Ash Wednesday

Readings: Joel 2:12-19 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Text: Joel 2:12-19; Job 13:23

Our forefather Job asked the Lord in the midst of his suffering, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin” (Job 13:23). This seems like a dangerous question and request. Don’t we know enough of our sins without seeking to know more of them? What would we learn about ourselves if the Lord made us know our transgression and sin? Certainly there is more to know, more than we can fathom. David prays in Psalm 19, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.” The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.” The prophet Jeremiah speaks the Word of the Lord, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can know it?” From such passages we learn that we only know some of our sins. Indeed, we cannot fully grasp the depth of our depravity. We have a load of iniquity of which we are not even aware.

Now one might ask, “Why would I want to know it? I’ll simply pray like David, ‘Declare me innocent from hidden faults,’ and leave it at that. I’ll pray the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in which we plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of. Ignorance is bliss.” It is good generally to confess that you’re a sinner, and it is perhaps understandable on a human level that we wouldn’t want to feel the pain of knowing just how bad we are. But we must pray with Job, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.”

Why must we pray this? Because it is all too easy to let our confession of sin turn into the gentle sentiment which states, “No one’s perfect.” The world readily grants this. Saying that no one’s perfect may confess that we’re all in the same boat, and none of us lives up to his own ideal. But if our confession of sin becomes nothing more than that, it will leads to two dire consequences for Christians.

First, when we do not purposefully examine ourselves according to God’s Law, we end up with an inaccurate picture of ourselves. This is dangerous business, and can lead into outright unbelief from which we would need to be reconverted. David, for instance, in the midst of his affair with Bathsheba, was not judging himself by God’s Law, but by what he could or couldn’t get away with. Once he had sufficiently covered things up in the eyes of man, he supposed that he had nothing further to worry about. He thought he was righteous when he was not. (2 Samuel 11)

And this is where an inaccurate picture of ourselves will always lead us: into self-righteousness. We may then be free from pangs of conscience, but we would not be free from the pangs of hell. It is far better that we hear God’s judgment against our sin now while there is time to repent than to hear his judgment on the Last Day when the door has been shut. Thanks be to God, He sent Nathan the prophet to David to preach the Law to him and confront him with his sin. It was through that Law that David regained an accurate picture of himself, saw his unrighteousness, and recognized his need for salvation. (2 Samuel 12:1-14) May the Lord show such love to us as well.

Second, when we purposefully remain ignorant of our sins by gazing into the Law of God as little as possible, we also devalue Christ. He who is forgiven much loves much, and he who is forgiven little loves little [Luke 7:41-48]. Everyone has much to be forgiven, it’s merely a question of whether we recognize it or not. If we think we’re not that sick, we won’t be very diligent in seeking a cure. If my sins aren’t bothering me, and I reason that I should let sleeping dogs lie, what importance will I place on coming to church to hear the Gospel and receive the Sacrament? He who will not feel his wounds will learn to scorn the wounds of Christ. But he who will feel his wounds will sing for joy in Christ, as David does in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.”

You see that there is much danger to be avoided by praying with Job, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.” But someone might say, “If I stare deeply into the mirror of God’s Law, I’m not going to like what I see. Not only is it going to cause me pain when I realize how grievously I have offended against God, but I have a suspicion that my condition is so horribly beyond cure that I would lose all hope of salvation.”

It is true that our condition is a miserable one. Even a quick glance at the Ten Commandments reveals this. Going in order, you see that your heart has trusted things that are not God and doubted the love of him who died for you. You have neglected prayer and been thankless after receiving God’s good gifts. You have regarded God’s Word with less interest than you pay to your favorite book or show. You have dishonored those whom God has placed in authority over you. You have been angry and had bloody thoughts against those who have wronged you. You have regarded marriage according to its troubles instead of according to God’s institution, and have desired those whom God has not given you. You have not been content with the possessions that God has given you. You have delighted in hearing bad things about others and spread gossip. You have craved things that belong to other people as if God didn’t know how to take care of you.

Well, there it is. You are in a wretched state, as as far as man is concerned you are beyond cure. Yet what did you hear in the reading from Joel? “Return to the Lord your God.” Why? Because you’re not that bad, we caught it early, it’s only stage 1 sin? No. You are that bad, and we all have been from conception. But return to the Lord your God. Why? Because it’s your only option and there’s a million in one chance that God might actually do something for you? It’s true that the Lord is our only option, but there’s no doubt about what He will do. So return to the Lord your God. Why? “Because He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Don’t turn to the Lord because of any merit in you. Don’t turn to the Lord with a faint wish that He might do something. Turn to the Lord because of who He is and what He has done for you in Christ, and with full confidence that since He is gracious, He will be gracious to you.

And so we lament with Saint Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” but we confidently confess with him as well, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We may be wretched, so wretched that we are like Lazarus shut up stinking in the tomb, who cannot even weep over his own sins rightly but only reap the wages of sin which is death. [John 11] We may be wretched and entombed, but Jesus comes to our tomb, and weeps for us, and breaks the doors of death with his death, and resurrects us with the call of his resurrected voice. “Live!” He says, “I forgive you all your sins. Come forth!” And He removes the bandages, and your flesh is clean, and the stink is gone, and you are alive in him.

So do not fear to pray, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.” During the season of Lent we will study the Ten Commandments, and this prayer will be answered. But Lent will not end in despair, rather, we will come to Christ the mercy seat, to the grace of God hanging on the cross, to whom be glory and honor forever. Amen.

Ash Wednesday (Mark 14:1-9)

Passion Reading: Mark 14:1–9

1It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” 3And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

If you were to get ashes in your eyes, you wouldn’t be able to see clearly. Similarly, what sin has done to us is damage our vision of what is good in God’s sight. We look at what is good and distort its purpose, or we look upon what is beautiful and misjudge its value. As Isaiah says, we are those who “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isa. 5:20).

Jesus says in the Gospel, “When you give to the needy” (Matthew 6:2). He assumes that Christians will do this and that giving to the needy must be a good thing to do. Jesus also says in the Passion Reading, “You always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them” (Mark 14:7). But sinners misjudge the purpose of such good deeds.

Jesus criticized the hypocrites “in the synagogues and in the streets” for conspicuously giving to the needy in order to “be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). Likewise, they prayed long-winded prayers and made a show of fasting in order to “be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5, 16). In being praised and seen by others, they received the rewards they were seeking: to be thought of as good people by others. This is an entirely self-serving and evil approach to good works, because it only uses God’s Name for selfish gain.

On the other hand, those who come to the Father through faith in His Son view good works as opportunities to serve the neighbor and please God [2 Corinthians 5:9]. In fact, these works pleasing in God’s sight aren’t even done seeking a reward. Jesus never says that rewards are why Christians do what they do. He promises that the Father will reward the almsgiving, prayer, and fasting of His children, but reward is not their motivation.

But our old Adam misjudges this point. Sin’s deep delusion is that our work must have a commensurate reward. That is the worst misjudgment we can make, and it’s the tragic error of all man-made attempts at religion. Thanks be to God that His Word, echoed in the liturgy and hymns, makes it painfully clear our utter wretchedness and desperate need for the forgiveness of our sins. What we need of first importance is the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. And St. Mark takes us to Him in our Passion Reading when he begins, “It was now two days before the Passover. . .” (Mark 14:1).

The Passover and Passion were just a couple of days away. Jesus knew this and had repeatedly told His disciples that His death was drawing near. But unlike Jesus, the guests at Simon the Leper’s house didn’t have their mind on the cross when an uninvited woman came in. She cracked open an expensive jar of pure nard, which was a luxury item, and anointed Jesus. It was no small thing, because her act, no matter how out of place it seemed to the guests, proclaimed that Jesus was the anointed offering, a pleasing aroma about to be presented to God.

Then there’s the value of the nard itself. If it really could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, that would have been nearly a year’s wages for a day laborer. Before the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the disciples estimated that two hundred denarii worth of bread would fill the crowd’s bellies (Mark 6:37). Just imagine how many people you could feed with three hundred denarii! That’s what the guests at Simon’s dinner were saying among themselves, outraged at the woman’s wastefulness, indignant that so many would go hungry because of her impulsiveness. “What’s wrong with you, woman? Are you out of your mind? You should have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor!” But they had misjudging eyes. It’s worth noting that John’s Gospel, chapter 12, comments that Judas raised this objection, “not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:6)

Jesus, however, sees clearly and He comes to the woman’s defense and tells her critics to back off. Jesus recognizes her action as a beautiful work, as preparation for the most beautiful, noble, good deed in human history: His own suffering, death, and burial.

As Jesus Himself says, it’s good to give to the needy, to do good to the poor. But when the incarnate Son of God is sitting at your dinner table preparing to suffer and die for the sin of the world, then be hastily entombed without proper anointing at His burial, then even three hundred denarii worth of ointment is no waste, but is rightly devoted to His service. What the dinner guests could not see was the sheer uniqueness, the tremendous weight, of the moment they were witnessing. For God’s Anointed One was soon to give His body and shed His blood, to give His life as a ransom for the world, to be the once-for-all Passover Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This moment was not business as usual. As the generous provider for all Creation, it’s certain that God the Father gave what was necessary to feed the poor of Bethany and Jerusalem on that day, even as He was about to pour out the priceless blood of His Son as a saving balm for sinners. St. Paul echoes the anointed Jesus, “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). The smell of Christ’s holy life and atoning work turned away the wrath of God against us, with our misjudgment and evil thoughts and selfish plans, once and for all.

In Holy Baptism, you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and anointed with the Holy Spirit to sanctify you and make you pleasing to the Father. The beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness has become yours, so that you need no longer fear eternal damnation in hell. The power of sin, death, and Satan has been shattered like that broken alabaster flask, and you have been liberated from the realm of darkness to live forever in the Kingdom of Life, and for the rest of your earthly lives to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself.

There was another time Jesus was anointed by a woman, earlier in His ministry, at the house of a different Simon, a Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50). St. Luke reports that that woman was known around town as a sinner, and she anointed and wiped the feet of Jesus with her hair. Jesus concludes the story by saying that her loving action toward Him was evidence that she had been forgiven much, for the one who has been forgiven much, loves much.

Why doesn’t Mark give us this woman’s name? Because at that moment, she was not the point; Jesus and His saving work were. Her anonymity also teaches us how to approach good works. Our good works are marred with our own vanity when we make them about us. Beautiful works do not come as a result of human cleverness or guilt-tripping. They cannot be forced from the outside, or quantified so that they match a certain expectation. What happens when sinners do this, is they turn the Christian faith into a human enterprise, the result of our planning and our doing. The measure of success is in the eyes of men, and the rewards are not in heaven. They’re right here on earth where we can see how much or how little we’ve “gotten done.”

This is the pitfall of dictating acts of devotion, too. It’s hard to get away from the idea that you’re supposed to “give up something for Lent.” Where this tradition started may have been commendable, but what it’s become is a practice of righteousness before men and a pointless burden. Whether it’s fasting, praying, or giving alms, it needs to all be about Jesus. Whatever is about you needs to decrease until it’s nothing. That’s what the Lord means when He says, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:13) Squeeze out all that is you, all that is full of uncleanness, malice, and evil; so that you can be filled with Christ’s righteousness, His holiness, His life.

The works which Jesus calls beautiful are those that magnify Him. Those proclaimed in the Gospel, are the ones which were spontaneous, borne out of a heart that knows God’s grace in Christ, and responds to it. “She has done what she could,” Jesus says. That is, she simply lived out her vocation, and on that day, she was called to do the beautiful work of anointing Jesus before His burial. She did not do it to be praised or seen by others, nor was she seeking a reward, but she had eyes only on Jesus. And now, even though as a sinner she was not worthy of anything from the Father, she has gone on to receive her eternal reward, all for the sake of the Jesus whom she anointed.

You also are called to do what you can in your vocations, in whatever situation the Lord puts you each day. You are set free from the enslaving misjudgment that you should do good works either to be praised by men or to ward off guilty feelings. In Christ, you are free to care for the poor; free to bring to God your sins, your cares and that of others, and your praises; free to offer your acts of devotion in secret—not to bring glory to yourself, but because of the glory that God has made known to you in His Son. Repent and believe the Gospel, which declares your sins are forgiven by the Passover Lamb. Then you are truly freed for good works offered to Him, to give glory to Your Savior and Your God. Amen.

Ash Wednesday: Remember Dust (Psalm 103:13-14)

Pastor Michael A. Miller

The Man from Heaven Remembers the Man of Dust

Psalm 103:13-14

13         As a father shows compassion to his children,

so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.

14         For He knows our frame;

He remembers that we are dust.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we heard earlier tonight.  But dust?  Any intelligent person knows that people are carbon-based lifeforms, comprised of complex amino acid chains, DNA, and that we are capable of tremendous intellectual power and creativity.  Dust seems far too insignificant a substance for such a noble creature as man.

But that goes to the question of origins.  Where does man come from? Where is He going, and what is significant about his existence?  “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7) Our origin is from God.  Our existence is from God.  We are self-aware, moral, intelligent, and creative because God made us in His likeness.  All of human life exists and depends on God. 

God remembers that people are dust, but do people often remember that?  They go about their daily routines, make plans for what they’re going to do, undertake projects, worry about how other people think of them, plan and fret about the future.  Most of the time, they live without a need for God (a 2018 study found 36% of religious “nones” agreed that religion was irrelevant to their life[1]). But how quickly all that comes unraveled!

On August 17, 1999, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Izmit, Turkey, 100 kilometers east of Istanbul.  In 37 seconds, 17,000 people were killed and 500,000 were rendered homeless as 20,000 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged.

We forget how we are dust, but God has His way of reminding us.  Sometimes it’s evil that happens to us or our loved ones, other times a sudden illness, still other times a natural disaster like in Turkey.  The bottom drops out of our plans for the future and we’re left scrambling.  We’re found to have taken the whole thing for granted, and we wish we could go back and do it over.

The Lord, however, never forgot that we are dust, and in His fatherly compassion, He was moved to act.  His Son came down and entered our world through the womb of a young Virgin named Mary.  The Man of heaven became a Man of dust with us.  Jesus has compassion on us as He humbled Himself with us to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  He faced evil done to him as he fled into Egypt, as lies were told about him, as He was condemned on false charges.  He lost family and friends to death, and He wept over the curse we are under.  He bore anguish and pain in His own body as He was scourged, compelled here and there by soldiers, crucified, and the life ebbed out of Him.  He was made dust, and to the dust He returned, buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.

But unlike our dust, which stays in the ground, His Spirit returned to Him and He rose to be a living creature once more.  Like no other, He rose so that He might restore life to our dying and dead dust.  “The first Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45)  Jesus rose from the dust, never to die again, so that He could break the power of sin and death, and so raise up the sons of Adam, the man of dust, of you and me.  St. Paul continues: 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:48-49) 

It takes a reminder from God to remember that we are dust.  As painful as this discipline is, God is doing it for our eternal good, because if we forget that we are dust, the danger is that we will return to the dust, never to rise again (Psalm 140:10).   Unless we remember that we are dust, the Man from Heaven does us no good.

Yet, “The Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.”  He comes to you when you are bowed down, trembling as your frame of dust threatens to crumble.  The Man of Heaven comes again and breathes His life into your dust.  When you were baptized, in the water and the Word, God took your lifeless dust and made you into clay (Isaiah 64:8).  Day by day, even with dust upon our heads and under the shadow of death, He is shaping us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).  Every time you confess your sins and the Absolution is spoken, it says “He breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit; if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.’” (John 20:22-23)  The Absolution truly has the power to restore your life, even as you sit in dust and ashes.  If you live try to live apart from it or without it, how can your dust be revived?

He has still one more way that He remembers you in your dust.  Recall His Word through St. Paul: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”  The Son of God’s lifeless clay rose to new, eternal life, and that is what He gives you in His Supper.  Each time you receive His Body and Blood, united to Him with faith, He is strengthening you with the power of His resurrected flesh.  It’s the unfortunate state of the Church in our generation that we minimize the Supper’s importance and think we can make it by without this.  Someone has told you (and now it’s become entrenched as tradition) that Communion only needs to be offered every other Lord’s Day. 

But this teaching does not come from your Lord who says, “Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me”[2] and who says in John 6: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)  It is only hubris that says we can have life apart from our incarnate, crucified, and risen Savior—His Body and His Blood and His Holy Spirit breathed on us in the Absolution.

See all the ways that the Lord shows compassion to you, O man of dust!  As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. 14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”  And on the Last Day, He will raise you from the ash heap to be with Him forever.  Persevere in this hope, beloved.  Amen.

[1] (accessed 2/25/19)

[2] Some argue that “often” does not necessarily mean weekly, but if we stay in the way of the Law and look only to satisfy the minimum requirement, we can also go without having midweek Lenten services because the Old Covenant only required corporate worship once per week.  Christians are privileged to receive it “as often” as we gather.

Ash Wednesday (Amos 4:6–13)

Lenten Midweek Service: Return to the Lord, Who Does Not Tire of Calling You
Text: Amos 4:6–13
“Prepare to meet your God.” Those words hit you like a sledgehammer. It’s what you hear a movie villain say before he ends his victim’s life. But it’s no villain that speaks those words to you. The shepherd-prophet Amos delivers the Word of the Lord who says, “Prepare to meet your God” (v 12). The Lord is no villain, but message is clear: Judgment!  Judgment is coming quickly.   We don’t want it to happen because it will expose all those things we thought we could sweep under the rug.  You know, those sins you won’t tell the pastor about, the ones you try to hide from your spouse, the ones you swear you can take care of privately.  God is not so easily fooled.
The tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. If only God’s people would listen and take His Word to heart, things would turn out so much differently. But what does the Lord do?  He will not keep silent and allow us to go the path of destruction, simply because we plug our ears. He is incessant in his seeking after us. The Lord longs to forgive you, so he is tireless in calling you to repentance.
Amos chronicles five ways by which the Lord calls his people to repentance. And just as many times, His people do not listen. Each time the Lord ends with the same phrase, “yet you did not return to me.” You can hear the exasperation in the Lord’s voice.  He simply will not give up on you. He has been wronged, but instead of pouting, instead of plotting his just vengeance, he instead works to win back his people. He so longs for his people to be forgiven and reunited with him that he will not stop.
First, you hear him say, “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me” (v 6). Teeth are clean when they have no food to get stuck between them. While the Lord taking food from his people should get their attention so that they repent, it is also a reminder of the Lord’s provision. He graciously provides for all his people’s needs. When the people abandon him, it is just and right for them to lose the benefits that come from the Lord. Even more, his people should remember what a privilege and joy it is to have such a Lord. With the Lord, there is a bounty of his goodness; apart from him there is an absence of that goodness—and that should naturally drive his people back to him. But even hunger does not drive God’s people either to remember him or to repent.
Because his people will not listen, the Lord calls again. “I also withheld the rain from you . . . yet you did not return to me” (vv 7, 8). Drought not only cuts off crops but also strikes at them economically.  So again, the Lord is calling his people to remember how he supplies life. He does not do it begrudgingly. It flows naturally from his love as he provides rain that his creation might drink from his goodness.
Yet throughout Israel’s history, there was a constant temptation to trust in a false lord, Baal. Baal was the false god of Israel’s neighbors, supposedly the god of the sky, of lightning, and of rain. Supposedly this Baal was the one who caused ground and womb to be fertile.  If you were on Baal’s good side, then you were supposed to receive rain aplenty. The Lord is not shy to tell his people that if they want to trust in Baal, they should see just how much rain he provides. None. It’s insanity to trust in Baal, who is nothing more than a figment of the imagination.
But . . . we do it all the time too. Our idols don’t go by the name of Baal. We bank our security not upon Baal’s rain, but on a bull market. And when our financial prospects go from bullish to bearish, we should be able to see the foolishness of these idols of ours. But in our sin, we are blind to this. We double-down on our idol even as the Lord is calling us to return to him, for in him alone is there life.
Two calls did not work, so perhaps his people will listen if the Lord calls them a third time. “I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; yet you did not return to me” (v 9). When God brought his people to the Promised Land, he told them that they would eat from vineyards that they did not plant. Such is the abundance that the Lord delivers. Look at how tremendously generous He is! The Lord delights to provide for his people. But our heart is far from him and we set our hopes and dreams in the tangible—in degrees and jobs, in cars or clothes, and in houses and buildings.  But when our heart withdraws from the God who richly supplies, why should he not withhold from us?
Since they have forsaken him, the Lord tries to get his people with yet one more physical loss. Leaving him means leaving his good gifts. His people of old needed to learn this lesson; so do we. It is not blight and mildew that worries you; nor is it the locust. It’s other disasters that cause us worry. When a hurricane brings devastation, it’s not our place to figure out if God is mad with those who are displaced. It is a call for us to repent. In the disasters that happen in your life and to your family, God is calling you to repentance knowing that apart from his providential care, something far worse would befall you.
Still the Lord’s people will not listen! The Lord so loves his people that he will not give up, so he tries a different tactic. He’ll remind them of his history of salvation, how he’s worked mightily with an outstretched arm to deliver them. Surely, then they’ll listen and recall how blessed it is to live under the Lord’s care. So he says, “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me” (v 10). Remember everything the Lord did to Egypt that his people might be saved? Not only did he send the ten plagues, including pestilence, but Pharaoh’s army was swept away in the sea. All this that the people of the Lord might be delivered. There’s no doubting his love, his dedication, the salvation He works for his people. So when their abandonment of the Lord causes those very acts of judgment to be visited upon them, certainly they’ll listen. They’ll remember that it’s good to live in the shadow of his grace. You remember, don’t you? So why do you return to slavery? Slavery to sin.
Still there’s no repentance, so the Lord utilizes a second historical reminder of how he’s acted for his people’s salvation. Maybe, just maybe, this will finally be enough to get through to their hard hearts. He says, “I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me” (v 11). Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown because of the depth of their evil. Their evil was so pervasive that when Abraham bartered with God to spare them, he could not even find ten righteous persons in Sodom to justify sparing it. He’s saying that’s now the same case with Amos’ contemporaries.
And he calls us to repent as well, because it’s true among us also. What justification can we give for God to spare us? Are we righteous and pure? Or will you find bickering and quarreling among us? Are there evil thoughts that pit one believer against another? The Lord is justified not in sparing us but in condemning us. Yet he speaks of his people being a brand plucked out of the burning. The Lord works to pluck us out of disaster. Though we don’t deserve to be spared, the Lord does spare us, because that’s the kind of God he is. He delights to withhold just punishment. His fervent desire is that you not receive the just reward of your sin, but grace upon grace. Still, in spite of such grace being extended, the Lord says, “yet you did not return to me.”
How could they be so obtuse? Five times that struck directly at their physical needs and that recalled God’s actions in history for their salvation, each reminding them of God’s goodness and grace for which it’s well worth returning, and still they refuse. What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with us? How can we be so obtuse? We pass off our sin as inconsequential, but all sin is an abandonment of God. All sin leads him to his tireless call that we return to him and his goodness. Yet we continue to sin. We deserve to be judged. He gave us every chance. He did not tire to call us to repentance, but we have not given an ounce of energy to leave our sinful ways.
As much of an obstacle as our cold, sinful hearts are, the Lord is all the more acute in his actions to save us. Even when you tire of returning to the Lord, he does not tire of calling you.  Compared to human desire to forgive the erring, the Lord says, “I do not say to you, [that you should forgive] up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  That’s just how dedicated the Lord is to saving sinners.  That’s why it’s called “steadfast love.”
Judgment does loom on the horizon, but it comes differently than you have a right to expect. The same tireless zeal of the Lord to call you will drive him to spare you the coming judgment. There is no undoing judgment for your sin. The only thing that can be done is to take the judgment away from you and place it upon another.
Judgment looms on the horizon. This is what happens as we journey ever closer to Jerusalem. There will be judgment for your sin. Yet the judgment will not be meted out upon you. It will be visited upon the Lord himself. In one last effort to call you to return, the Lord takes your punishment and puts it on full display as he pours it out upon his Son. This one will be effective to bring you back home. Now, you will return. The Holy Spirit will call, gather, and enlighten your darkened heart.  All because you meet your God as he hangs on a cross for you. How could it come to this?
Because he does not tire of calling you, the lord will not rest until he has delivered you. Amen.

Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Ash Wednesday + March 1, 2017
Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The Introduction
“Our Father, who art in heaven”
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
During this penitential season, we will turn our eyes to something which is integral to our life as Christians: prayer.  You heard Jesus’ instructions in the Gospel about what prayer should not be, namely where it should not be aimed.  In these midweek Lenten services, we will go through, petition by petition, and learn from Jesus how to pray.
These first words, sometimes called the introduction, Our Father who art in heaven, teach us about the basis for all prayer.  Before any words come out of our mouth or heart, we should know who we’re asking.
It’s plain to all people who acknowledge the existence of God that God is eternal, almighty, and even the creator of the universe.  But that knowledge alone is not comfort.  God may be almighty, but if He isn’t happy with you that immediately becomes a frightful thought.  But through Jesus Christ, God the Father becomes your Father.  As Jesus told Mary after His resurrection, “I am returning to My Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:17)
So, God is almighty, eternal, and so forth, but best of all, He is also for you.  Through the certainty of your Baptism, God has made Himself your Father.  “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27).  Out of love God took the initiative to adopt you as His dear child in Baptism.  He does not renege on His Word, so when you go to Him, it is as a beloved child. That means when we go to God, we don’t have to bend His ear or get enough people behind us also praying.  God’s heart is moved by His love for His children.
This also takes the guesswork out of whether God will hear us when we go to Him in prayer.  Prayer is not the same as wishing or hoping into a void.  God our Father invites us to come to Him with our needs and hurts, our joys and thanksgiving.  “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Ps. 50:15)
Even though Jesus advises that we each go into our room and pray in secret, He also says that prayer is very communal.  Even with the opening words, “our Father,” we are reminded that it is not us against the world, or even “me and Jesus.”  As children of the heavenly Father, we are part of a whole body of believers.  Within this Body, we are all children calling upon the same Father, none of us better than another and none of our prayers “more effective” than another’s.  Someone once wrote, “The weak should know that God is no less their Father than the Father of Mary, John the Baptist, and Paul.”[1]
As members of this Body, we also direct prayers not just to our personal needs but the needs of the whole family of God—even of the whole world.  If God is our Father, we are surrounded by many brothers and sisters.  So in teaching us to pray to God, our Lord also teaches us to love and care for one another.
With the words, “who art in heaven,” it’s important to know why Jesus adds this.  Later in Matthew 23, Jesus tells us, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (v. 9).  Our Father in heaven is one of a kind and to be distinguished from any earthly father.  He is above all other fathers in majesty, so we owe Him the greatest reverence of all—more than we show our own family and even all rulers of this world.
God the Father is also above all in power, so we approach Him not hoping He can do something, but knowing He can do all things.  The prayers we bring to Him will not overwhelm Him, even though we ask for the salvation of the world, for Him to provide for each person, and for deliverance from all the deadly evils which surround humanity.   He is Almighty to save in any and every disaster that befalls us in our life, or in the wider world.  Nothing slips His notice, and nothing is beyond His loving work.
When we hear that God is in heaven, we might think that’s far away.  But, heaven is simply God’s dwelling place, not a matter of distance or how far we have to travel to reach Him.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Ps. 46:1)  Even though He dwells in unapproachable light, remember that He willingly sent His Son to share our flesh and now He is our Advocate.  That’s why another psalm says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on Him in truth” (Ps. 145:8).
“Our Father who art in heaven” teaches us about God adopting us by grace in Holy Baptism, they teach us that God wants to hear every desperate cry, and that He wants us to trust in Him to preserve all His children through the ills of this life until we receive our inheritance of eternal life.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[1] Martin Chemnitz, The Lord’s Prayer