Text: 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:2
Date: Ash Wednesday + 2/21/07
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the annual 40-day season of Lent; an extended time of meditation on our sin and need of God, a season of repentance in preparation for the Great and Holy Week wherein we celebrate the Passion of the Christ. The thing is, we’ve done this before! It happens every year. Of course, without Ash Wednesday and Lent there would be no Mardi gras, no “Fat Tuesday,” no Paczkis! But more seriously is the fact that, since this does happen every year, you may get the impression that, since we’re never really done with or rid of sin in this life, the forgiveness of sin and salvation from death we talk about is not really real but only something reserved for the future of heaven. In this way some see Lent to be little different than the occasional interruption of radio or TV broadcasts, you know, with that annoying electronic pulse signal followed by the explanation, “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.” No need to get too excited or concerned because “this is only a test.”
Well, the prophet Joel and the apostle Paul don’t see it that way. When it comes to reconciliation with God and salvation from sin and death, repentance and faith is not something that you can put off until you get around to it, and the message of Ash Wednesday and Lent is not just a test. “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” [Joel 2:12 (ESV)]. “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” [2 Corinthians 6:2b (ESV)].
There is a book around these days that has sold more the 11 million copies in the first year in print. It is called, “The Purpose Driven Life” by a Mr. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in California. From it he has spun a program he calls “40 days of Purpose.” It’s the latest and hottest fad among American Evangelicals. Unfortunately, even some pastors in our own Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod have jumped on this bandwagon. I say “unfortunately,” because the book hopelessly confuses the main message of the Bible. Even though he begins by saying, “It’s all about God, it’s not about you,” as the book progresses you realize it really is all about you and not much about God. Mr. Warren writes, “Life on earth is just the dress rehearsal before the real production…. Life is just preparation for eternity” [pp. 36, 31]. Just a dress rehearsal? The real production? On the contrary, our Lord speaks of repentance and forgiveness and eternal life as a present gift, and his love as a present possession.
It is true that the Christian liturgical year lays out the narrative of the Savior’s incarnation, birth, ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, his passion, death, resurrection and ascension in a chronological order over a period of some six months. At times the calendar even imitates the exact number of days, the forty days of Lent recalling the forty days of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness, the forty years wilderness wandering of Israel, the forty days and nights of the great deluge of Noah’s day. The Easter season copies the forty days of Jesus’ resurrection appearances before his ascension into heaven. It is also true that the life of faith is, as someone coined the phrase, a life of “in-betweenity.” Luther and The Lutheran Confessions call it by the Latin phrase, Simil justis et peccator; at the same time saint and sinner; “already but not yet.” Still walking in the valley of the shadow of death by faith, we live in hope for the future fullness of heaven. Yet, just because Jesus died and rose again so many ages ago, and just because he has not yet returned for our final deliverance, does not mean that there is no real connection with his cross or his crown right now.
Some may be tempted to think that, in Lent, we are to concentrate on repentance from sin in order that we might more fully appreciate our deliverance from it when we celebrate Good Friday and Easter. Martin Luther, however, sees it the other way around! In his “Christian Questions with their Answers…for Those Who Intend to Go to the Sacrament,” Luther asks why we need to go to communion. One of the reasons he supplies is, “so we may learn to be horrified by our sins, and to regard them as very serious.” And how does going to communion teach us to be horrified by our sins and regard them as very serious? Well, it is there that we contemplate the great price our sins required for our deliverance: nothing cheaper or less than the very life-blood of the Son of God.
Similarly, we may be tempted to think that forgiveness and salvation is not really complete until we reach heaven. And, in a sense, that is true since, as long as we struggle by faith in this world, we endure suffering and it is possible for us to fall away from the faith. What is not possible, however, is for God to go back on his promise to you in your Holy Baptism. When the apostle Paul says, “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation,” he means that God’s gift of faith in a person’s mind and heart grasps not just a promise of future deliverance and righteousness, but of deliverance and righteousness now. He says of Christ, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
On the cross Christ took on our sin and the sin of the whole world. Was it the Jews who killed Jesus? Yes. Was it the Romans that killed Jesus? Yes. It was the sin of the world and every sinner in it that killed Jesus. There he so identified with our fallenness and brokenness and separation that he became The Sinner. There he became the murderer, the thief, the heretic, the immoral, the gossip, the slanderer, the unfaithful one. By his death all sin has been paid for in full. There is no further sacrifice required for sin or its punishment. So complete is his deliverance that, now, whoever believes in him and is baptized God declares righteous, sinless, holy, reconciled, saved. “In him we become the righteousness of God.”
So let our repentance, our contrition and sorrow over sin be as real and heartfelt as our deliverance, salvation and reconciliation to God is real. That is, let our acts of righteousness, our Lenten discipline of alms-giving, prayer and fasting, be done not in order to be seen by men or in hopes of gaining a reward, but let us truly repent and believe and walk in a life of good works, rather, because we have been
delivered, saved and reconciled to God by the merits of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Let us offer up our bodies as a living sacrifice, the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name [Romans 12:1; Hebrews 13:15]. For by God’s Word and Spirit, this is not a test. “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”