Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
I count it a miracle whenever people show up for worship on Ash Wednesday.
This liturgical practice has changed quite a lot just in my lifetime. I came-of-age in a world where the only people walking around with ashes on their foreheads were those faithful Catholics who went to early early one Wednesday morning once a year.
But now, more and more churches are rediscovering the profound power that comes from the strangest of places – a recognition of the condition of our condition.
We are sinners.
Or, to be a little more on the nose about it, we are incompatible.
At the heart of Ash Wednesday is a declaration about our rebellion from God. It’s why we pull from the likes of the prophet Isaiah – announce to the people their sins!
And yet very few, if any, are willing to hear this accusations hurled at us from the Lord. Let alone from somebody dressed in black at the front of the sanctuary.
More often than not, our sinfulness get proclaimed to us about our failure to do something. Whether we hear it from a pastor, or the radio, or our own inner monologue, we imagine that we are not doing enough.
We confront the reality of poverty in our neighborhood and we feel like we could be doing more.
We discover the injustices committed against people both inside and outside the church and we think that we haven’t done our fair share.
We turn on the news and see another tragedy and we wonder if we could’ve done something to stop it.
And then we have a day like today where we are expected to confess, apologize, express remorse, and embody repentance for all that we have failed to do.
But even if we are in a place to hear about our failures, we are quick to rationalize them. Most of us are perpetually rearranging reality to conform to our ideas about how the world should work – we lie to ourselves and others constantly and unthinkingly.
We do, every so often, have opportunities to see who we really are, be it an Ash Wednesday service, or the cutting accusation from a friend, or another probing question for a spouse, or child, or parent, and we don’t like the image we see in the mirror.
We deny the truth.
Denial has become an art form.
We deny death with every advertisement on TV and every pill we receive from the pharmacy.
We deny responsibility with every shrug of our shoulders when we see an elected official failing to do their job.
We deny the fundamental reality about who we are by filling our lives with stuff that we’re supposed to do.
Those empty gestures of holiness and postures of supposed solidarity often amount to little more than a Facebook status change or telling someone to listen to a particular podcast.
But Ash Wednesday compels us to dispense our denials and realize what the condition of our condition is.
Ash Wednesday, at its best and worst, disturbs the peace that we’ve worked so hard to believe is true.
We don’t need to parade out the overwhelming examples of sin from our personal lives, or even our collective lives. One need not look too far into the soul to see that there is often more darkness than light. One need not pretend the church is a perfect body when we spend 3.5 million dollars arguing about who else to exclude from ministry or marriage.
There is a reason that Ash Wednesday is one of the least attended worship services in the entire year – in it we acknowledge that God has a pretty good case against us, and we throw ourselves upon God’s mercy knowing we do not deserve it.
That is not a fun feeling to have.
Most of us respond to that great gulf between God’s goodness and our sinfulness by trying to do something to make God forgive us. We fall back on the Law hoping it can redeem us. We even lob charges against other people for their failures because it makes us feel better about our own.
The Law will demand everything from us, but give us nothing.
It is the Gospel that demands nothing from us, but gives us everything.
That is the crux of this bizarre thing that we do as disciples of Jesus Christ. We gather, we listen, and we faintly begin to grasp that there is quite literally nothing we can do to get God to love us more. We look deeply in our sins, and the sins of the church, and the sins of the world and we inexplicably come into contact with the God who extends mercy to us even in the midst of our horrible condition.
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. And yet it is given to us.
Today is the beginning of a season in which we are reminded of the new thing that God is doing in Jesus. During these Lenten days we need not surround ourselves with excuses and denials, we need not lie to ourselves and to other, we need not live our lives as if everything we do is entirely on our shoulders.
The judged judge has already come to stand in our place.
To borrow the language from Isaiah – Jesus is the one who breaks the yoke of sin that constantly pushes us to and fro.
Jesus is the one who shares the bread of life, his own body, with people who are hungry for something more.
Jesus is the one who provides a new home to people like you and me who were once far off in our isolation from God and one another.
Jesus is the one who covers us in the waters of baptism so that we will no longer be ashamed of who we are.
Jesus is the one who answers when we cry out for help with the triumphant declaration, “Here I am!”
Ash Wednesday can be a day for us to wallow in the truth that none of us makes it out of this life alive. It can be a time for us to confront our finitude and fragility. We can hear the words as the ashes are imposed and think about all the stuff we should start doing.
But Ash Wednesday is also a reminder that all of our so-called work toward righteousness counts for a whole lot of nothing. God is not the great ledger keeper waiting to see if we’ve done enough or not.
Instead, God is the one who condescends to the muck and misery of life, who draws into himself the hostility of sin in the person of Christ, who ascends onto the hard wood of the cross in response to the hatred of humanity, and who triumphantly proclaims through the empty tomb that we will never be defined by our sins.
We are defined by our Savior. Amen.