Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13, ESV)
Dear Christian friends;
Everything good, every positive thing the church has ever done begins with repentance. That’s what the prophet Joel is urging for us tonight. Return, repent, revive… God is gracious and merciful. He restores and rebuilds. Repentance is the first step to anywhere for the church. That’s because repentance first requires an accurate assessment of where we are, who we are and what we are. That’s what Ash Wednesday beings. That’s what the season of Lent is about; repentant joy in a Savior from sin and a realistic soul searching for the reason for this season.
It all begins here at Ash Wednesday. So far we’ve carefully examined our lives using God’s law the Ten Commandments. When we are honest with ourselves and not doing what comes natural to our sinful nature (like blaming others for our failings, making excuses, or exceptions for ourselves) we find we are far lacking of what the Commandments, and God requires. When you listen to each commandment as it piles on top of the previous one it destroys our self delusions and crushes all hope of living up to the demands. And then with all your sin hanging out the death blow comes “Remember, oh man, that dust you are and to dust you shall return!” Death is coming for you. It is the wages of sin. And death means judgment and God is a severe judge. Keeping the commandments is a pipe dream. If we don’t fall into the thousand generations because we don’t keep the commandments, we surly fall into the third and fourth generation facing punishment. And right there on your face is the sooty smudge to prove it.
All of this is the first part of confession that we read in Luther’s Catechism. It’s the “we confess our sins” part. It doesn’t only mean to add up the cost of our particular sins. It means also to “plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of.” That is, to say about ourselves what God says about us. We are sinners who sin. We sin in thought word, and deed by what we have done and left undone. We do not deserve anything God would give to us, let alone forgiveness.
And here we stand, before God, with nothing to offer but our sin, pleading for mercy,
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. (Psalm 51, ESV)
And then, there is the second part of confession. It is the pronouncement of what we don’t deserve. We call it absolution. It is a wet word. Do you hear “solution” in it? It is the drowning of our sinful nature again in Holy Baptism. Martin Luther says that Baptism
…indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
It isn’t some kind of magic, but a connection to God’s grace and mercy. It is God abounding in steadfast love. It is the gift of Jesus on the cross.
When we go to God with our sins in hand he doesn’t forgive because we repent. He doesn’t forgive because we are sorry for our sin and don’t want to sin again. He forgives because of Jesus. That’s what Holy Baptism is a connection to Jesus. Without Jesus even repentant sinners would have nothing but God’s anger.
Jesus is God’s answer to his anger. Get out the Self Examination Sheet again. Look over the questions again, especially the one where you see your own failure. Mark them with a little cross. Because where you failed Jesus did not. The questions that are your downfall are Jesus’ victory. In fact, that’s exactly what righteousness means, “keeping God’s commandments perfectly.” On every single question (and more) Jesus answers correctly. He keeps the commandments to their fullest and deepest meaning. And Jesus doesn’t just do it right, he is perfectly righteous in every thought, word and deed. It is so utterly true that God the Father says of Jesus, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased!” And to prove to you that this is true for Jesus, after Jesus was … crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead (Apostles’ Creed). No history is more important that the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He conquers sin by conquering death. The wages of Jesus death is life. This is why God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. On the cross innocent Jesus is put to death as the greatest sinner of all time. Every commandment is piled on him. One after another the wages of the broken commandments are heaped on Jesus. Sinless Jesus carries our sin through the cross into death. His righteousness is enough to cover it all. The punishment for sin is done to death in Jesus Christ.
And now, dear Christian, the connection: It is for you. Jesus life. Jesus death. Jesus resurrection. For you, all of it. Trust God to be gracious and merciful to you because Jesus did all this for you. God relents from disaster because Jesus was the disaster for you. Cling in faith to Jesus. Rejoice in Jesus as your forgiveness in the face of your confession. Jesus is the absolution. And it is right here at the font. The old Adam drowned. The new man rising. Jesus death and resurrection. Your death and resurrection. Your confession of sins. God’s gracious and merciful forgiveness. That’s Holy Baptism for you.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. ” (Romans 6:3–7, ESV)
In this Baptism God claims you as his own child. The hymn says it: “God’s own child, I gladly says it, I am baptized into Christ!” This is what it means. This is repentance. Sin and forgiveness coming together for me in Jesus Christ. Poured over me with water and God’s Word. Confession and absolution are that Baptism re-visited, remembered, repeated every day. The drowning of our sin again and again and the raising of a new child of God. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.