Sins Are and Aren't Ancient History
"That's ancient history," we'll say to someone who is troubled by a wrong they did to us that we are no longer troubled by. "That's ancient history" means it is long over and done with to us. But we aren't here tonight to talk about how we have troubled each other so much as we are to talk about how we have troubled God. What about our sins? Are they ancient history to Him? Well, yes and no.
Our your sins real right now? Be warned if none readily come to mind. The Large Catechism says the fact that we don't feel our sins means were all the worse. Then we are like lepers whose disease destroys the nerves so they do not feel themselves rotting away. Beware of rotting away without realizing it. Beware of this false sense of security that delivers you from any realization that you are a sinner.
Does that describe you? Is that you setting at the Passover table saying, "It surely can't be I who is going to betray You?" You know they all, not just Judas did betray Christ this night, but they don't feel they are that big of sinners. They look inside themselves and find so much faith and love going on toward Jesus that they can't believe they could betray Him.
Are your sins that far away from you? Are your sins ancient history to you? You use to cuss; you use to lust; you use to steal; you use to drink too much, but that's all behind you now. Never mind the fact that you lack true fear, love and trust in God above all things. Never mind the fact that our Lutheran Confessions say the greatest sin is unbelief; as long as you don't see those obvious sins in your present, you think your sins our ancient history. Woe to you then for as St. Augustine says, "He who thinks he lives without sin puts aside not sin but pardon."
Your sins, my sins, our sins are a big stinking reality. And their stench is not to be judged by whom does the sinning but by whom is being sinned against. You don't think you're sins are that bad because you have a pretty high opinion of yourself. But look instead at whom your sins are against. Not just your spouse, children, parents, coworkers, or neighbors, but against a loving Father who has never done one thing against you. Against a loving Father who sends blessing after blessing upon you. Ever seen parents who have doted over a child only to have the child rebel belligerently in his or her teen years? Weren't you angry at that child? Didn't you think what a worthless piece of trash he or she was? That's the present reality of our sins.
Our sins are a present reality, so we fittingly deserve ashes on this Ash Wednesday. But do you know where we deserve to have these ashes imposed? Not on our hands like some churches now do. (I guess they don't want it to be too obvious that we are confessing themselves sinners.) Not in a nice neat cross on our foreheads as most churches do ( I guess they don't want people to think their sins are messy.) We deserve the ashes in our mouths, in our eyes, all over our faces and bodies.
When Jeremiah and Ezekiel speak of ashes for repentance they speak of wallowing in them. The original practice in the medieval church was for penitents to come in sackcloth and with naked feet throwing ashes over their heads after they had finished their prayers. If you really want the ashes to show the present reality of your sins, a smudge here, and cross there, won't do it. Your mouth must spit from them; your eyes must sting from them; your nose must sneeze with them, and your ears must be plugged with them. And not just one day a year, but 365.
Sins are a present reality to us, but they are ancient history to God. Actually, they are pre-history to God. Doesn't Scripture tell us that Christ is the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world? Before there are sinners, there is Christ Crucified for sinners before the throne of the Father. And all the sins of the world were there. The Lamb of God carried away the sins of the world; that's what Scripture says. Before there was even a world of sinners, God loaded the sins of the world on His Son. However, sins aren't ancient history in the world but only in the Church.
This is critically important. When we confess in the Creed, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins," we go on to explain it in the Small Catechism that it is "In this Christian Church, He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers." The Large Catechism further explains it by saying, "We believe that in this Christian community we have the forgiveness of sins which takes place through the holy sacraments and absolution as well as through all the comforting words of the entire Gospel."
In the Christian Church, and only in Her, forgiveness is a present reality and sins are ancient history. Not so outside of the Church. Outside of the Church sins are NOT ancient history just like inside Noah's ark there was safety and salvation but outside there was only drowning and destruction. The Church early on was called a ship. In fact the term nave for the inside of a church is from the Latin word for ship navis. Look up at our ceiling; it is designed to look like the hull of a ship. The woodwork looks like the slats and beams you would see inside a ship looking at the bottom. On real windy days when it's quiet in here it even creaks like one.
In here, we're safe from God's wrath against sinners. Outside, God's wrath is being revealed right now, today against all unrighteousness, so says Paul in Romans. In here, God cares and feeds sinners even as Noah cared and fed the animals in the ark. In here, there is no wrath, out there it is a different story. The Large Catechism says this clearly, "Outside this Christian community, however, there is no gospel, there is no forgiveness, and hence there can be NO holiness." Outside there is only the waters of God's judgment getting deeper and deeper until every last sinner is drowned.
Of course, you know what keeps many outside from joining us inside? Faith. No, not that we believe and they don't. Many out there say they believe. Haven't you ever noticed that? You ask someone why they don't come inside the Church where there is forgiveness, life and salvation, and he or she quickly tells you they believe. Faith is what keeps them outside of the Church. They are like a man named Victorinus who was a famous professor of rhetoric in Rome. He use to say to a priest, "Understand I am already a Christian. The priest replied each time, "I will not believe it, nor will I rank you among Christians, unless I see you in the Church of Christ."
It would have been foolish to have looked for any saved people or animals anywhere else but in the ark. It is just as foolish to look for any saved, forgiven people outside of the Church. Just as Noah would have been wrong to give anyone outside of the ark, even someone who might have had their name on the rolls to be in the ark, the impression that they were safe, so we are wrong when we give the impression that there is or can be salvation outside of the Church.
There was no salvation in staying outside the ark; there is no salvation, no forgiveness, no life in staying outside of the Church no matter how much someone claims to believe. Sins are only ancient history inside of the Church. And dear fellow ash-stained sinners, we get to live this way. Notice how the Small Catechism says God forgives sins in this Christian Church: daily and richly, not monthly and stingily.
I don't think the words "daily and richly" mean much to us, but recall the . First Article of the Creed. There we say God "richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life." Think of the First Article blessings you receive: body, soul, eyes, ears, and all your members, your reason and all your senses. He also gives clothing, shoes, food, drink, house and home, spouse and children, land, animals, and all that you have. In addition, God defends you against all danger and guards and protects you from all evil. As richly and as daily as He showers you with these First Article blessings, that's how daily and richly He forgives your sins in this Christian Church. As present as your home, your family, your food and drink are in this life, that is how present the forgiveness of your sins is in this Christian Church.
Can you see your heavenly Father, for Christ's sake joyfully, with a big smile showering you with the blessings of the First Article? That's how you should see Him forgiving your sins here in this Christian Church. Martin Chemnitz, a 16th century Lutheran theologian, quoting someone else says, "God is accustomed to forgive without any reproach." As God uses the blood of Christ to wash the ashes out of your ears, nose, mouth, and eyes, He is not lecturing you how He told you not to do this or that. As the Waters of your baptism turn black from the ash of your sins as God plunges you back under them, He's not saying, "Why did you go out and dirty yourself again? Why can't you be more careful? Why can't you be more like My Son?"
Friends, just as I don't think you have a sense of how present our sinfulness really is, so I don't think you have a sense of how ancient to God your sins are in this Christian Church. It is because our sins are ancient history to God that we don't go around daily with our bodies smeared richly with ashes. Like the Old Testament Church was commanded only once a year to afflict herself because of her sins on the Day of Atonement, so the New Testament Church only during this season of Lent, particularly on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, afflicts herself. But the affliction is only for the sake of the forgiveness. We briefly step outside of the Ark where the waters of judgement rage and roar, so that we might see and appreciate the calm and safety inside the Ark of the Christian Church.
But many of you have difficulty making this transition. You smear the ashes on never to have them completely washed off by Christ's blood in Communion or in the forgiving waters of Baptism. You keep your sins in your conscience covered with a thin film of the blood of Christ or only faded but not removed by the waters of your Baptism. You believe you are sentenced to live like this because after all you remain a sinner till you die. You are wrong. We confess in our Large Catechism: "Although we have sin, the Holy Spirit sees to it that it doe not harm us because we are part of this Christian community."
This is radical. While most people believe being a Christian means you must constantly feel bad about your sinfulness, Lutherans boldly say that though I am a sinner in this Christian Church God does not deal with me that way for Christ's sake. But what about sinful flesh that remains with me till I die? We leave that to the Holy Spirit because in this Christian Church He sees to it that it doesn't harm us. And friends isn't this what Psalm 103 means when it says, "God does not deal with us after our sins or reward us according to our iniquities?" Sins must be very ancient history to God for Scripture to be able to say that. And since my sins are ancient history to God in this Church what does it really matter if they are present realities to my enemies or even my own conscience? What if Noah sometimes felt outside of the ark? It didn't mean he was, did it? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (2-28-01), Passion Reading I