Ash Wednesday

06 March 2019

Matthew 6. 1-6, 16-21
Faith is, forever, rooted in god’s love!

It’s called “The Substitutionary Theory of Atonement,” or something like that! It’s been around, in one form or another, for a long, long time. And here in America, it’s considered – by “conservative” Christians – to be one of the fundamentals of the faith. Right up there with inerrant and infallible and literal. And they’d like us to think it goes all the way back to Jesus and the Twelve. It doesn’t. At least, not this version of it. It’s more a result of the struggles of Seventeenth-century England than it is of First-century Palestine. “The Substitutionary Theory of Atonement.”

Basically, it says that god can’t – that god won’t – in good conscience, forgive sin unless and until that sin is punished! If sin isn’t taken seriously, forgiving the sinner won’t be just or fair or right. Screw up and someone’s gotta pay the price. And that, according to “The Substitutionary Theory of Atonement,” is where Jesus comes in. We sin. The sin must be punished. But instead of god punishing us, Jesus steps in and is punished on our behalf. So now, because of him, god’s willing and able to justly and fairly and rightly forgive us.

Sounds a lot like “by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith,” doesn’t it? It has a Lutheran accent to it. Especially on a night like this. The only difference? For us, it’s only one “theory” among many. For fundamentalists, it’s the one and the only. Faith is about sin. Sin is about punishment. Punishment is about Jesus. Jesus is about forgiveness. Sin an’t be condoned. Sin can’t be tolerated. Ever.

But unfortunately, that’s the basis, the foundation, of popular religion, here in the good old U.S. of A. So, even we Lutherans end up focused – fixated – on sin. We confess we’re captive to it! In bondage to it! Thought, word, deed! Done! Not done! Our fault! Our own fault! Our own most grievous fault! And this is the one night of the entire year, we can revel in the guilt and shame! This is the moment for groveling! Bowing! Scraping! And of course, the verse that justifies it all? Genesis 3. 19. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Somber. Subdued. You have sinned. Someone must pay. “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake, god forgives. . ..” For his sake, god forgives us all. “The Substitutionary Theory of Atonement,” par excellence! Have mercy on me, O God! Blot out my offenses! Cleanse me from my sin! Create in me a clean heart!

So, it’s Ash Wednesday, once again, and, tonight, our time in the wilderness starts over. But I have to confess, this year, things are different for me. Maybe it’s been all the swaps. All the transitions. So much has happened, in the last few months. Everything lifted up and swept away! Here one moment, gone the next! Nothing’s the same! And, you know, sin has nothing to do with it! Sin has nothing to do with it! We’re not here, tonight, in this place, because we did anything wrong! We’re not here because we didn’t do something we should have. No one fell short. No one missed the mark. We’re here, in this place, simply because our world changed. We’re here because life pulled the rug out from under us. No one’s at fault. No one’s to blame. Things are just. . . different.

Of course, all that “substitutionary stuff” is still there. Haunting. Hounding. We try to figure out the rhyme, the reason. If something’s wrong, we make be able to make it right. If something’s broken, at least, we could fix it. But that’s not the way it is. Not here. Not this night. And sometimes – sometimes – sin just doesn’t have anything to do with it! Poverty isn’t always a sign of laziness. Prosperity isn’t always a symptom of hard work. Sometimes, there’s no good or bad. Sometimes, there’s no wrong or right, no cause and effect. Sometimes, it’s just the way it is. Just the way the world turns.

But when that happens – sin or no – we still need saved. And we still need redeemed. Delivered. Even when there’s nothing to confess. Nothing to feel sorry about. Sinner or not, we still need good news brought to us. We still need release and recovery proclaimed. Release, recovery, and all the rest. Even when – maybe, especially when – sin has nothing to do with it! Yes, there are times when we find yourself on your knees, but not because we’re begging for mercy. It’s because life just has a way of putting us there. When Jacob went down to Egypt, it wasn’t because of something he’d done. It wasn’t because of anything his sons had done. It was because there was a famine, a drought, and he went there to survive. And when the Hebrews were sent into the mud pits to build cities for someone else, cities they’d never live in, it wasn’t because of some insult or injury. It was because a new king arose who didn’t know, who had forgotten. And after four hundred years, they weren’t forgiven. There was nothing to forgive! Plain and simple, they were set free. God saw. God heard. God came down. And god delivered! No guilt. No shame. No regret. No remorse. Just god being god! Just god doing what god does!

So, it’s Ash Wednesday, one more time. And tonight, we’ll say the things we’ve always said. And we’ll do the things we’ve always done. Things we said and done, for centuries, for generations. But know this: God doesn’t love us in spite of what we are; any more than god loves us because of who we are! And god doesn’t love us in spite of our failings; any more than god loves us because of our thriving, our succeeding, our accomplishing! And god doesn’t love us in spite of our limitations; any more than god loves us because of our advantages. God loves us! God, simply, loves us all! For no good reason – no better reason – than that is who god is! That is what god does!

Tonight, we, still, confess our sin. We say we’re sorry. And as we’ve done so many times before, we promise to never, ever do it, again. But, of course, we will. And, one more time, we’ll be reminded we’re dust. We’re dust and dust we’ll remain. But my friends, please know this: There is one thing and one thing only god wants you never to forget. . . YOU ARE CHRIST’S AND CHRIST’S YOU SHALL REMAIN. . . FOREVER!