03 March 2017

Homily for Ash Wednesday - 2017

"Living by Faith"
 (first in a catechetical series)
with Ash Wednesday texts: Jonah 3:1-10; 2 Peter 1:2-11; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

We all love a good story. Stories make us cry or laugh. Stories can inspire or move us to action. Stories can embody our values and help us make sense of things. As we begin our Lenten journey, we focus on the one story that truly helps us make sense of all of life. This story tells us who and whose we truly are.

It’s the story of Jesus as He fixes His face to go to Jerusalem in order to suffer, die and rise again. It’s interesting what we include in the story and what gets less attention. The gospel writers do not spend much time at all on Jesus as a child, or a teenager, or a young man. Instead, they focus mostly on the last three years of His life. Not only that, but they devote most of their story-telling-space to the last week of Jesus’ life—one-third of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; and one-half of John’s Gospel.

Why so much of the story of Jesus focused on the last week of His life? Because this is the key to understanding Jesus and His life and work for us. In His last three years—and especially His last week—Jesus carries out His mission of restoring His creation. The Father sent Him to reclaim all creation from Satan and those who would destroy it. The Father sent Jesus to restore the creation to  be what they—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—intended it to be. So we follow Jesus in His footsteps as He makes His way to the cross and the empty tomb.

This year the story of Jesus takes on another historical dimension. Here in 2017, we make that journey as we also celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for academic debate on some major problems in the Church. Now in our culture people are more familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr. than they are with Martin Luther. But Martin Luther’s story is important for Christians everywhere, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, or Lutheran.

You see, Martin Luther posted his statements for debate because he was convinced that the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem had become dimmed, distorted and diluted. No longer was it a gospel story of good news for you and me. Instead, it had been twisted into a moralistic tale—a story in which you had to imitate Jesus if you wanted any hope of being saved. The focus had shifted from what Jesus has done for you to what you must do for yourself. Instead of Jesus being your Savior, He was seen as some kind of “spiritual vitamin” or “spiritual steroid” to help you live a good life now so that you could attain God’s favor in heaven. Jesus’ story was viewed as a story to motivate and inspire you to pursue perfection. What a burden!

Through his reading and study of the Scriptures, Luther discovered that Jesus’ story is much different. It’s a story of “gospel,” a story of good news. So how does His story pertain to you and me?

Jesus’ story is more than just a true story about an historical figure, such as Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, or Mother Theresa. Jesus’ story is more than just a great epic tale, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey or Beowulf. Jesus’ story is gospel—good news—because His story is your story. His story is “your life”—a bit like that popular TV show from years ago, This is Your Life. In that show, the host would surprise guests by reviewing important people and events in their lives. The host would have an important person hide back stage. That person would start telling some part of the guest’s story. The guest, with surprise and tears, would recognize the voice. Then the two would be reunited on stage.

In a very real way, the Gospel—Jesus’ story—surprises us by declaring: “This is your life!” Everything Jesus did in life and death, He did for you and me. Everything He did in life and death benefits you and me. Everything Jesus did in life and death opens up our future with God. His story is your story. His life, death and resurrection are your life, death and resurrection.

This is why Martin Luther began his 95 Theses with these words: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ He willed that the whole life of believers should be one of repentance.” Indeed, Jesus’ story begins with the call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). It’s the same story we hear from the prophet Jonah. God sent him to proclaim repentance—another way of saying “Jesus’ story”—to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh had strayed from the true God, and the true God sought to bring them back. As the king of Nineveh said, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” That’s Jesus’ story in action, bringing repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As another prophet, Joel, said, “Return to the LORD, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13).

Repentance is nothing other than acknowledging that we have strayed from our Creator God. Repentance means ‘fessing up to our own brokenness, our own waywardness, our own self-centeredness. You and I have indeed lived as if God did not matter and as if we mattered most. We have not honored God’s name as we should, and our worship and prayers have faltered. We have not let His love for us have its way with us, and so our love for others has failed. We have hurt some people; we have failed to help others. Our thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin. That’s our story. And so are the ashes: “for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).

This is precisely why Jesus’ story is your story. Everything Jesus does, He does for you and me—to make us right with God, to restore to us our humanity as God intended. When Jesus is conceived and born, He takes on flesh and blood for you. When He is baptized, He cleanses you. When He is tempted, when He teaches, when He is transfigured, He does it all for you. When He institutes this Meal we call the Lord’s Supper, He does it for you. When Jesus sweats blood in Gethsemane, when He suffers false accusations and fists to the face, He does it for you. When He dies on the cross, He’s doing it all for you. And when He rises victoriously from the grave, He does it for you.

So Jesus’ story is not just a story. It’s a story with a promise—the promise of new life. That’s why we call it “good news.” In some ways, the word “promise” may be better than the term “good news.” You see, “news” can be impersonal and abstract, or even “fake news.” We can read it in our most trusted papers or news sites, or even on social media. But “news” is aimed at audiences of faceless people. Also, when we think of “news,” we think of stories that happened yesterday—whom to vote for, the recent storm, or how the stock market performed.

God’s promise in Jesus’ story, however, is different than typical news. In His promise, our Lord speaks to us personally, one-on-one. In Baptism, God says, “I claim you—yes, you—as My very own.” In Absolution, He promises that your past will not prevent your future life with Him. In the Supper, He puts into your mouth the very promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation through the Body and Blood of Jesus. It’s very personal!

In addition, the gospel promise of Jesus is not just about the past or even just the present. It’s also about your future. In this promise—this story of Jesus—God gives you a preview of your future life. He declares to you what will happen on the Last Day when Jesus returns. He will say, “Welcome into My kingdom!” You will pass through Judgment Day unscathed.

Why does God make such wonderful promises to us? Because He wants us to live by faith. He created us to live with confidence and trust in Him. Now in Jesus Christ He promises us life eternal so that we may once again live in trust and joy. This was our original relationship with Him—our original story. God gives us life; we receive that life as His gift. That’s the art of living by faith—learning to receive all of life as God’s gift, learning to receive God’s gifts in all of life, learning to depend upon God, His love, and His gifts, learning to give thanks for them and use them as God intends. God gives and we receive.

This living by faith encompasses every nook and cranny of our lives. What does this mean? First, it means that we learn to see all of life and the world we live in as the gift of God. We can expect nothing but good things from God. We can ask Him for all we need and thank Him for all we have received. Second, living by faith means that we seek to have our faith in God’s promises renewed and strengthened by Jesus Himself. We seek that renewal and strength in spoken sermons, Baptism, Absolution, and Lord’s Supper. Our life in the Church is life where faith is born, nourished, and strengthened. Third, living by faith also involves our life in God’s created world. We learn to pray and turn our minds toward God throughout the day—when we get up, when we eat, and when we go to bed. We get to live out and exercise that faith in love toward others in the various walks of life where God has placed us. That includes our workplaces, our community, and especially our homes.

The art of living by faith is an incredible adventure and incredibly freeing. When we live by faith—that is, repentance for forgiveness from Jesus—we live in confidence that God holds us and the whole world in His hands. Sometimes His hands may seem less comfortable than we would like, especially in our various struggles and difficulties. But they remain the hands that bear the imprints of nails. And so they remain the hands of Him who loves you with an everlasting love. Your life is secure, now and into eternity. Amen.

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