From my Ash Wednesday sermon, March 6, 2019
(…continued) That gets us into a second theme of Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of the Season of Lent. Lent, for many centuries, has been associated with, among other things, disciplining ourselves to focus on that message of Christ. Lutherans have an additional worship service each week, as an added opportunity to hear the message. Catholics would traditionally take on the added discipline of giving something up for Lent; again, as a reminder of faith. Every time one has to resist the temptation to eat meat, or chocolate, or go on Facebook, or whatever, they are reminded of their faith which has prompted that discipline.
Discipline is, of course, a part of any worthy endeavor—school, sports, career, home life, or whatever. Someone once said, “Discipline is remembering what you want.” If you want to be a champion long distance runner, you have to remember to discipline yourself to run every day. If you want to make the A Honor Roll, you have to remember to study. If you want your business to succeed, you have to remember to discipline yourself to work hard. And if you want to have faith, you have to remember to discipline yourself to hear the Word. If faith is not fed, it will die.
Believing in God is not just saying, “Okay, got it– I believe all that stuff about you God; so, now I can check you off of my to-do list… so, ah, see you later, God, you know, like when I’m dead and you take me to heaven. Right?” Not right. Moods change, other priorities take over, other voices from the world around you ridicule what you believe, faith can die, and you can drift away. Even that great man of faith C. S. Lewis said of himself (and it applies to us all): “We have to be continually reminded of what we believe, because no belief will automatically remain alive in the mind. That is why daily prayers and weekly churchgoing are so important in keeping faith alive.”
“Faith comes by hearing,” said Paul. That is how it works. One of the messages of Lent is that we need to discipline ourselves now, and throughout the year, and throughout our lives, to keep hearing that message.
We need to hear that Word of God so we can keep on believing it, because by believing it, we are saved; saved from ending up only as ‘dust and ashes.’ On Ash Wednesday, you receive on your forehead a visible reminder that this is important. Everything, including your brief little life, is in God’s hands.
Galatians 6:7 says: “Do not be deceived. God will not be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. God will not be mocked.” There is a lot of mocking of God going on in the world today, and not only by some of the fools on TV and in the movies and in the universities, but also in each of our own lives when we ignore or make light of faith in God. And God says, “Don’t do that. I will not be mocked.”
Leo Tolstoy has been called the greatest novelist of all time. He was at first an atheist, and then he was a Christian. Once he became a Christian, he took his faith very seriously. He quit writing novels for a long time, and used his considerable talent to write about what it means to have faith in Jesus. His writings about following Jesus are brilliant, intense, and challenging; sometimes off the wall and unorthodox, but always thought-provoking. He wrote about a life of faith far beyond his own ability to live up to, and that caused him unceasing guilt and anguish. He was always struggling to be a better follower of Jesus. He titled one of his books The Kingdom of God is Within You, taken from the words of Jesus in Luke 17:21. Here is a paraphrase of some words from that book :
You who may die any instant– you carry on your business, sometimes without integrity or honesty, you deal with other people, oftentimes without respect or kindness; you find excuses for your own bad behavior, but you harshly judge the misdeeds of others; you live luxuriously and ignore the needs of those around you; … and yet, it may happen at the moment when you are acting thus, that a bacterium or a bull may attack you, and you will fall down and die, losing forever the chance of repairing the harm you have done to others and above all to yourself, uselessly wasting the life which has been given you only once in eternity, without having accomplished the only thing you ought to have done.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
So what should you do? You should remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. And then also remember that Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” And then, this promise often spoken in the cemetery committal service, can be yours: “Out of the dust you were taken, unto the dust you now return, and out of the dust you shall rise again.”
II Corinthians 4:16-18 — Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
John 11:25 — Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
–Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)