Sermo Dei: Ash Wednesday

Text: The Ten Commandments

One of the traditional emphases during Lent is catechesis; that is, instruction in the basics of the Christian faith. In the early church, the forty days of Lent would serve as the final time of instruction before the catechumens were then baptized during the Easter Vigil. And it’s not just for new Christians that Lent and catechesis go well together. The intensity and increased devotion of this season can aid us longtime Christians in returning to and being renewed in the most basic and always relevant aspects of Christian faith and life.

Tonight we begin a six-part series on the Small Catechism. Each week we’ll consider one of the six Chief Parts: The Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Confession, and finally the Sacrament of the Altar.

Tonight, the Ten Commandments, which preach Repentance; that is, by them God shows us our sin and how much we need a Savior.

We must have our sin shown to us, even though it gets rather uncomfortable. The Commandments seem like a big spoiler for the fun party that we often think life should be. But without those Commandments we would be left to receive the due wrath and condemnation of God. “[F]or sin indeed was in the world before the law was given…” [Romans 5] That is, even without the Commandments, we still are living in sin; we still are living the opposite of the very good way in which God has established His creation.

The words which were spoken to you as ashes were put on your forehead convey this. They should cause us to remember all the way back to creation: “From dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Death did not reign in Eden. It should stop with “From dust you are…” But from Adam and Eve on “…to dust you shall return” rules the day, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

You have ashes on your forehead to remind you of death. Death because of the transgression of Adam; death because Adam and Eve decided to have another god instead of the Lord. And you, because you have inherited from Adam that very original sin, stand in the same place. Thus the ashes, for to dust you shall return.

But God steps in and reveals to us His Law: that is, the Ten Commandments. And again, this isn’t done to crash the party. This is done to amplify your sin all the more. With the Ten Commandments you can’t avoid knowing what sin is and just how much you commit it.

One of the Christian disciplines that is rightfully done is to avail yourself of Confession and Absolution. And one of the Christian disciplines that is done to prepare for Confession is to use what is sometimes called a Confession Mirror, which is basically a walk through of the Ten Commandments, using them to clearly evaluate your life and the role of sin in it. Luther did something similar in the Small Catechism with his Christian Questions With Their Answers.

The point of both of these is to first drive the Christian back to the Ten Commandments. Why? Again, the Ten Commandments reveal to us our sin. This is the chief task of the Law. This is why God has revealed them to us. This is why your pastor preaches them. This is why you spent time in Catechesis as a youth and should even now be going over them.

When we hear the Commandments and let them preach to us, we discover ourselves to be completely lost and utterly sinful.

“You shall have no other gods.” Which one was more important when I made my daily decisions: God or myself? Have good times deluded me into thinking that I am in control? Am I tempted to think that I have God and everything I need when I have money and earthly goods?

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” Have I called God “Father” with delight? Have I used holy words or holy names in a light-hearted way? Have I used them in anger, in mockery, thoughtlessly, or for superstitious reasons? Have I kept my vows (baptismal vows, confirmation vows, marriage vows)?

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Have I neglected the reading of the Bible thinking that hearing it on Sunday is enough? Do I let other daily activities take precedence over prayer and meditation on God’s Word? Have I kept every day holy with the reading and meditation upon God’s Word? Has the hearing and reading of God’s Word become boring and meaningless to me? Have I despised the preaching of His Word by not coming to church as regularly as I should?

Those are merely the first three, and only a handful of the questions, and already every one of us is without hope. What wretched men that we are! The ashes on our foreheads remind us of this. Ashes are also for mourning, and mourn we should. We mourn when someone has died. We ought to mourn for ourselves. We are the walking dead. The Commandments tell us this. The ashes on our foreheads won’t let it go.

It’s appropriate to hear the Ten Commandments tonight, on Ash Wednesday. We enter into Lent, the season of repentance. And we hear the prophet Joel preach: “[R]end your hearts and not your garments.” Joel tells us what the Lord desires of us, and this is what each of us must do: repent. Do not think that you can do any of this. Do not think you can even keep a fraction of one of these Ten Commandments. You cannot.

If it comes to avoiding sin, you are without hope. To be righteous before God based on what you do or don’t do is complete folly. God gives the Law through the Commandments in order to reveal you in a corner, trapped, no way out. Only death remains. You are weak, you are unable, you are lost.

Then comes the Lamb of God, your High Priest and Advocate, with the Blood that speaks better things than the blood of Abel. And He marks the ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross; His cross, the Tree of Life, the instrument of death now made a throne of life, for you.

He takes the Ten Commandments and keeps them perfectly. When pointed at you they reveal nothing but sin; pointed at Christ they reveal nothing but righteousness. Who can have no other gods but the One True God made flesh Himself? Who can keep the Sabbath holy except the Word made flesh? Who can not steal except the one who already has all things and does nothing but gives them out to His beloved?

The answer is Jesus. He stands in your place. Where the Commandments promise death for you, Christ instead brings life. Where God’s Law reveals every molecule of your being to be corrupted with Sin, Christ steps in and in His Baptismal waters makes you over into utter righteousness.

Stand with the ashen cross on your forehead, for it is a symbol of whose you are. You are Christ’s; and because you are Christ’s, you have not death to look forward to, but eternal life.