Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2006
Genesis 2:1-9, 15-17
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up -- for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground -- 7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in1 hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" 3 Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, 7 saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. --
How about changing the line on Ash Wednesday for the Imposition of Ashes to, "Remember that you are earth, and to earth you shall return" -- which is basically another way to translate adama in Gen. 2:7. Isn't the deeper meaning of Genesis 2:7 that we are made of the same stuff as the earth, and so our fates are bound together? We are called to be stewards of the earth from which we are made.†† "Humans are here in the garden to serve, And service is the purpose of God-given power."
This does not take us too far from the traditional Ash Wednesday theme! I might argue that, given the fact that the Imposition of Ashes is tied to Gen. 2:7, this way of striking the theme might be more true to the overall intentions of beginning the Lenten season with Ash Wednesday. If salvation from our sin is the theme of Lent, then let's put the matter into its proper cosmic, creational framework. The scope of God's salvation in Jesus Christ is the whole Creation. Redemption from our sin of straying away from our calling as stewards means redemption of the whole Creation. If we are redeemed to finally take care of the earth and all that is in it as we should, then the earth and all that is in it is also to be redeemed.
I have chosen John 9:1-7 as the gospel lesson for two reasons: (1) the healing of the man born blind with mud seems a symbolic reference to Gen. 2:7 as continuing the work of creation; and (2) the use of the word "work" in reference to Jesus' Father would seem to underscore that image. The work of the Father is precisely that of creating, and Jesus continues that work of creation by healing the man. Healing itself is a work of continuing creation. Jesus imitates his Father by using soil of the earth to accomplish that work.
I have come to believe strongly that we have made our Jesus way too small.† Many see him as the† one who has come to save you.† If we believe that too narrowly it makes us bigger than we are and it makes Jesus way too small.† We have made salvation and our faith largely a personal matter.† Jesus taking care of one repentant customer at a time.† The lessons I chose for this Ash Wednesday I hope will allow us to look at God and the matter of repentance and salvation in a different, bigger way.
God made the heavens and the earth, God so loved the world: that he sent his son to redeem it.†
Our God has become so small that we no longer believe that he is the one true creator.† This expresses itself in the thinking that anyone's experience of God is as true as the next person's. It is a widely held opinion that each person's beliefs are a completely private affair, so that it no longer makes any sense to confess our own faith in God to anyone else.† When we are silent about false Gods our silence is basically seen as accepting of them.
We act as though there isn't just one true God, and that everyone's experience of God is as true as the next one. In other words, we seem to no longer believe that there are false gods. We believe that every god must have at least a bit of the truth. Isn't talk of gods a purely private matter? Purely a personal decision? But this flies directly in the face of what Jesus came to do, which is to show us the true God as different than all our false gods.† Everyone's version of God is not as good as the next person's?
I am sure that you will protest saying Pastor I donít believe in any other gods. We do truly believe that Jesus came to reveal the true God to us. But I think you will all agree with me that at the very least we are shy about confessing this God to others?
It is somewhat tough for us to announce in mixed company that Jesus' Father is the only God. And so we are reluctant to share Christ's faith with them. I definitely include myself in this reluctance. Even as a pastor, I get sucked up into the modern shyness of sharing my faith because it might offend someone. In fact, I was reluctant to bring up the issue to you in a sermon today, or any day. It's not a popular stance in today's climate. It would have been much easier to focus on something else like one of our private sins.
What will happen to the Christian faith if we are reluctant to pass it on?† Just because they put up buildings with crosses on them doesnít mean that they preach the truth about the father of Jesus Christ.† Will our children be able to recognize and repel all those other false representations of God if we give in to the temptation of not passing on Christ's faith.
How much has our fear of saying where God is and where he is not, our keeping God a private matter caused others to not know about the one true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus.† St. Paul drives home this point in Romans 10:
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? ... So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14, 17)
Can we get back on the right track? Can we speak the truth? Yes, we can, with Christ's help. And it's that last part -- namely, Christ's help -- that's most important, of course. We get into trouble when we take credit for things that Christ and his Holy Spirit do. And that's perhaps the real problem is that we take credit for what Christ Jesus our Lord does. It goes to the heart of this matter about faith and belief. We think that the world's salvation depends on each person's believing in Jesus. But that's not quite it. My faith alone doesn't save me. No one person's faith can bring salvation ... except Christ's faith. You see, it's his faith that saves us. If we imply that Christ's faith is the same as our faith, then we are taking credit for what Jesus has done! That goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, when the serpent tricked them into thinking that they could somehow take credit for what God knows. Today's greatest lie is that our own personal faith alone saves us.
Does that sound like heresy, especially to Lutherans? We Lutherans have lived and died by the motto "salvation through faith in Jesus Christ." So how could a Lutheran pastor stand up here and say that our faith alone doesn't save us? Let me quickly show you one of my pet peeves. A verse from St. Paul's letter to the Romans is one we read every Reformation Sunday. It goes:
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed ... through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22)
Through faith in Jesus Christ, right? Not exactly. Here's the original Greek with the English for the four simple words "faith in Jesus Christ":
faith (of/in) Jesus Christ
In the Greek there's only three words, not four. The Greek grammar requires us to insert the forth word, but we have a choice. We could insert either the word "of" or the word "in." So it reads either "faith of Jesus Christ" or "faith in Jesus Christ." Actually, the much more common way to translate this instance of Greek grammar would be to use the word "of."† As whenever Paul writes about the faith of Abraham.† But, for some reason, in all the modern English translations they use the word "in" instead. And there's a big difference between the two! It is the difference between our personal faiths and Christ's faith.
I think this misleading translation is a glaring example of how we have fallen to the oldest temptation of taking credit for God. I think that St. Paul was trying to tell us that we are saved first of all, not by our personal faith in Jesus Christ, but by the faith of Jesus Christ himself. It is Christ's great faith in God that saves me. My faith in Jesus Christ can only be a pale imitation of Christ's tremendous faith, which took him all the way to the cross. And it was Christ's tremendous faith that was first rewarded by God with being raised from the dead. My faith in him can only follow as a weaker imitation. So the emphasis should always be on Christ's faith itself, not on my faith in him. In fact, the emphasis should be on his faith living in me.
Even in our translation of such crucial passages, we have lost sight of this. We have emphasized our own faith instead. We push our own faith.
How do we get back on track? This is Lent, a season of repenting, of turning ourselves around. It is a season that we remember again Christ incredible faith which took him to the cross for our forgiveness, that we might come to know the true God of love, and that we might share that God with others. Let us re-dedicate ourselves to this Lenten journey that brings us to Good Friday and to the Easter celebration, the joy of our salvation that can move us to proclaim that joy to others. Amen