It's a Miracle that Confession has Two Parts
Of course, confession has two parts. What Lutheran doesn't know that? We're not Catholics. We don't think there is a third part to confession called penance or satisfaction. So what's the big deal?
First, it's a miracle that we confess our sins at all. Sinners in general are under a "strange illusion that mere time cancels sinBut mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of sin" (Lewis, Problem of Pain, 61). Even when we do confess, we should realize that we have a compulsive habit to modify our worst sins and temper our true sinfulness. So our confession isn't a full account of the worst that is in us (Ibid. 60). Scripture tells us this in Psalm 19:12. The Psalmist asks to be cleansed from secret faults; sins he isn't even aware of. Every single one of us would be creeped out by a phone call, a text message, or an email that simply said, "I know what you did."
And to the degree we downplay our sins we up-play those of others. C.S. Lewis said, "Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others" (God in the Dock, 124). I've said before that more people have come to me to confess the sins of another rather than their own.
So how about it? Anything to confess? Are those ashes just for show or do they really indicate you are a sinner? Do you confess tonight that you are a betrayer of the Son of Man? You're a Judas? No, there's only one Judas. Is there? A young man goes off to work a summer in a logging camp. When he returns, his pastor asks him, "So how did those loggers treat you when they found out you were a Christian?" "O, they never found out," the young man replied. Who hasn't betrayed the Son of Man by flying under the radar?
How about confessing lack of love? Not for enemies, not for those who mistreat you or hurt you, not lack of love for those who don't love you, but lack of love for the people you go to church with, confess the same faith with? Jesus says, "All men will know that you are My disciples by your love for one another." "They'll know we are Christians by our love" we sang in the 60's and 70's. Maybe it never made it into our hymnbooks not because it was contemporary worship music but because it was so untrue.
How about confessing the sin of pride? Wouldn't that be a miracle if we did? But we can't see ourselves in the Reading coming away from the Lord's Supper disputing which of us was considered to be greatest. We all think we're humble. We all think that person or this person and surely that one over there is the proud one. In our dispute within ourselves about who is the proud one, we show that it is us.
O what miserable sinners we are. Though we say that each Sunday, I don't think any of us believes it. That's because we don't understand we're confessing to objective misery not subjective. Imagine you were looking down from a high mountain on a train track in a valley below. You could see from your vantage point that two trains were on course for a head on collision. The passengers on those trains would have your pity. You would say they were in a miserable state even though they didn't feel miserable themselves. In our confession, we don't confess that we feel miserable but that objectively we are in a miserable condition (Ibid. 121).
But you can see that in someone else's case, can't you? You can see how someone else is headed for a head on collision with the wrath of God, the judgment of God, the justice of God. That person who is so broken; that person you have tried to help again and again; that person you have been extra patient with; the person you are so close to writing off because though they promise to change, to be better, within 24 hours they're the same as always? Well, that person is you before God (God in the Dock, 121-123).
Augustine had a rule that in all doubtful and difficult problems a person was "to be suspicious of nothing or nobody so much as oneself" (Christianity and Classical Culture, 505). And it's a miracle if you are. If you are here tonight confessing that you're the problem in your marriage, your job, your church, your life, it's a miracle. If you can see that nobody's ashes are blacker than yours, it's a miracle. It's a miracle if you confess that you, and you only, are a poor, miserable sinner. But that confession only admits you're on a train on a collision course with God's wrath; it doesn't get you off it.
Yes, it's a miracle that confession has not just one part but two. The first is that we confess our sins; the second that we receive absolution. Read your Bible. Read of Ahab of whom I Kings 21 says , "There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord." Read of Manasseh of whom 2 Kings 21 says, "He has done more evil than the Amorites who preceded him." Read how these and the Ninivites, and David, Peter, and the Prodigal Son were all moved to make confession of their sins, but don't think for a moment that's what got them off the train or that's what changed their life.
A drunk coming off a binge, an adulterer caught, a gambler gone bust, a druggie crashing will tell you repeatedly how sorry they are, and they look the part. They can't bear to lift up their eyes. Their whole countenance is fallen. O how sad they are; how disappointed in themselves they are; how ashamed they are. And they confess their sin no holds barred; no excuses; no blaming others. And yes that's a miracle. But if the person is empowered by that confession, if they think their confession somehow made everything all right, it would have been better if they had never confessed.
Confession comes from seeing the blackness, the sinfulness, the filth within. But so what if a leopard can see his spots, he can't change them. Judas saw his sin and confessed it. "I've betrayed innocent blood," he cried. His confession, his seeing his sin for what it really was led him to despair, death, and hell. The miracle of absolution comes from outside of us. It comes from what Jesus did, and only that can save us, can change us.
Jesus is handed over by the church to be crucified so we can be absolved. We are the poor church members. The Church should cast us out as accursed for our sins. Not one of us could truthfully cry "foul" to God as we were being led out to the cross. Our own consciences would agree we deserve this.
And we deserve to be deserted by friends and for the government to put us to death. How many secrets of others have we betrayed? How many of our friends do we give over to ridicule and scorn in our hearts? And what about the government? Don't we rightly deserve its wrath and punishment? And yet, we don't go to the cross, the innocent, pure, unblemished Jesus does. The perfect Friend, the perfect Citizen, the perfect member of the Church goes in our place.
Jesus goes to the cross in our place. God the Father wants to, is pleased to, crush Him, so He can forgive us. God puts Him to eternal death on the cross so that all of your sins, guilts, failures can be forgiven. God doesn't want any of that on your conscience for even one minute. He paid dearly so it wouldn't be. And once Jesus paid that price, the Father joyfully raised Him from the dead thereby showing the world that your sins have been paid for. God the Father raising Jesus from the dead is Absolution for all your sins.
You, forgiven sinner, have more in your future than dust and ashes; you have more to look forward to tomorrow than guilt and sin. You are not heading for a collision with the wrath and judgment of God because God for Jesus' sakes absolves you. Absolution gets you off the train, gets you forgiven, free and clear of even a judgmental look from God.
Jesus took your guilts and your sins into His Body. He was made to be sin 2 Corinthians 5 tells you. So tonight when He tells you as He did the disciples in our reading, "Take eat; this is My body given for you," you are to eat of the Body that bore your sins and won your forgiveness. Even as the Old Testament Church ate the body of the Passover lamb in the faith that the angel of death would pass over them, so we eat the Body of the Lamb of God in the faith that the Avenging Angel of God passes over our sins.
Eating forgiveness can be a strange concept to us; sins being covered isn't. Jesus says tonight, "Drink from this cup; this is My Blood which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins." "Poured out" or "shed" is an odd word to use because crucifixion isn't that bloody a process. Romans didn't want their criminals bleeding to death; they wanted to prolong their suffering. So why does Jesus use a word that denotes a lot of blood, a word used for wine spilling out of a broken wineskin?
In the Greek Old Testament this word is used in connection with the use of blood to cover sins. In Exodus 12 God commands the Passover lamb should be slaughtered in such a way that the blood flowed freely. The Hebrew uses a word which means "'to slaughter [in such a way] that from the stretched out and extended body the blood would flow forth abundantly'" (Gerhard, Explanation of the History, 188). Jesus is telling us that more than enough Blood came out of Him to cover our sins; none, not even the ones we can't forget can pop through before the eyes of God.
Don't put the emphasis on your confessing but on God's forgiving. Don't give the second part of confession short shrift. The word shrift is an Anglo-Saxon term for receiving confession and giving absolution. Before a condemned man was executed he was given an opportunity to confess, but the executioner would want to be done with his task, so the final confession and absolution were rushed. Hasty confession followed by a fast absolution wasn't a normal rite and so was called a short shrift (Garrison, Why You Say It, 169).
No short shrift here. No sooner were you marked by the ashes of your sins than I forgave them in the stead and by the command of Jesus. After the sermon, Jesus will again give us the Body He gave for us and the Blood He poured out for us. And we'll close the service by singing of a whole fountain filled with His Blood. That's a lot of Blood; more than enough to plunge not only our sins but sinners beneath to lose all their guilty stains. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (20110309); Confession I