Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2/22/2023. The bulletin is available as a PDF: Ash Wednesday Bulletin

The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for Ash Wednesday, click here. 

Though many parties have tried to downplay the seriousness of it, by now you’ve all heard about the train wreck in East Palestine, OH almost three weeks ago. You know how a bad part led to a malfunction, which led to a fire, and eventually the derailment of a train carrying vast quantities of toxic chemicals. 

You know how those chemicals started seeping into the ground, and then into the water – a process that was briefly arrested when it was decided to instead set the chemicals on fire, releasing them into the air. 

On account of this, many have been displaced. They’re unsure what they can eat, what they can drink, and when they can go home, because in very tangible ways the world around them has been ruined, down to the very air they breathe. 

So, of course they and others are wondering: “How do we fix this?” One answer has been that there’s nothing to fix; that it’s safe to return home and go on as if nothing happened. This kind of thing happens all the time, after all. No need to make a big deal of it. 

It’s an answer that demands for people to ignore plain reason, and shut their eyes to what is plain to everyone. That this isn’t natural. It isn’t safe. And it’s not going to get better on its own. 

This is a horrid, but fitting picture of a world that has been poisoned. You can look back to Genesis and get the whole story, of when one man didn’t do his job, and God’s good creation went off the rails. When the toxic sludge of sin spilled into time and space, and everything became subject to death. 

Thus, a once lush and verdant land became contaminated, dangerous, and even deadly. One picture of that is the ashes on your head. The leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday, incinerated and reduced to dust. 

But it isn’t just that creation has fallen. The damage is continuously inflicted. It happens whenever you step outside of God’s holy commandments, which instruct you so clearly concerning what is toxic, deadly, and unsafe; because it is outside of God’s will for your lives. 

The damage is done when you stay somewhere you know to be toxic, when you willingly enter a contaminated area, thinking it won’t hurt you; when you drink what you know is poisonous; when you listen to whatever voice will tell you it’s okay, that no harm will come to you, even when you know that voice is lying. 

If you wouldn’t go to Ohio to drink water that will damage your body, why would you dare to drink that which will damage your soul? Why would you dare to listen to the voices of liars, promising you that all shall be well? 

So, how are you going to fix this? 

Will you fix it with fasting? Will you fix it with almsgiving? If you go that route, it’ll be something akin to setting a pool of chemicals on fire. 

Fasting and almsgiving are good, right, and salutary; and Jesus assumes you’re doing both. But they are not a fix. They are not a solution. 

The damage wrought by the fall into sin is too vast. The earth, and those who dwell on it, are infected to the core. You are not able to clean this mess up. 

If the spill is that big – if it is in the water and in the air, if it is settled into our flesh and bone, what shall we do? 

We shall receive that which Christ has done for us. Jesus has drunk the tainted cup, full of God’s wrath over sin, down to the dregs. He has purified it in His own Body, and on the cross issued forth pure water from His side. He has breathed in the poisonous fumes of this charred earth, and breathed out on you His Holy Spirit. 

As our own Martin Franzmann penned in his glorious hymn:  

Thou camest to our hall of death, O Christ, to breathe our poisoned air, To drink for us the dark despair That strangled our reluctant breath. LSB 834:3 

For you, dear Christians, baptized, born again from pure water, there is life on the far side of death, Eden on the far side of Gehenna. The green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23 are not metaphor. For Christ has made all things new. 

So, the ashes are a reminder of death; but they are applied with the sign of the One who has conquered death. 

For you, then, who have been poisoned, who live in this corrupted world, receive this Holy Lent as 40 days of paradise – as healing, as restoration, and cultivation of a more excellent way. As St. Peter writes in our Epistle this evening, that by receiving Christ’s gracious promises, we would, 

become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. verse 4

As 40 days of renewed rest in God’s Word. 

That you would be mindful of what is harmful; and led beside still waters (the kind without toxins); that you would learn again how to live, and how to die. 

Let it also be a time for the blessed removal of some things – that which is sinful, destructive, and toxic, to be sure; but that is not really fasting as much as it is repentance. 

Consider even fasting from some of those things which are not evil in themselves, but perhaps not beneficial for you; that you would be refocused on what is best. 

You will not be left wanting.  

[For] the LORD became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. The LORD answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.” verses 18-19

Indeed, God has sent grain, wine, and oil: the anointing of His Holy Spirit, that we would gladly receive the Bread and Wine, which is the Body and Blood of His Son; the gracious antidote for this world’s poisons. 

First Lutheran Church Sermon Archive


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