Say What You Need to Say 3-1-17 Ash Wednesday

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, I explore 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. We are reminded of death, a theme of this day, but must recognize that death does not get the last word.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/say-what-you-need-to-say-3-1-17-ash-wednesday

You can follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

A couple days back, I was texting back and forth with a fellow pastor, jabbering about our respective sermons for tonight. She had already written hers, but she was worried that it was too short. I thought about it for a minute and then shared a bit of wisdom that my old preaching professor from seminary told us.

When you’re preaching, step into the pulpit, say what needs to be said, and then get the heck out of there. (pause) Now maybe this is a bit of a Lutheran notion…especially when compared with the preaching approaches in some different denominational bodies…where sermons can carry on for 30-40 minutes…but it’s a lesson that I’ve taken to heart, as most of you have probably figured out by now.

But that being said…there is one style that I just can’t wrap my head around…and that is the ongoing preaching in an old style revival. Now I’ve never been to a revival…but I’ve heard stories of the proverbial old school Baptist minister…getting up there and railing away for hours…eventually the suit coat comes off…the collar gets loosened…the shirt sleeves get rolled up…and when I’ve seen images on tv it always seems like its happening in mid-summer because everyone is all hot and sweaty…waving themselves with fans while the revival goes on and on and on. (pause)
Now, as I mentioned…I’ve never been to one…but I remember seeing a revival depicted on tv…on the classic show…the Waltons with John Boy and Mary Ellen and the rest of the Walton clan…Now, I remember seeing this episode as a kid, because my parents loved the show and watched it in syndication constantly…and not only that, but quite recently this particular episode was on in the background when I was visiting one of our members recently.

And the revival is depicted just as I described it a moment ago…as the visiting preacher rails on and on…focusing in on various individuals…and preaching fire and brimstone their direction…now one of the Walton boys catches an attack…and pretty quick he comes up to the front in a bit of an altar call…and later on in the episode he ends up in the river getting baptized…but then the preacher turns his attention to John Sr…who the show depicts as being pretty absent from worship most Sundays…and starts railing on him about the fires of hell…and John gets fed up…stands up…and walks out. (pause)

Now thinking about that whole scene reminds me of a portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, our featured passage for this evening…if there’s an overarching theme to this reading…and in fact to the entire letter of 2nd Corinthians in general…it’s the theme of reconciliation.  Somewhere in between Paul’s 1st letter to them and this one, the relationship has gotten strained…we don’t know what happened…but Paul is attempting to repair the breach…both for the sake of their own personal relationship and reconciliation, as well as for the sake of the gospel that he has taught them in the past.

Paul’s fear is that their irritation with him, whatever that might be about…will sour their opinion of the gospel that he had proclaimed…and so the theme of reconciliation…the need for it…particularly in terms of their relationship with God…and for a brief moment…I could almost imagine Paul as that Revival Preacher…NOW IS THE TIME…NOW IS THE DAY OF SALVATION. (pause) Whatever else Paul might be talking about…this small portion of the passage gives us a sense of urgency…that they must be reconciled now in this moment.

Now interestingly enough…Paul doesn’t get all fire and brimstoney on his audience…there’s no sense of trying to scare them into faith…no ultimatum of “Accept Christ or burn in hell.” And honestly I’m grateful for that…because I’ve never been partial to that style of proclamation…yes…Christ’s sacrifice frees us from the power of sin and death and condemnation…but if we are proclaiming Christ for the sole purpose of a get out of jail free card, then I think we are missing the point…for Christ desires that we be reconciled to God now…that we be in good relationship with God and our neighbor now…today…in this life. (pause)
But that being said…today is Ash Wednesday…today is one of the few days in the church year when we take an honest look at the end…and with that in mind…maybe, just maybe that sense of urgency isn’t a bad thing.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. (pause) God formed humanity out of the dirt…God gives us life…but at some point…that life is over…and we return to the dirt that we came from in the first place. That’s what we’re talking about tonight…and when I look you in the eyes in a few more minutes, and I smear some ashes on your forehead and say those words to you, that’s what I’m saying. That at some point…you…will…die.

I’ll be honest…death is not one of my favorite subjects…and perhaps tonight more than any other Ash Wednesday that I’ve been a part of in the past…it seems particularly uncomfortable…There’s been too much of it in recent history…last fall our community and our congregation experienced several in a pretty short amount of time…some at the end of a long full life…and some shockingly early and unexpected.  And for me personally, it was all capped off with the death of my mentor in late November…a 57 year old man who was the pillar of health…unexpected to say the least…and wouldn’t you know it…I also got word this past weekend that one of my parents neighbors…a man that I’ve known since I was 3 years old suddenly died.

The thing about death…is that there’s no rhyme or reason to it…it comes out of the blue…and it catches us unaware…and if these unexpected deaths that have happened around all of us over the course of this past year have shown us anything…its that tomorrow is not guaranteed.

And while God may continue to display infinite patience with us in this life…it would seem that our death creates something of an expiration date…and so, Paul’s urgency…now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation…and yes maybe I sound a little fire and brimstoney here. Its not my normal style…but I can see today where Paul is coming from.

But here’s the thing…that salvation that he’s talking about…its already offered to you…its already been done for you…its already been accomplished for you. Christ did it at the cross…just how it works, I don’t know…just why it works, I don’t know…all I do know is that God loves us fully and completely…every single one of us…and God loves us so much that this blasted sin and the separation that it causes must be overcome and since we can’t pull it off on our own God stepped in through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and did something about it on our behalf…and this freedom…this salvation…whatever you want to call it is offered to you freely…now.

And the amazing thing about this…is that death…which has to be the worst part of our existence…both from the standpoint of having to watch it happen and experience the pain of loss that death causes for those still living…as well as the horrific reality of our own death, when our existence…our life as we know it ceases to be…and we cross into that great unknown that is lying on the other side of it…this horrific truth…this horrible thing…death, the worst thing that will happen to us…it is not the last thing that will happen to us.

If you’ve been to a funeral that I’ve led, you’ve likely heard me say that death comes for us all…but death doesn’t get the last word…God does…and we’re given a tiny little glimpse at that in the very last thing Paul says tonight…we are treated as having nothing…yet possessing everything.

You’ve all heard the saying “you can’t take it with you.” And its true. We come into this world with nothing…and we leave the same way…taking nothing with us…BUT…the promise of God assures us that we are made heirs of eternal life…WHATEVER that’s going to look like in the age to come…we are given that promise…it is spoken over us in the waters of our baptism…and it is spoken to us in the bread and wine of Communion.

Now in just a few minutes, I’ll look you in the eye and say words that refer to your death…but right after I say that to you, you will hear the words “the body of Christ broken for you…the blood of Christ shed for you.”  And this is done for the forgiveness of sin. Death is real, but the last words in the conversation belong to God. (pause)

Tonight we kick off the season of Lent…and we do it by acknowledging death…by recognizing our own limitations…and in about 40 days, Christ is going to be nailed to a cross where he’ll endure the true cost of our broken sinful reality…a cost that we can’t even begin to understand…he’ll endure it…or in actually he already has…because you have to go through death before you can get to the resurrection…but maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself there.

Tonight we remember that death comes for us all…and tonight we leave the conversation unfinished…which might seem strange…but I’ll make you a promise…or at least I’ll share God’s promise to you…this isn’t it…we’ll pick it up again at Easter with that tomb…is empty. Amen

 

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