There is in us a brokenness, a way of living and being apart from God, which traps and binds us; the joy of Ash Wednesday is that in turning to God in confession we find life, joy and forgiveness, a new life restored to live anew.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ash Wednesday; texts: Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; Psalm 51
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Today is Ash Wednesday, a day where we confess our sin and begin a six week journey with God, a journey of turning our lives around and seeking to live in God’s ways. Today we once more speak strongly and openly about our sin. But I’ve been wondering about that lately, in two areas.
First, in our modern world, given that even speaking of something as “sin” rather than “bad choice” or “mistake” makes us somewhat out of step, we need to consider our language of sin and captivity to sin and see if we even still find meaning and truth in those words. But second, I’m also concerned that the invitation to confess our sin to God that Ash Wednesday brings, and the Lenten journey itself, is too often covered in layers of gloom in our minds, as if this six weeks is a time to be weighed down, as if confession and discipline are negative terms, as if we have to endure Lent so that we can have the fun of Easter.
We do put ashes on our heads today, reminding us that we are mortal, we die, and we live too often apart from God, that is true. But in spite of that, and in spite of the seriousness with which our readings from God’s Word today take our sin, our brokenness, the rupture of our relationship with God and others, they also describe a light, a joy, to which we are turning in our confession. Assuming we can continue to agree that captivity to sin is still our problem, perhaps we can also find that joy in confession as a present reality in Lent, we can find life in our discipline during this season that will also continue far beyond these six weeks.
So we begin with the question: do we mean it when we say we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves?
Those words from one of our confessional prayers, though not one we used today, are directly from the witness of the New Testament, and central to our understanding of our lives and of God. But do we still understand that to be true? If we aren’t sure how to begin to answer that, let’s listen to something a fellow Christian wrote:
15 “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 18b I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:15, 18b-19)
Now let me ask you: do you understand what that Christian meant? Is that something we experience? If it is, then we know what it is to be in bondage to sin. To be a slave to sin. To be captive to sin. It’s amazing that the apostle Paul wrote those words nearly 2,000 years ago and they still connect.
This whole section of Romans, leading from chapter 5 up to this part of chapter 7 I just read, flows with Paul’s belief that sin – not just our actions but for Paul an actual power we cannot control – enslaves us, to the point that we are trapped at times. And those words describe our reality perfectly.
Paul describes a situation where he feels trapped, where he knows how God wants him to be, how even he wants to be, but he cannot seem to do it consistently. Sometimes, he thinks, he can’t do it at all. What Paul has done is move from an abstract theological word, sin, to a real experience, his brokenness in life.
And that’s the move we need to make if we’re going to be honest about ourselves and our lives. We need to move away from the idea that sin is an abstract idea, the breaking a set of arbitrary laws that God has set up and that are hard to follow. We also need to move from the cultural idea that flows around us that “sin” is outdated, that there is no need to speak in such terms.
In short, we need to move toward a recognition that sin is the word that best describes what we already know is wrong with our lives, what we know God sees as broken in us.
What the Scriptures tell us about this is actually pretty simple: we were created to be loving people who cared for a beautiful creation and for each other, who lived in the way we were created to live by a loving God, and who loved God with all of our lives.
To the extent that we know we are not any of that, we know sin. To the extent that we feel trapped and unable to return to the way we were created to live, we know captivity to sin.
Now, I don’t go to bed every night thinking, “I’m an awful sinner.” But I do go to bed remembering the ways I failed to be the father I could be, the husband I could be, the pastor I could be, the person God sees I could be and wants me to be.
I do hear the problems of the world and realize that too many days I’m too distracted by my own life and worries to even try to think how I could help the problem of world hunger, or the injustice our way of life creates for others, from our foreign policy to our use of resources, or the problem of homelessness in our own city, let alone the state or nation or world.
I understand what Isaiah says, that there’s no point in dumping ashes on our head if we still aren’t sharing our bread with the hungry, and inviting the homeless poor into our houses.
And my life is not the rich, full, abundant life it could be if I lived fully in God’s ways, and the world is not the beautiful, peace-filled place it could be if we all lived fully in God’s ways.
But like Paul says, knowing that isn’t enough.
We hurt people by what we say and do every day, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. We think about it after we realize someone is hurt by what we’ve said or done or failed to say or do, and we regret it. But tomorrow we’ll probably do something similar.
We neglect the poor and hungry every day, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. We think about it when we throw half a plate of food away or try some diet to get to a lower weight, and we regret it. But tomorrow we’ll probably be in the same place.
We know that life could be better for a lot of people in this world and we know that we’re a part of the problem, and we regret it. But we don’t change.
We know that God’s law isn’t bad for us, it’s good for us. And it’s frustrating when we repeat our sins again and again. We say, “this time I’ll do better.” We say, “now we’ll live more simply so others may simply live.” And yet we fall into the same patterns.
This is what sin is. And this is what it is to be enslaved by it. We know it in our bones.
This is why we come here today. To confess, to turn back to God, to remember our problem. We come to hear if we could possibly break free of this enslavement that grasps our lives, and find new lives in God. We come to hear if God has any good news for us, to understand what God’s forgiveness truly means.
Because there’s where the joy is found: ultimately the reason we want to recognize the things in our life that God calls sin is that we might be freed from them.
In that struggle in Romans 7, Paul ends with an outburst of thanksgiving to God who in Christ frees us from our bondage, our captivity. That’s why Lent, and confession, and repentance, the turning to God of which we speak today, is a call to delight and hope.
The Good News of God’s forgiveness in Jesus is that all these things into which we feel trapped, these things that harm our life and the lives of countless others, these things that we do that we don’t even want to do, all these things can be taken away.
We can be given new lives and new hearts, as David asked for and so do we in singing his psalm. We can become the people we were created to be. That’s what God came to do in Jesus.
And then, then, Isaiah says, “light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” When we are honest about our captivity to sin, about our need for repentance, when we learn that God not only forgives us but frees us, all we can do is rejoice. Because God’s light is breaking forth in our lives, even in the midst of our sinful, broken world, and our sinful, trapped, broken lives.
And we are finding healing, hope, grace. We’re not there yet, not where we will be. But God is working this in us, and it is our joy and life. And our lives become, as Isaiah says, springs of water in the wilderness, a watered garden, and our gloom becomes “as noonday.”
So that even in the six weeks of Lent, while we speak often of the wilderness, even now we begin to understand the overflowing waters of God’s grace.
And we can see Lent not as a six week drudgery, but as a six week beginning of a new life. Because that’s what returning to the Lord really is for us, a new life. A life lived with the grace of forgiveness because we have been honest about our sin and our captivity and brought it to God. A life lived with the joy of being a part of God’s justice and peace for the world, because we have confessed our participation in the injustice and not only are forgiven but empowered to be a part of God’s healing.
That’s the promise. When we turn to the Lord in confession, knowing all that we do about our sin, we will not only know the Lord’s forgiveness, but also the strength to be freed. We will begin to be healed inside and out. We will become the children of God only God can see in us now and the world will begin to be healed, too. And this season of Lent then begins our joy, begins our new life.
Come, let us return to the Lord. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation!
In the name of Jesus. Amen