Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Mortality and Immorality---Sermon for Ash Wednesday


Text: Lk. 18.9-14

The term Lent comes from the English word Lenten which in turn comes from the English word lengthen, referring to the season of the lengthening of the days. Ash Wednesday is the first day in the Lenten season, and has traditionally been a day of repentance, of remorse for sin symbolized by the imposition of ashes, but in that imposition is the sign of hope, for the ashes are imposed in the sign of the cross—the means by which our sins were atoned for. Ash Wednesday falls exactly 46 days before Easter and of course it moves around in the calendar because it is linked to Easter which moves around in the calendar. Why? Because Easter is in turn linked to Jewish festival of Passover, when Jesus was crucified, in all likelihood on April 7 A.D. 30. The Jews followed a lunar calendar which of course made the months shorter, and so Lent and Easter are moveable feasts. They are linked as beginning and end of a process of repentance and forgiveness. What precedes Ash Wednesday is Shrove Tuesday, the day one seeks to be shriven of one's sins, which of course has been turned into Fat Tuesday by our culture, the binge before the supposed purge.
Today, above all days, is the time to talk about repentance, which means ever so much more than just saying one is sorry, or even having regrets. The Greek word we translate repentance metanoia refers to a volte face, an about face, a complete change in direction or behavioral pattern, and from the very first Jesus associated this concept with the Good News of the Kingdom—“repent and hear the Good News, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1.15) seems to have been a summary of his early message, and as such it was much like John the Baptizer’s message as well.

When Ann and I lived in England, we once attended an Ash Wednesday service in Durham. When the minister called the congregation forward to pray for forgiveness of sins, the elderly gentleman stood up in front of me, to be first to go forward and his wife tugged on his sleeve of his Harris Tweed Jacket and whispered "Sit down, Henry, you haven't sinned, by which I take it she meant he hadn't broken the big ten lately. This is too often how we view sin.

During a normal Ash Wednesday service you will hear the words—‘dust you are, and to dust you shall return’ or even ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. These words are also part of the funeral ritual. Why this somber reminder about our mortality? Well for the very good reason that we will one day go to meet our Maker, ready or not, and it would be better to be ready, than not! The reminder of our mortality is meant to help us renounce our immorality, to repent of our sins, and as the old Southern sign bluntly said—‘Get right with God, or get left by God’.

Unfortunately, in our current culture we would like short-cut salvation--- forgiveness without repentance, salvation without a change of life, grace without gratitude or a change in attitude. In a God-forsaken life, there may even be an attempt to atone for one’s own sins. We like to say “let me make it up to you”, but alas that is seldom possible, even with ordinary mistakes, and totally impossible if we are talking about sin. One of the most powerful movies I have seen in years is the recent Oscar nominated film—‘Atonement’. It is a truly post-modern film, all about a young girl with a vivid imagination who is rather jealous of her older sister and her relationship with her boy friend who works on the English estate where the girls live, but who is ‘beneath the station of the girl’s family’.

It is a typical class clash English drama in some ways, but there is much more too it. For the younger sister Bryony would like to have this young man for herself, but when she is spurned, and something goes terribly wrong on the estate (a teenage girl is raped) Bryony imagines that she saw the young lad doing it, she accuses him, and he is carted off to jail, ruining her older sister’s relationship and hopes.

The rest of the movie is consumed with the tale of atonement, or shall we say attempted do it yourself atonement. Bryony becomes a nurse during WWI, thinking she can work her sin off by good deeds. She attempts reconciliation with her sister, but this does not work. She attempts to wash her hands of the affair, but this does not work. She writes a clever novel in which there is a happier ending to the story than there was in real life, ‘to make amends’ ‘to make it better’ as she says, but alas, the sin is still not atoned for. Like Lady MacBeth trying to get the blood off her hands from a murder and crying out in the night ‘out out darn spot’, there is, and can be no self-atonement!

Let me be perfectly clear---neither good intentions, nor good efforts, nor good deeds can atone for sin—only repenting, turning to God who has atoned for sin in the death of his Son Jesus, and receiving forgiveness from Him can break the endless cycle of futile and fatal attempts at self-justification and self-atonement.

It is more than fitting that at the beginning of Lent we would repent, in reminder that at the end of Lent our means of forgiveness shows up in the person of Jesus, and through his atoning death on the cross. Only God in Christ can not merely forgive sins, but make the sinner whole. Only he has the grace which can change a sinner into a saint. So as we have the ashes imposed we remember or mortality and our immorality and realize that ‘tempus fugit’ and there is need that we get right with God before we go ‘gentle into that good night’ as Dylan Thomas put it.

In our text for this evening we have the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, an appropriate story as April 15 is coming. The story is a story of contrasts between a pious Pharisee, who is no hypocrite, and a penitent tax collector, who knows he is a sinner. The problem with the Pharisee is not merely that he measures himself by comparing himself with other less moral human beings, thus not measuring himself by God’s absolute standard. The problem with the Pharisee is that he is a good pious person, whose piety is getting in the way of his repenting, as he thinks his relationship with God is just fine. The Pharisee knows his need for God and for repentance, and does not make a show of listing his many good deeds, as if to impress God. This word just in--- God is not easily impressed.

The tax collector, who knows he has defrauded many, and must come to God ‘just as I am without one plea’ throws himself on the mercy of God, and shows all the signs of true repentance. Notice the difference in the posture of the two men—one stands near to the altar with hands uplifted looking up to God, the other stands at a distance beats his breast and dares not look up into heaven, in remorse for sin, daring not to look into the face of the Almighty. One prays ‘I thank you God I am not like other people—evil doers.. or even this tax collector’ The other prays, ‘God have mercy on me a sinner’. One reminds God he fasts and prays more than required, the other comes without one plea to the throne of mercy and grace.

Jesus concludes the parable by informing us that it is not the former man, who is no hypocrite but thinks his piety has established his claim on God’s blessing and mercy, but rather the latter man who goes away set right or justified in the sight of God. True repentance and a turning around of life and behavior, leads to divine forgiveness from a merciful God. And the miracle is not merely reconciliation with God and forgiveness, but one begins to become either for the first time, or once more, one’s best self.

Today is the day to repent of your sins and be shriven and forgiven. Today is the day to confess you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, you have neglected to do things you ought to have done (sins of omission), and you have done things you ought not to have done (sins of commission). All of us, all of us, as Paul says have sinned and fallen short of God’s highest and best for us. Today is the day to repent and receive the Good News that in Christ you are both forgiven, and given a chance to be a new person, make a new start. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up. And may I just add, for our nation as well, in the throws of a war, and on the cusp of a crucial national election, we as an American people need to get our house in order, and kneel once more before the throne of grace and receive mercy and forgiveness from Almighty God. Now is the appointed time and needed hour. AMEN


sgreene25 said...

Good word, I have begun as a once Catholic now evangelical non-denom(if you will) Christian begun to reflect on the season of Lent. As a young Catholic I saw Ash Wednesday as the day I went to church early, wore ashes on my forehead all day, and didn't eat meat. I never had a grounded perspective on the day, and I appreciate your blog today especially as I become a evangelical with sentiment towards Catholicsm, or perhaps the liturgical practices. Your blog was especially encouraging, and has given me a fresh perspective on this time of year.
This is usually a time that some would dread, abstaining from an item, and not eating meat on Fridays, but we have especially in the evangelical community ignored how spritually "rich" of a season Lent is. Thank you Dr. Witherington for the blog, and as a recent subscrbier to your blog, I look forward to reading more!

God Bless,


Laverne said...

Very thought provoking message indeed. A couple of scriptures come to my mind.
1. "If the LORD doesn't build a house, the work of its builders is useless. If the LORD doesn't watch over a city, it's useless for those on guard duty to stand watch over it."
(Psa 127:1)

2. "And Jesus said to him, No one, having put his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
(Luk 9:62)

True repentance initiates us into the family of God by the acknowledgement and confession of our sin(s) and believing trusting in Christ's death/resurrection on the cross and trusting in His ongoing saving grace and work in our daily lives by the person of the Holy Spirit.

It is really all about the heart, isn't it? As sinful a man as David was, when caught in his sin he acknowledge his sin before God and man and threw himself on God's mercy. God forgave him and restored him into fellowship but still David was chastised and punishmed for his sinful act and he lost his son.

Christ cautioned the inquisitive of heart on more then one occasion about the dangers of desiring to follow him but not first taking a realistic look at the cost to complete the life's journey.

We do not like to think of ourselves as sinners or that our first desire is of ourself and not God or even our fellow man. But while we walk this earth we are going to be in constant battle between wanting to ascertain and do God's will for our lives and/or giving in to our own selfish egos. True faith is hard and is a gift from God.

God save us all from the sin of complacency and self-ighteousness.

In conclusion, it is 'all about God' and his amzazing grace for us. If he didn't LOVE us daily we wouldn't stand a chance in hell of ever knowing what this eternal program called, 'Sonship' is all about...SMILE.

For it is by God's grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God's gift, so that no one can boast about it.
(Eph 2:8)

Unknown said...

A most excellent post.

Marc Axelrod said...

This is a very good Ash Wednesday message. Are you preaching it tomorrow night?

Harold Hoehner makes an even money case for a March 33 AD date for the crucifixion. But his calculations are based heavily on a particular reading of Daniel 9:24-27 (which IIRC, you do not hold).

bethel said...

Dear Ben,

Thanks for this sermon. Your observation on the 'short cut' to salvation culture is an important one, and we do well to be mindful of this.

Just like to clarify the sentence, "The Pharisee knows his need for God and for repentance, and does not make a show of listing his many good deeds, as if to impress God."

I thought it should be that he did not realize his need for God and repentance, and made a showing of his deeds - fasting, tithing.

Thanks & God bless,


TheThinker said...

Reading this and seeing the ashen foreheads of many, I am reminded of Ezekiel 9:4-6 which proclaims,

4And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.

5And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity:

6Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the ancient men which were before the house.

(Bible Gateway)

Also, from what I've read, the tav in Hebrew is the word for sign, and at the same time, in the ancient Hebrew, the letter is a cross (based on what has been reconstructed from ancient Phoenician and its similarities with Hebrew)...which has become the english letter t.

Thanks for the post.


Paul said...

Hi Ben.

This post may annoy you, as it is a common question, but while I fully agree that it is important to repent of one's sin--to come home like the prodigal's son--I still have qualms about how this applies to:

1) People who have never heard the gospel, and never will in their lifetime, and

2) People who have never had a chance to properly understand the gospel

You mention in the post (which I liked!) that it is important that we get right with God before we die, as that determines what happens for eternity. The question that nags me is what God will do for all those who--because they have never heard the gospel--are incapable of repenting in the first place.

Today is a day where many Christians examine their lives and try to recommit themselves to God. What bothers me is what we should say about those among us and beyond our reach who are literally incapable of "coming home."


Chris Jones said...


The post today is thought provoking and I needed it. I participated in my first Ash Wednesday service last night and was reminded of my own mortality and need of grace. This lenten season my pledge is to be ever reminded that my Savior humbled himself and displayed the heart of a servant. In that light I am going to display a heart of a servant at home with my wife and children. I have neglected them and tend to practice my faith much more effective outside of the house. I must humble myself and become their servant and love them with the love of the Father. God bless you for the wonderful post today.

Falantedios said...


You say that the Pharisee "...does not make a show of listing his many good deeds..."

All my Christian life, I've been told that was EXACTLY what he was doing.

My question is: how do you know he wasn't making a show? Is there a clue in the text that indicates he was NOT being showy, or does Ockham's razor slice up the presumption of arrogance and leave us with the prayer of a pious man who is just reciting his credentials, not showing them off?

in HIS love,

PS - if this ends up being a duplicate, I apologize. My browser did something weird.

phil_style said...


you are most probably aware of this already, but I thought I'd post here Just in cases:

reclaiming the mind reports the finding of a 'treasure trove' of old documents relating to NT writings. . . . I'm sure there'll be more on this in the days to come.


Bob said...

Just FYI -- April 7, A.D. 30 would have been a Sunday (had anyone been using the Gregorian calendar back then), so you probably mean April 7 was the date of Christ's resurrection, not His crucifixion.

Nisan 14 (the "day of preparation" for Passover, the day on which Christ was crucified) fell on the previous Wednesday (April 3) that year. Like you, I think A.D. 30 is the likeliest date of the crucifixion, but I usually just smile when someone speaks dogmatically of A.D. 33.

A.D. 33 is the only other year among all the years from A.D 27 to A.D. 37 in which Passover falls such that a Sunday resurrection is even possible. But as I understand it, A.D. 30 is the most likely date.

So, seeing that we're agreed about this, it's time we confessed, we also believe Good Friday fell on a Wednesday, which I suppose means that Ash Wednsday should be Ash Monday.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bob:

This is incorrect. In A.D. 30 Passover preparation day came on sunset Thursday to sunset Friday, with Passover beginning at sunset on that Friday.

Thanks for those who saw the typo which should have read 'the Pharisee does make a show of listing some of his good deeds' However I want to stress that he is ny being portrayed as a hypocrite. He is a truly pious person glad not to be like less moral ones. His problem is he does not see his need for mercy and forgiveness. This doesn't make him a hypocrite, it makes him blind or proud or both.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Paul:

Romans 1 is clear, as I say in the sermon. Each one will be judged according to how they respond to the light they have received, not whether they have heard the Gospel or not. And why in the world would you think people are incapable of repenting if they have not heard the Gospel? That's up to the work of the Spirit, not the hearing of the Gospel.


Paul said...

Hi Ben,

My response came from struggling with coming to grips with what I've always been told are evangelical doctrines, and Romans 10:9-17. I've always been told that thinking that people who haven't heard the Gospel will be judged "by the light they've been given" isn't an evangelical option, nor is "they don't have to hear the gospel to repent"

Kyle Nolan said...

I just wanted to mention that I'm kinda jealous that you can sign your name "BW3." But then, I guess those are the perks of being a Biblical scholar, eh? I like reading your blog, too. Good stuff.

Grace and Peace,


Falantedios said...

I've always heard a false dilemma between the hearing of the Gospel and the work of the Spirit -- that if God was going to send his Spirit to convert people directly, why should anyone evangelize or do missionary work? God's Spirit is infallible, and our preaching might actually cause people to reject the Gospel, thus by our preaching condemning those who might otherwise have been saved.

It is one of those arguments that makes you want to pull your hair out, but I come from a tradition where the idea that "God only works in the world today through the Bible" is still widely held, so what can you do? We all have our particular blind spots...

in HIS love,

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Nick for that. It is indeed a false dilemma, and what is most mysterious to me about the Bible only idea of how God works in the world, is that this is the exact opposite of what our Reformer forefathers, Calvin, Luther, Wesley etc. say about the work of the Holy Spirit independent of the preaching. Indeed, Calvin says that if the Spirit has not worked before the Gospel comes, no one would repent!

Its a mystery why some object to such a view. For my part, I have seen too many actual cases around the world of people being led to Christ whilst never having heard the Gospel at all to believe such a view. When Paul says what he does about preaching in Rom. 10, he is of course saying that this is the predominant way God has chosen to operate, as he has chosen to use us to propagate the Gospel. God can certainly do it otherwise, and God does.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

P.S. It has occured to me that perhaps it is cessationists who are most apt to object to the notion of the Spirit working independently of the Bible proclamation. After all, if you don't believe in a living voice of prophecy or the like you may well be skeptical of all sorts of claims about the Spirit's work today.


Falantedios said...

Exactly. Many people read the coming of the complete/perfect in 1 Cor 13:10 as the "closing of the canon", and now God sits on his throne and the Spirit only works and indwells through the written Word. I'm know I'm not the first one to call that school of thought practical deism, but that is what it seems to me.