Right between the eyes.
The readings appointed for Ash Wednesday hit us hard with our sinfulness, harder than probably any other readings during the Church Year. Today the Law thunders down with sobering fierceness. As we hear it, we must concede that the deliberately examined life cannot help but lead us to despair for lack of our own goodness and merit. In the mirror of God's Law, we perpetually stand condemned.
As the Smalcald Articles point out:
This office [of the Law] the New Testament retains and urges, as St. Paul, Rom. 1:18 does, saying: The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Again, Rom 3:19: All the world is guilty before God. No man is righteous before Him. And Christ says, John 16:8: The Holy Ghost will reprove the world of sin. This, then, is the thunderbolt of God by which He strikes in a heap [hurls to the ground] both manifest sinners and false saints [hypocrites], and suffers no one to be in the right [declares no one righteous], but drives them all together to terror and despair. This is the hammer, as Jeremiah 23:29 says: Is not My Word like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? This is not activa contritio or manufactured repentance, but passiva contritio [torture of conscience], true sorrow of heart, suffering and sensation of death.
But we do not like this message. It makes us uncomfortable. After all, we aren't that bad. We can't possibly be. Legions of smiling pastors and talk show hostesses tell us otherwise. Shelves of bestsellers remind us of how great we really are and how earnestly God wants to bless us and grant us our best lives. Surely there is enough good in us to make a difference, to make God somehow look on us and have mercy, for after all God is love...and we aren't that bad. Right?
Truth be told, we are that bad. We are sinful. We cannot hope to be found righteous of ourselves. If we read the Law and do not find ourselves judged guilty, let me suggest that we have not read far enough and should keep reading. Don't worry, we won't have to read far. We will soon realize that none of us can measure up to the perfection their modeled and demanded.
Inside, we know this is true. We feel it. We go great lengths to ignore those feelings. We go to therapy and take pills to suppress them. We hope in ourselves despite knowing better.
The great American Lutheran forefather C.F.W. Walther gets it right:
[Many] build their hope for eternity on their upright lives. They carelessly regard themselves as good, without having examined their heart, their thoughts, their words, and their works. Even if a man lives uprightly, he will daily perceive how his conscience accuses him and declares him guilty. If a person examines himself according to the Law of God revealed in the Holy Scriptures, he will see countless flaws and weaknesses. If he fails to find them, he must be completely blind, wantonly closing the eyes of his soul to the mirror God holds before us.
God's thunderbolt strikes us from the lips of the prophet Joel, as our hypocrisy, false piety, and sinfulness are laid unmistakably bare. Even the most saintly appearing among us is a great sinner. No one is godly. None of us. We must change. We must repent.
“But even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart—
with fasting, crying, and mourning.”
Tear your hearts, not your clothes.
Return to the Lord your God.
He is merciful and compassionate,
patient, and always ready to forgive
and to change his plans about disaster.
He may reconsider and change his plan
and leave a blessing for you.
Then you could give grain offerings and wine offerings
to the Lord your God.
Blow the ram’s horn in Zion.
Schedule a time to fast.
Call for an assembly.
Gather the people.
Prepare them for a holy meeting.
Assemble the leaders.
Gather the children, even the nursing infants.
Grooms leave their rooms.
Brides leave their chambers.
The priests who serve the Lord cry
between the altar and the entrance to the temple.
“Spare your people, O Lord.
Don’t let the people who belong to you become a disgrace.
Don’t let the nations ridicule them.
Why should people ask, ‘Where is their God?’ ”
Then the Lord became concerned about his land,
and he had pity on his people.
The Lord said to his people,
“I am going to send grain, new wine, and olive oil to you.
You will be satisfied with them.
I will no longer make you a disgrace among the nations.
-- Joel 2.12-18 (God's Word)
Yet even there, in the stinging words of the prophet Joel there is hope. God, who has judged our sin, has not left us own our own. Going again to the Smalcald Articles:
[To the Law] the New Testament immediately adds the consolatory promise of grace through the Gospel, which must be believed, as Christ declares, Mark 1:15: Repent and believe the Gospel, i.e., become different and do otherwise, and believe My promise. And John, preceding Him, is called a preacher of repentance, however, for the remission of sins, i.e., John was to accuse all, and convict them of being sinners, that they might know what they were before God, and might acknowledge that they were lost men, and might thus be prepared for the Lord, to receive grace, and to expect and accept from Him the remission of sins.
In other words, we do not end in despair and hopelessness unless we wrongly or proudly rely on themselves. To the Law, God has added the comforting balm of the Gospel. There we should "expect and accept from Him the remission of sins." That, my friends, is the good news.
As a result of this life-changing good news, we can sing and pray the words of today's introit:
I WILL cry unto God Most High: unto God that performeth all things for me.
Yea, in the shadow of Thy wings will I make my refuge I until these calamities be overpast.
Our imperfection is engulfed in the perfection of Christ Jesus.
Our unrighteousness is entirely covered by Christ, our righteousness.
Our weaknesses are made perfect by the flawless strength of the Son of God.
The Law's verdict of "guilty" is not placed upon us, but upon Jesus who bore our sin on our behalf that we might--though the divine exchange--receive his perfection.
Almighty and everlasting God, Who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of Thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, for ever and ever.
photo credit: shehan365 | creative commons via Compfight
Note: this post is an updated version of one I originally wrote in 2015.