Just this last Sunday, as we followed Jesus out of the Epiphany season, we bid farewell to Alleluias.
Singing that hymn, “Alleluia, Song of Gladness,” we were reminded that there is a time to restrain the joy we know is ours in Christ.
Run through the city, blow the trumpet, and proclaim the fast!
There is a season for everything. There is even a season for mourning. And this is it.
Depending on how much you love to sing your “Alleluias” the singing of that hymn may have felt like when you were growing up and your brother came and took your favorite toy, and you pleaded for him not to.
But the pleading is to no avail. Today we have been left without heaven, and worse, we are left with ourselves.
The message of Lent is that God and heaven are no longer within our grasp.
Even Christians cannot do anything they want.
The doors of the heavens during the season of Lent are so tightly shut that we can no longer hear the chorus of angels and saints singing and praising God on the other side.
We are shut out of the light. We sit in darkness.
If the saints in heaven and the saints on earth are really only one congregation praising God,
Then they sing their songs with God; and we sing our mournful tunes alone.
The majesty of heaven is out of our reach.
We see the cross, but we cannot see beyond it.
A wall has been placed around Mount Zion so that we are not allowed to approach the Divine Majesty.
Jesus has gently coaxed us down from the Mount of transfiguration.
We were allowed only a glimpse of His majesty, and that only for a moment.
So long as we are in this life, permanent residence in heaven is forbidden.
The veil over Moses’ face has been placed over our eyes as well, so that we can no longer see God or hear His promises.
Our doom is to be left alone without God, each of us forced to examine ourselves as we really are.
We are not to look at anyone else. Comparisons are not allowed.
Today, on Ash Wednesday, we are given other reminders that we are on this side of Heaven.
We deprive ourselves of our favorite food and drink to be reminded that we are so very fragile and that life is temporal.
Jesus commands us to fast, but we are not to go around making a show of it.
As soon as we do, we fool ourselves into thinking that we’re doing Him a favor.
But no one can do God a favor. We cannot even help ourselves.
Our souls are dying with our bodies. Before God we are nothing and we have nothing.
I remember back to when I was in grade school, and the teacher came in to class with what appeared to be a bruise on her forehead.
When I asked her how she had hurt herself, she told me that they were ashes placed on her forehead for Ash Wednesday.
I should have known that.
Even if my congregation wasn’t using ashes at the time, we did observe Ash Wednesday.
But I didn’t figure it out until later.
That incident has remained fresh in my mind.
She had not hurt herself, but the ashes graphically indicated that she and all mankind had been damaged, to the point that we were all quickly returning to the ashes.
If Good Friday at the end of Lent is the commemoration of the death and burial of Jesus Christ, then Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, is the commemoration of our death and burial. Today the words spoken by God to Adam are spoken to us.
“Thou art dust and to dust shalt thou return.”
Today we come face to face with the grim reality of our lives and of our deaths.
Today the light of heaven is darkened, the choirs of angels are silent, and the noise of celebration cannot be heard.
We are here to listen to these words: “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
Tonight we commemorate several days at once.
Tonight we are forced out of paradise with Adam and Eve.
Tonight we hear the preaching of Noah that the world cannot ignore God without incurring a disastrous and ultimate penalty.
Tonight we sit with Job in the ash pit and comfort ourselves with the comfortless words:
“We brought nothing into this world and we shall take nothing out.”
Today we pray and fast with King David, mourning over the death of his infant son and his older son, Absalom, knowing that by ourselves we cannot create life and by ourselves we cannot preserve life.
Tonight all our personal tragedies confront us; and we cannot escape ourselves.
The church cannot tell the world what to do. But it would be better if they commemorated Ash Wednesday with us and ceased their celebrations.
Unless we die with Christ now, we cannot be raised with Him on Easter.
Without Ash Wednesday, Easter is meaningless.
Unless there is real sorrow, there is no joy.
No other people have gratified themselves as we have.
We have fooled ourselves into believing that we deserve the very best in clothing, food, and drink.
We are like those people who lived in the days of Noah, buying and selling, marrying and being given in marriage.
Life goes on forever. There is no judgment.
But across the wall come written the words,
“Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” (Dan. 5)
“Numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.”
Numbered are your days, weighed are your sins, divided is your kingdom.
We have all been placed in the scales of divine righteousness and have vailed to live up to even the ordinary expectations of human justice.
Today is the Day of Judgment.
There was a time when we Lutherans were different from Roman Catholics because they fasted and we didn’t – at least we did not have to fast.
Now even they only do it for two days.
But we should fast to remind be reminded that in spite of the good feelings we have about ourselves, in spite of the fact that we really believe we deserve the very best we can afford because of who we are and what we have done, we are really nothing.
Deprive us of water and food for even the shortest time and we begin to wither.
We are still only like children who, when they miss their dinner by only a few minutes, become distressed.
The message of Ash Wednesday is that no one should think more highly of himself than he ought.
Luther, who was a great man in everyone’s eyes, said as he was dying, “We are beggars.”
Run through the city. Proclaim a fast. Put aside all pretense, all boasting.
Rend your hearts and not your garments.
Perhaps the God who has condemned us will raise us up.
Even if we cannot sit in the middle of heaven or at the right hand and the left hand of the Son of Man when He comes in His glory, we can at least sit at heaven’s gates and get a glimpse of the celestial light coming through the cracks around the high doors and hear, if only faintly, the alleluias of a distant land.
It is a day on which our only hope is the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, who has borne our iniquity all the way to the cross, to which we now follow Him.
Nothing sums it up better than the traditional collect for Ash Wednesday, which should be prayed at every service in Lent.
“Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that Thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all 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.”
This sermon was inspired, in its entirety, by the homily entitled, “Farewell to the Alleluias” preached by Rev. Dr. David P. Scaer at Zion Lutheran Church in Ft. Wayne, IN on Ash Wednesday, 1990, and which has been published in Volume I of In Christ: The Collected Woks of David P. Scaer – Lutheran Confessor