Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Can you think of a time when you learned you can’t always judge things on first appearances? One year for Christmas, my dad gave my mom a big box, wrapped in newspaper. He said it was because he couldn’t find any wrapping paper. She opened this large package, to discover a very small box inside, with diamond earrings! We all thought that was a pretty good trick! She had no idea that was coming. Sometimes treasure is hidden, and not all is as it first seems. Our scriptures for today all include this theme, encouraging us as believers to look beyond the packaging or the wrapping for the true riches, the true treasure of Christ: the heart of the matter.
This is a strange Ash Wednesday. Many of us are worshipping from home online STILL. We are refraining from our usual practice of putting a cross of ashes on our foreheads. I can’t help but think about last year, where a few of us from Faith went out bright and early to catch the morning commuters on their way to work and offer a prayer at the Syosset train station with “ashes to go.” How different this year is. In some ways, this Ash Wednesday feels like we are sticking to the spirit of Jesus’ instructions to us in the gospel of Matthew – give alms in secret, pray alone in secret, fast without others knowing you are fasting – not with ashes on your head, but with oil and a washed face. Our true treasure, Jesus tells us, is not stuff that rusts and can be stolen, like diamond earrings, but is in heaven. We don’t have to wear outward symbols like ashen crosses on our foreheads to be faithful – it’s what’s on the inside that counts, Jesus reminds us.
In other ways, tonight doesn’t feel like a return to Lent – it feels like we’ve already been in Lent, for a whole year! It is not lost on me that the pandemic began while we were in Lent last year. A lot of us may think we’ve done more sacrificial giving, more fasting, more praying (the traditional faith practices of Lent) this entire year. What can be new and renewing for us this Lent, as we hear the call again to return to the Lord, who is gracious and merciful? Especially when we’re still in the dead of winter and our lives have been impacted negatively by the events of the past year, how do we show our “true colors” as Christians who have eternal hope in Christ? How can God help us truly see beyond first appearances to the true treasure, the true riches we have in Christ?
Let’s remember what our ancestors of the faith were going through as we return to Lent this year. The prophet Joel is warning the people of Israel against an invasion of a northern army. Forest fires and a plague of locusts have left everything desolate. From first appearances, those outside of the faith could look at what is happening to Israel and wonder, “Where is their God?” That God is with the faithful should be evident, Joel reminds us. Don’t let others even think this question, “Where is their God!” Joel urges Israel, and us, to look beyond the fear and suffering of the present situation to remember that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God is not absent, as it first appears, but fully present, calling people to turn from their evil ways back to him.
The apostle Paul probably sums it up best in our second reading, another story of the faithful suffering, and yet keeping their hope in God. Members of the church in Corinth have endured affliction, hardship, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and hunger. How many of these things have we also endured from last Lent to today? At least a few! And yet, God has blessed them and us with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God. “We are treated as imposters, and yet are true, as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” A Christian’s life is not as bleak as it first may appear. What a powerful reminder tonight from Paul. We may not be able to compete by the standards of the world in terms of our wealth, our social status, or our current life situation, but in Christ, we possess everything we need – we have a treasure in heaven that cannot wear out or be destroyed!
This Lent, to encourage us to keep the faith and keep enduring, I am beginning a sermon series on the Promises of God, looking specifically at the primary covenants between God and the people in the Old Testament that still apply for us today. Today, I want to focus on the New Testament promise that we have in Christ. I’m beginning Lent with the end, with the most important promise we have from God in Jesus Christ. As we prepare ourselves to journey with Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb, Paul reminds us that “For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.” Martin Luther referred to this concept as the “happy exchange.” My Lutheran Confessions professor in seminary, Dr. Kurt Hendel, called it the “sweet swap.” While Lent is a time to contemplate our sins and take extra time for confession, we remember that things are not always as they first appear. On the cross, Christ took our sins as his own and in return, we were clothed with Christ’s own righteousness, so that when God looks at us, he sees his own beloved child, without sin. While we typically mark our foreheads with an ashen cross to remember our mortality, that we are dust and to dust we shall return, tonight, let’s also remember that our foreheads were marked with oil at our baptism, made clean and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We are dust, but we are not just dust. The cross of Christ is not only a reminder that we all will die, it’s also a promise that we will live, that we are God’s most precious treasure. With this cross, we know that even when it feels and appears as if we have nothing, we possess everything!! We have Christ’s own righteousness. We can lay everything down at the cross of Jesus that we wish to be rid of: our despair and discouragement, our sin and guilt, our weariness and shame. And in exchange, God gives us everything we need, most importantly life in him. Thanks be to God! Amen.