilege. Also
familiar to those present was the story about a tragic accident.
A tower in Siloam fell down, killing eighteen people.
The Pharisees thought that if something bad happened to somebody
Ė whether by accident or by design Ė there was a divine reason.
It is not uncommon for people today to think that
when things go well for them they are being rewarded for doing good.
In fact, this is a very popular notion.
How else can we determine whether or not God is smiling down on
us? Folks see that they are
prosperous, healthy, respected, and generally successful.
They attribute their wellbeing to Godís blessing.
Thatís good. But then they go on to assume that they are doing something
to deserve Godís blessing. Thatís
bad. And thatís why Jesus
said what He said. Donít
assume that people who suffer terrible tragedies are any more sinful
that you are.
Martin Luther, in explaining the meaning of the
fifth petition of the Lordís Prayer, wrote:
I cannot think of a harder thing to admit.
We donít deserve anything good.
We deserve nothing but punishment.
But that is just what Jesus tells us to admit.
He says, ďUnless you repent you will all likewise perish.Ē
Today is Ash Wednesday.
It is the first day of Lent.
It is also the first of several Wednesday evenings that River
Heights Lutheran Church will gather together to consider Christís call
to sinners to repent. This
evening we consider the need for repentance.
Repentance is not an option. In giving the great commission in St. Lukeís Gospel, Jesus
You cannot preach forgiveness of sins without
preaching repentance. On
Pentecost Sunday, after the crowd was cut to the heart by Peterís
preaching, they asked what they must do to be saved.
St. Peter replied,
Repentance is a change.
It is sometimes called a change of mind because literally
thatís what the word means. But
we change our minds all the time without actually repenting of anything. To repent is to undergo an inner change in which our
affections, hopes, and deepest convictions are radically transformed
from one thing into its very opposite.
By nature we love ourselves.
In repentance we learn to hate ourselves.
By nature we hope in what we spend our time doing.
In repentance we learn to abandon all confidence in anything we
do. By nature we believe
that we will get what we deserve. In
repentance we learn to trust in what we donít deserve.
We learn to trust in Jesus.
Repentance has us saying Amen to God twice.
First we say Amen when God tells us in His law that we are guilty
of sin and deserve His punishment both in time and for eternity.
Then we say Amen when God tells us in His gospel that our sins
are forgiven for Christís sake and we have eternal life instead of
The first Amen is not easy to say. In fact, we will struggle with all our might not to say it.
We will look at the suffering we endure in this life and insist
that we deserve no such thing. Life isnít fair. The
system isnít fair. We
come up with all sorts of things and people to blame.
After Muslim terrorists drove jets into the Twin Towers and the
Pentagon, a couple of popular television preachers suggested that this
happened because of how our country tolerates abortion, homosexuality,
and other terrible sins. They
were savaged in a press and quickly apologized for their insensitivity. It wasnít just that they singled out abortionists and
homosexuals, however. They
were criticized for suggesting that God would actually punish any
sinners at all.
And that is the heresy of our age. It teaches that nobody really needs to repent because if
there is something called sin it no longer calls for divine retribution.
Well, if sin doesnít call for divine retribution, Jesus died in
vain. He died for sinners.
He died to suffer divine retribution against sinners.
The gospel that gives us forgiveness of sins is not a bare
absolution disconnected from where God punished sinners.
What did Jesus display to His disciples when, on that first
Easter, He gave them the authority to forgive sins?
He showed them the wounds He has suffered on the cross.
He showed them the evidence that He had indeed take upon Himself
the sin of the world, and as the Lamb of God, taken it all away.
Oh Christ, the Lamb of
God, You take away the sin of the world,
Does He? We
can see for ourselves that the law is true.
We see sickness, pain, suffering, and death all around us.
We can see, if we listen to Godís law, that the sin out there
in the world is the same sin inside our hearts.
And we say Amen to Godís law when it says that whatever we
suffer we deserve to suffer.
Can we this evening also say Amen to the gospel?
Can we hear the absolution of Jesus and know that it is intended
for us? You would think
that this would be an easy Amen to say.
Who wouldnít want to believe in the forgiveness of sins?
Why should we deny that God, for Christís sake, fully forgives
all our sins? We deny it
because our sinful hearts turn inward for assurance.
We deny that what God says to us is true.
We believe instead that what our heart tells us is true.
This is why we cannot repent.
We cannot shut up our lying hearts.
But God can. And He does. He speaks to you and to me this evening and He speaks in words that our hearts cannot deny. He tells us that the sins of which we are guilty were borne in the sacred body of His dear Son. He shows us the passion and suffering of Jesus. He shows us the crucifixion. He imprints on our hearts the image of Christís suffering and by His grace converts us. He changes us. He takes out of our flesh our hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts that can say Amen.
We say Amen to Godís law that accuses and
condemns us. We say Amen to
Godís gospel that forgives us and rescues us from condemnation.
By Godís grace, poured out in His gracious word and sacraments,
we repent. And we shall
Rev. Rolf D. Preus