9 March 2011
St. John's, Chicago, IL
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
"When you give to the needy..." Jesus fully expects that as His disciple, you will do this. It is not a question of "if," but "when." You shall give to the needy. No, it is not an 11th commandment; but it is already covered. "You shall not murder," means that you will help and support your neighbor in every bodily need.
You will give food and clothing to the one who has need. You will do whatever is in your power and ability to aid someone who is having a challenge. And when you do not, you defy the commandments of God.
"When you pray..." Jesus fully expects that you will be men, women, and children of prayer. Perhaps not spoken out loud or in public, as He warns you to avoid trying to get attention in that
manner. Nevertheless, the Lord tenderly invites you to call on Him. And He commands you to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.
You are to be in the Lord's house, gathered with His people on every Lord's Day -- every Sunday. And that is just for starters. You should come at other opportunities, as well. You should spend more time in the Word of the Lord, and receiving His holy gifts, and responding in prayer and praise. And when you do not, you defy the commandments of God.
"When you fast..." Jesus fully expects that you will fast at one time or another. He does not command exactly when, or where, or for how long, but He assumes you will fast. "You shall have no other gods," includes the god of your own stomach. You are not to fear, love, or trust yourself above all things. Your body can participate in the life of prayer and discipline. And when you allow your own body to become your god, you defy the commandments of God.
So he we are, a bunch of defiant rebels. Here we are, people who like our stuff, and would rather not give too much away. Here we are, people who are happy to spend hours each night in front of a TV or on the Internet, but are simply too busy for prayer. Here we are, ready to gorge ourselves on Fat Tuesday, to make up for anything we might resentfully "give up" for the next 40 days.
How do you think you stand before God, with all of this baggage? You were right; each one of you is a "poor, miserable sinner." The value of your wretched, rebellious, commandment-breaking, human self is less than that smudge of ash on your forehead.
But our dear Lord does not want you to be "ashes to ashes and dust to dust." He is heartbroken that He ever had to tell our Father Adam, "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return." He knows it is a dreadful reminder of mortality for anyone to see the 90-year-old grandma, the 40-something cancer survivor, or even the toddler with ashes on their foreheads, reminding them all of their mortality. His heart goes out to you, as the Law crushes you into realizing you damning sin, and the death you face.
But our sweet Savior also gives forgiveness. He climbed the hill of Calvary and laid down His life for you. He gave to you in your need as He allowed His body to be broken and His blood shed to remove your sin. Jesus prayed for His persecutors, executioners, indeed for you and me as He hung there, dying. And He fasted from the wealth and splendor of His heavenly, divine power, permitting Himself to be sacrificed for you.
And now, He gives cleansing. He did it at the font. And He renews that cleansing with Holy Absolution. Ashes are a common ingredient in simple and ancient soap recipes. The charred cross on your forehead is a reminder not only of your mortality, deserved at that, but also a reminder that our Lord Jesus cleanses you! He washes away the guilt of breaking His Ten Commandments. He purifies you from all unrighteousness.
After you have fallen down in the ashes, Jesus Christ lifts you up, cleanses you, and makes you His holy and righteous disciple. And He bids you to come and feast on the Body broken and Blood shed, which are the very gifts that cleanse you from within. Amen.