Our culture is not one that prizes humility. Instead, it focuses upon those who are big and brash; people who call attention to themselves as they act in boastful ways in the midst of success. We saw a classic case of this in the weeks that led up to the Super Bowl.
Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton was the focus of attention heading into the big game. The Heisman Trophy winner who had led Auburn University to a national championship, had a MVP season as he led Carolina to the Super Bowl. Newton is an incredible athlete who had a tremendous season. He is a good looking guy with a million dollar smile. There is an undeniable charisma about him.
Cam Newton has made it part of his game to celebrate success on the field in a very demonstrative fashion. In the midst of success he puts on a real show. Now that in itself is really nothing unusual in the NFL. Newton’s antics probably stand out more simply because he has so much success and chooses to celebrate those many occasions in this way.
But what has made Newton seem different and more arrogant is the way he talks about himself. He has declared that he is something new that no one has ever seen before. He has said that he views himself not just as a football player, but as an icon. And when people have complained about his continual onfield antics and how they taunt opponents, his answer has been, “If you don’t like it, then stop me.”
Yet the thing about sports is that while it exalts people, it also has the incredible ability to humble them. The bigger the event, the more this is true. There is no bigger stage in football than the Super Bowl. And in this biggest of moments, Cam Newton was humiliated by the Denver Bronco defense. Newton was sacked six times. On one of them early in the game he was stripped and the play resulted in a Denver touchdown. Cam Newton was intercepted, beaten up and frustrated all night long as Denver won the game. “If you don’t like it, then stop me”? Well, Denver did. Cam Newton’s response was that he walked out of the postgame interview after less than three minutes.
Today, Ash Wednesday, is a day that reminds us that we too need to be humbled. As sinners, we have a limitless desire to put ourselves first. We have an unlimited ability to try to justify our own actions. We are people who are creating gods all the time – gods after our own image.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. It begins a season in which we ponder why Jesus Christ died on the cross. It is a time when we reflect upon our need for repentance. And Ash Wednesday begins this season with a crushing stroke of Law. Make no mistake, this day confronts you as a sinner.
Our world has a truly amazing ability to convince itself that people are basically good. Much of our social policy since the 1960’s has been built on the assumption that if we just create the correct circumstances, people will naturally thrive in positive ways. The problem is that people are inherently sinful and selfish, and so instead they often look to take advantage of the situation.
Paired with this in our world is an amazing willingness to ignore or explain away the consequences of sin. You see this in the wasteland that has been created by the sexual revolution. Rather than admitting the ways that the use of sex outside of marriage has destroyed the family, created angst for those who look for a mate, and spread disease, the world celebrates as if freedom from sexual limitation has been a great victory.
There are few days in the church year that are more dissonant with the world around us than Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday says that there is right and wrong. There is truth and error. And there is a divine judge who backs this up. He declares that there is sin, and that this sin is an affront against him. He is the holy and just God. Sinners who sin can have no fellowship with him. Instead he is the almighty God who judges and punishes sinners. And if you don’t like that – tough. Because you don’t have any say in the matter. He is God, and you are not.
Ultimately, all of sin comes down to an issue of the First Commandment – You shall have no other gods. As I tell the catechumens, the other nine commandments take the truth of the First Commandment and apply it to the different blessings God gives. They apply it to the blessing of God’s name and his Word; his gift of parents and authorities; his gifts of life, sexuality, possessions, reputation and contentment.
Jesus’ words in our text this morning are found in the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Our Lord tells us to consider the focus of our life. He warns against making the things of this world the priority. They are, after all, transitory. To put a more modern spin on this consider how the gadgets become outdated in a heartbeat, and leave us perpetually needing the next best version or the next best thing.
Instead Jesus calls us to focus on the things of God – his kingdom and the means by which it comes to us now. These are the things that last. They are the things that can never disappoint. They never go bad. You never need Sacrament 2.0.
Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That which you treasure; that which you value most; that which gives you a sense of well-being, is your god. Jesus confronts this in each one of us tonight. He calls it what it is: sin. And in the face of sin, there can be only one God-pleasing response: repentance.
Repentance means that you confess your sin. You call it what it is, and you ask for forgiveness. You admit that you have sinned against the Creator of the cosmos – the One who owes you nothing; the One from whom on your own merits you can expect nothing but judgment.
You ask for forgiveness, not because it is your idea. Instead you ask for forgiveness because, because God has told you to do so. Just before our text, Jesus teaches the words of the Lord’s Prayer. In the Fifth Petition he teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As Martin Luther points out in the Large Catechism, this petition teaches us that God wants to forgive.
God wants to forgive because of his gracious and loving nature. Yes, God is holy and just. Yes God pours out judgment and wrath against sinners. But God is also gracious, loving and merciful. And when it comes to God, these are not just words. Instead God has demonstrated all of these in the death of his Son.
In this Gospel Jesus declares, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” During Lent we will consider Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem. He goes there for one reason – to die on a cross. He goes there to give his life as a ransom for you.
Jesus goes there to bear your sin – to be the substitute in your place. He does this because God is holy and just. Sinners cannot exist in his presence and sin is an affront to him that must be punished. But at the same time, Jesus goes there because God is gracious, loving and merciful. God gives his only begotten Son as the sacrifice in your place. He pours out his judgment against Jesus, so that you are spared and forgiven. In the cross God as holy and just, and God as gracious, loving and merciful meet and none of them are denied.
As we will hear on Sunday, it is Adam who brought sin and death into the world. On Good Friday God judged the sin of Adam and every person since, in Christ. But then on Easter, he began something new. He raised up Jesus from the dead as the second Adam. He raised Jesus as the beginning of the resurrection that will be yours on the Last Day.
It is the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus. The same Spirit has now caused you to be born again through water and the Word. He has begun a new life in you and will bring this to its consummation on the Last Day when he raises you up.
Because this is so, our repentance from sin does not stand alone. We do not simply ask forgiveness so that we can be “ok” with God, and then get back to doing whatever we want to do. Instead, through the work of the Spirit we seek to produce the fruits of repentance. This means that we actually try to turn away from the sin. We seek instead to live in a way that reflects God’s will.
Do we succeed? Yes, we can and do. You really have received the Holy Spirit and he really does bring about change in your life. Sometimes, despite our genuine desire to live as God’s child, we fail and stumble yet again. When this happens there is only one thing to do. We repent once again. We confess our sins as we return to the water of our baptism where God has provided the assurance of forgiveness. We return to the Sacrament of the Altar where Jesus gives us food for the new man – food for the way as we travel on this pilgrimage of life. We start out again, seeking to live out that repentance as the forgiven child of God.