The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Stength and our Salvation,
Here we are again. Another year has passed. Another Ash Wednesday has arrived offering us another opportunity for the ultimate reality check. That’s what Ash Wednesday is all about – a reality check that sets the transcendent reality of the saving power of The One True God over and against the tragic reality of an otherwise unredeemed world.
We have gone through another yearly cycle of the great occasions of holy worship in which we have celebrated God’s Incarnation at Christmas, our Lord’s victory over sin and death on Good Friday, and His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. We live each year – each day – indeed, each moment – alive in Him as He lives in us and lives with us in the power of and through the presence of His Holy Spirit. Without Him there is no life.
He has given to us His great gift of salvation. Without that, we truly have nothing. Without that we are nothing. Without Him there is nothing – nothing but vanity for without Him all that was and is comes to ashes and dust.
Furthermore, all that will be has already been – for there is nothing new under the sun – and that too comes to nothing – even the sun itself will either implode or explode. It’s just a matter of time. Hence, we say tonight, Remember O man, dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. For that’s the only reality that can be – without Jesus Christ. Reality check.
Ash Wednesday proclaims this ultimate Truth – that in Jesus Christ, everything comes to perfection; all that’s good and right and true finally prevails as He and He alone defeats all that’s bad and wrong and false. In Him, life lives. In Him, death dies. And although tradition tells us that we should not say Alleluia during the Lenten season, yet it’s the only word we can say when we proclaim Christ’s victory – so we dare to say Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! even on Ash Wednesday.
His saving sacrifice gives us faith and allows us to hope. In Him we can love – really love – love in holy love and in that perfect, self-sacrificing holy love – perfectly manifested on the cross – we can live forever in the eternal love that cannot die.
Yes. This whole thing is one great big gigantic and most glorious love story – not a love story of worldly love but of transcendent love that redeems and saves – even redeems the vanity of all our other loves. The ultimate reality check. God’s perfect love saves us because He loves us. Simple as that.
God has revealed the quality of life lived without Jesus Christ. It comes to us in Holy Scripture in the Book of Ecclesiastes. In that short book of only ten pages, the preacher courageously declares the harsh and hopeless reality that without Jesus Christ all is vanity. That’s one of the preacher’s favorite words – vanity. The one word that both denotes and connotes hopelessness, emptiness, meaninglessness and despair. One might say that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the Ash Wednesday message.
In that despair, one can seek relief through sensual indulgence – but that blossoms and flourishes and then withers and fades. If one gives himself to unbridled sensual indulgence – sensuality created good but defiled by disease and deception – one can only indulge despair.
Another attempt that the unredeemed man makes in an effort to ease the pain is to take as much worldly wealth and power as he can unto himself in order to defend himself from victimization by holding the wealth and power to victimize. Hence, politics in any form – politics in every form – without redemption – brings an ever-increasing corruption. For all the talk of freedom and rights, without the Redeemer, we only have bondage and oppression.
Witness all of world history. Witness current history. Witness the present situation in which Christ-less people have placed their faith in a false political savior who lies and cheats and steals and yet calls all who do not know Jesus Christ unto himself. They believe his lies. They cheat in the name of justice. They steal as entitlement. He who currently lies and cheats and steals will eventually kill. Yet the Christ-less man and the Christ-less woman love him, defend him, live for him and will die because of him.
Scripture identifies him as the anti-Christ. To the best of our knowledge, the ultimate anti-Christ has yet to come – but he has many disciples preceding him, paving a highway for him. The Christ-less currently give themselves to the devil’s various disciples – many of whom invoke our Savior’s name. Some Christians will be deceived – and in the deception, they become Christ-less.
Another way to escape the despair is to seek the perfection of nothingness. In this vain pursuit, salvation comes as only the release from the unbearable pain of the Christ-less life. Total nothingness is better than overwhelming pain – its own kind of mercy. But nothingness – even perfect nothingness – is a void. The void will be filled with the very thing it seeks to a-void – eternal pain, perfect in its devastation – the perfect place for the anti-Christ to dwell without resistance – the cup of the void filled to overflowing with misery.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes concludes with these words in which reside only the faintest whisper of hope – but hope nonetheless – a hope in his time yet to be fulfilled. He instructs us saying,
Fear God, and keep his commandments;
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment…
whether good or evil.
Fear God. For the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. And wisdom tells us that dust we are and unto dust we shall return.
But we also know that perfect love casteth out fear. And perfect love – the perfect holy love of The One True God perfectly revealed on the Cross of Jesus Christ, the self-sacrificing Savior who alone saves our sin sick souls.
His cross stands as the ultimate reality check.
Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.
But also, (paraphrase)
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awakening, he will raise me up;
And in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see,
and my eyes behold him…and not another.
For he is to me a friend and not a stranger.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, as we acknowledge our mortality in your presence, so we also trust in your redeeming love and in your saving sacrifice. Bless us with the humility necessary to receive our redemption and bless us even more with the joy of our salvation
given in, on and through the cross of your Son
our only Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord,