Ash Wednesday Sermon

March 5, 2003

The Need for Repentance

There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And Jesus answered and said to them, ďDo you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?  I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.  Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.Ē
(Luke 13:1-5)

When had things happen, people assume there is a reason.  Most religions try to explain why bad things happen to people.  Some teach that everything in the world is under the control of various spirits.  If something bad happens to you, an evil spirit did it.  Others teach that if something very bad happens to you in this life, you must have done something in a previous life to deserve it.  The words of Jesus that we consider this evening were addressed to Pharisees who thought they were faithful to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.  They believed that there was a cause and effect relationship between doing bad things and bad things happening to you.  They had all heard of how Pilate had committed an atrocity against certain Galileans.  He had them murdered.  Then he mixed their blood with the blood of the animals they were going to sacrifice.  That was a deliberate, cold-blooded act of cruelty, to say nothing of being a terrible sacrilege.  Also familiar to those present was the story about a tragic accident.  A tower in Siloam fell down, killing eighteen people.  The Pharisees thought that if something bad happened to somebody Ė whether by accident or by design Ė there was a divine reason.  

It is not uncommon for people today to think that when things go well for them they are being rewarded for doing good.  In fact, this is a very popular notion.  How else can we determine whether or not God is smiling down on us?  Folks see that they are prosperous, healthy, respected, and generally successful.  They attribute their wellbeing to Godís blessing.  Thatís good.  But then they go on to assume that they are doing something to deserve Godís blessing.  Thatís bad.  And thatís why Jesus said what He said.  Donít assume that people who suffer terrible tragedies are any more sinful that you are. 

Martin Luther, in explaining the meaning of the fifth petition of the Lordís Prayer, wrote: 

We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look upon our sins, nor on their account deny our prayer; for we are not worthy of anything we ask, neither have we deserved it. But we pray that He would give us everything by grace, for we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment; and we on our part will heartily forgive and readily do good to those who sins against us.

I cannot think of a harder thing to admit.  We donít deserve anything good.  We deserve nothing but punishment.  But that is just what Jesus tells us to admit.  He says, ďUnless you repent you will all likewise perish.Ē 

Today is Ash Wednesday.  It is the first day of Lent.  It is also the first of several Wednesday evenings that River Heights Lutheran Church will gather together to consider Christís call to sinners to repent.  This evening we consider the need for repentance. 

Repentance is not an option.  In giving the great commission in St. Lukeís Gospel, Jesus said: 

ďThus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.Ē Luke 24:46-47

You cannot preach forgiveness of sins without preaching repentance.  On Pentecost Sunday, after the crowd was cut to the heart by Peterís preaching, they asked what they must do to be saved.  St. Peter replied, 

ďRepent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.Ē Acts 2:38-39

Repentance is a change.  It is sometimes called a change of mind because literally thatís what the word means.  But we change our minds all the time without actually repenting of anything.  To repent is to undergo an inner change in which our affections, hopes, and deepest convictions are radically transformed from one thing into its very opposite.  By nature we love ourselves.  In repentance we learn to hate ourselves.  By nature we hope in what we spend our time doing.  In repentance we learn to abandon all confidence in anything we do.  By nature we believe that we will get what we deserve.  In repentance we learn to trust in what we donít deserve.  We learn to trust in Jesus. 

Repentance has us saying Amen to God twice.  First we say Amen when God tells us in His law that we are guilty of sin and deserve His punishment both in time and for eternity.  Then we say Amen when God tells us in His gospel that our sins are forgiven for Christís sake and we have eternal life instead of eternal death. 

The first Amen is not easy to say.  In fact, we will struggle with all our might not to say it.  We will look at the suffering we endure in this life and insist that we deserve no such thing.  Life isnít fair.  The system isnít fair.  We come up with all sorts of things and people to blame.  After Muslim terrorists drove jets into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, a couple of popular television preachers suggested that this happened because of how our country tolerates abortion, homosexuality, and other terrible sins.  They were savaged in a press and quickly apologized for their insensitivity.  It wasnít just that they singled out abortionists and homosexuals, however.  They were criticized for suggesting that God would actually punish any sinners at all. 

And that is the heresy of our age.  It teaches that nobody really needs to repent because if there is something called sin it no longer calls for divine retribution.  Well, if sin doesnít call for divine retribution, Jesus died in vain.  He died for sinners.  He died to suffer divine retribution against sinners.  The gospel that gives us forgiveness of sins is not a bare absolution disconnected from where God punished sinners.  What did Jesus display to His disciples when, on that first Easter, He gave them the authority to forgive sins?  He showed them the wounds He has suffered on the cross.  He showed them the evidence that He had indeed take upon Himself the sin of the world, and as the Lamb of God, taken it all away. 

Oh Christ, the Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world,
Have mercy upon us.
Oh Christ, the Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world,
Have mercy upon us.
Oh Christ, the Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world,
Grant us Your peace.

Does He?  We can see for ourselves that the law is true.  We see sickness, pain, suffering, and death all around us.  We can see, if we listen to Godís law, that the sin out there in the world is the same sin inside our hearts.  And we say Amen to Godís law when it says that whatever we suffer we deserve to suffer. 

Can we this evening also say Amen to the gospel?  Can we hear the absolution of Jesus and know that it is intended for us?  You would think that this would be an easy Amen to say.  Who wouldnít want to believe in the forgiveness of sins?  Why should we deny that God, for Christís sake, fully forgives all our sins?  We deny it because our sinful hearts turn inward for assurance.  We deny that what God says to us is true.  We believe instead that what our heart tells us is true.  This is why we cannot repent.  We cannot shut up our lying hearts. 

But God can.  And He does.  He speaks to you and to me this evening and He speaks in words that our hearts cannot deny.  He tells us that the sins of which we are guilty were borne in the sacred body of His dear Son.  He shows us the passion and suffering of Jesus.  He shows us the crucifixion.  He imprints on our hearts the image of Christís suffering and by His grace converts us.  He changes us.  He takes out of our flesh our hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts that can say Amen.

We say Amen to Godís law that accuses and condemns us.  We say Amen to Godís gospel that forgives us and rescues us from condemnation.  By Godís grace, poured out in His gracious word and sacraments, we repent.  And we shall never perish.  


Rev. Rolf D. Preus

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