Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Year B

Based on II Cor. 5:20b-6:10

By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In the movie, "Dry White Season," a prominent schoolteacher, Ben Du Toi (Donald Sutherland) lives a peaceful, privileged family lifestyle in South Africa, without giving much thought about the apartheid system.

Then, a son of his faithful gardener, named Gordon, is shot dead by the military in a peaceful, non-violent demonstration. Gordon then wants to search for his dead son's body, and begins investigating the circumstances of the killing. Du Toi encourages Gordon not to pursue the matter further.

However, Gordon does not follow Du Toi's advice, and is eventually: arrested, imprisoned, brutally tortured and killed. This motivates Ben Du Toi to find out the truth of both killings. Du Toi becomes so committed to justice for the black people, that he sacrifices the security of his teaching position, his marriage and finally his life for the sake of justice, truth and freedom. He loved his former gardener Gordon and the black people so much that he sacrificed his life for their freedom.

In the same way, Jesus sacrificed his life ~ that all humankind might have freedom, forgiveness, justice, truth and reconciliation. Du Toi is the Christ figure in this movie in that he chose, out of love for the black people, to work for reconciliation with them. As a white person, he could have lived a life of luxury, ease and privilege. Instead, he sacrificed his life in loving service of the black people.

This is exactly what Jesus did ~ he could have spent eternity in heaven, living a life of luxury, ease and privilege. But, out of love for humankind, he came to earth, to live, suffer and die a cruel death on the cross, so that we might be forgiven and reconciled with God. Jesus freely chose his way of sacrifice and the cross. His sacrifice on the cross makes it possible for us to love God and one another.

For Paul, that word reconcile is a loaded one. Not only is it God's forgiveness in Christ for us; it's also God's power in Christ to transform people by making enemies into friends. We were once the enemies of God in our sinful state. Thanks to Christ, we are transformed from enemies into friends, through his loving, sacrificial death on the cross, which is the atonement (at-one-ment) of our sin. For Paul, Christ's reconciling work is absolutely mind-boggling ~ it has a profound change on everyone and everything. He suggests that when we realize how profound it is for us; we shall want to respond as he and countless others did ~ by following Christ's example and living a life of sacrificial love; by practicing forgiveness and reconciliation towards one another and towards all peoples. In short, it means following Christ in the way of the cross.

Archbishop George Appleton, in his book, Hour Of Glory: Meditations on the Passion, tells the following story, which a Jewish rabbi friend told him: "At a meeting of Christians in Jerusalem, the Professor of New Testament Studies in the Hebrew University there remarked that he prayed for Christians every day. When the time came for discussion the first question asked was, 'What do you pray for us Christians?' His reply reduced his audience to silence. 'I pray,' he said, 'that you Christians may be more like your Jesus.' "

'That you Christians may be more like your Jesus,' is that not what Paul is saying concerning our new relationship with God after Christ's reconciling work on our behalf? Is that not why the Apostle Paul, in his ministry of the Gospel was willing to face: "great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger" ~ and much more?

On this Ash Wednesday, which is, in some respects, the church's version of the Jewish Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; my hope and prayer is that we are gathered here because we want to repent of our sin; to be reconciled and forgiven by our God; to go out from here and not hold on to our grudges or hatreds, but to practice reconciliation and forgiveness in all of our relationships; to be more like our Jesus; to make our enemies into friends; to walk with Jesus in the way of the cross during this Lenten season.

For Paul ~ after the "great exchange" of Christ becoming sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God ~ there's urgency to living in and with Christ for us. This urgency makes us want to follow Christ Right Now, Today, since we may not be here tomorrow. As Paul puts it: "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!" So, as followers of Jesus, we are called to live each day as if it were our last; to take risks; to make sacrifices for the sake of Christ and his Good News.

May the crosses of ash placed on our foreheads tonight not merely be a symbol for us. Rather, may they help us to come to a genuine repentance, to accept our mortality, and dying to sin, death and evil ~ so that Christ's new life might transform us to lives of loving sacrificial service in his name.

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