Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday[1]
February 17, 2010
Text: Luke 23:24: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (ESV).

Beloved in the Lord, as the Roman soldiers pound the nails into His flesh; as the Jewish elite and the common passers-by mock and taunt Him; as the disciples, once boasting of their loyalty to Jesus, scatter in fear of like-punishment; our dear Lord Jesus Christ prays that God would forgive them. He prays that God would forgive them all, that He would not hold their sin against them. Jesus prays for His persecutors and executioners, prays through His blood and agony, prays from the depths of His Being. He pours His whole life into this prayer. Jesus prays that the sins committed against Him, the sins committed against Almighty God, be charged not to the account of those doing the sinning, but His own account, to Himself. Jesus takes the sin into Himself. Jesus pays the penalty for the sin in His flesh. Jesus gives Himself for sinners’ sake, and He prays that in no way may this sin be held against the perpetrators. Jesus prays that the sin may be His own.

This Lententide we consider the seven Words of Jesus from the cross. These are Words of life to us, and the first Word is no exception. For life comes to sinners only by the forgiveness of sins. And it is from the cross, the instrument of our Lord’s torture and death on behalf of sinful humanity, that Jesus prays: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is not just praying for His executioners. He is praying for you. He is praying for me. He is praying for every sinner of every time and every place. He is praying for our forgiveness and salvation. Make no mistake, sin must be dealt with. The wages of sin is death: not just physical death, but spiritual death, and eternal death in hell. In no sense does God excuse our sin. In no sense does He sweep our sin under the rug. In no sense should we fail to grasp the seriousness and severity of our every offense against God. If God is just, if God is holy, then He must deal with sin. Jesus prays that God would deal with all the sin of all the world on His cross, in His suffering and death. Jesus prays that God would not deal with us as our sins deserve, but would rather deal with Him, with Jesus, the sinless Son of God, as our sins deserve. And God gives Jesus what He prays for.

Beloved in the Lord, by our sins, you and I nailed Jesus to the tree of the cross. And it is true, we know not what we do. We fail to consider that every bitter word, every spiteful thought, every lustful glance, every covetous desire, required the death of God in the flesh for atonement. We fail to understand that our very nature, fallen and utterly corrupt by original sin, requires nothing less than the blood of God to be cleansed. We imagine that God winks at our sin and pretends He doesn’t see, unless of course it is a big sin committed by someone else. We expect Him to deal with the serious sins of the big sinners in His divine wrath, but we know we’re forgiven of our little sins. Jesus loves us after all, and so it doesn’t really matter what we do. But we don’t know what we’re saying, anymore than we know what we’re doing. Jesus does love us. He loves us so much that He takes all those so-called “little” sins that merit eternal hell-fire, and He pleads with His Father to punish Him in our place. There is nothing little about sin. Every crucifix ought to remind us of that. Every crucifix ought to remind us that Jesus suffered the great physical agony of the cross and the great spiritual agony of hell in payment for our “little” sins as well as our “big” ones. It is true, we know not what we do, for we sin so carelessly and never give a thought to divine justice.

But Jesus knows what He is doing. When Jesus took our sins upon Himself, He knew exactly what He was doing. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the great exchange, the “happy” exchange as Luther called it. It is happy for us, for all our sin becomes Christ’s, and all His righteousness becomes ours. When God looked at His Son on the cross, He saw all the sins of all the world, and He unleashed His just and holy wrath. And so now, when God looks at us, He sees nothing but the perfect holiness and righteousness of His Son. Thus we are saved from the punishment of death and hell that we rightly deserve. Jesus takes our place, that we might be in His place. He does it willingly. He does it deliberately. He does it out of love for you and me. May we never fail to recognize this blessed truth. Jesus is our substitute. He stands in for us before God. Every crucifix ought to remind us of that. Every crucifix ought to be a source of great comfort and strengthening for us, for on the cross our precious Lord wins for us the full and free forgiveness of all our sins. We are reconciled to God. God loves us as His own dear Son. We are baptized into the reality of the crucifix. We are baptized into the death of Jesus. His death is our death. And remember, death and crucifixion are not the end of the story. Christ is risen. And we are baptized into His resurrection. His life is our life, now, in a hidden way, and then, in the Day of His returning, fully manifest to the sight of all.

We are sinners, and the wages of sin is death. That is why we receive ashes on our foreheads this evening. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. You will die. Your body will decompose. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. But the ashes are placed upon us in the shape of the cross. For though we have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death, physical death, we are redeemed, bought back, by our Lord Jesus Christ on His cross. As in Baptism, so now, we receive the sign of the holy cross to mark us as redeemed by Christ the Crucified. And so even though we die, we live. For whoever lives and believes in our crucified Lord Jesus, even though he die, yet shall he live. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In this forgiveness is life for the sinner, life eternal and abundant.

And that life starts now. It actually started at Baptism. Again, it is hidden in this life, but it is a new life marked by faith toward God and love toward the neighbor. That means you can forgive your neighbor his trespasses against you, as you have been forgiven by God on account of Christ. You can recognize that the blood of Christ covers your neighbor’s every sin as much as it covers your every sin. How freeing this is. Let all grudges be gone. Let all resentment be cast aside. Let our hearts be open. Forgiven by Christ, let us all rejoice in our common gift of redemption. May we never forget the prayer our Lord prays for us in the midst of His agony: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” May we live in the freedom and joy of that forgiveness.

That freedom and joy, the Christian life, does not exclude repentance, however. The Christian life is a life of daily repentance, daily crucifixion of the old sinful nature with its sinful and selfish desires. And so we are marked with ashes, and we enter upon another penitential season of Lent. God keep us faithful in the fast, in preparation for the Easter feast. We shed our tears of sorrow now, that God Himself may wipe them away. We look to the cross of Christ especially now, that we may gaze eternally upon Him risen and glorified. God has answered our Lord’s prayer. Our sins are forgiven. Our assurance is in the body pierced and the blood shed, here present and distributed by our crucified and risen Lord Himself in the Holy Supper. Rend your hearts, beloved. Confess your sins. Believe the Gospel. Receive the absolution. Come to the Table of our Lord. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] This year’s Lenten series is based on Words of Life from the Cross (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010). While the theme and many of the concepts and motifs come from this material, the actual sermon is my own.

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