Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Nor Out Righteousness, But His Great Mercy: A Homily for Ash Wednesday 2017

Good evening, brothers and sisters! Now, I know a great many of you, and you know me. And if you know me, one thing about me you might know is that, up until this past summer, on top of pastoring this wonderful church, I also taught in a Christian daycare. Kindergarten through second grade – that was my class, though I dealt with the older kids some, too. And if there's one thing kids are good at, it's misbehaving. Some more than others, I have to admit!

So during games or free-play time, there would occasionally be one or two kids I had to put in time-out. Just tell them to sit at a table and relax, take a chance to silently regroup their thoughts and reflect on why they were there. But not all those kids managed to reflect silently! So I had a policy for them, and I told them up-front – if they broke their silence or otherwise misbehaved during time-out, the timer would reset – and they'd stay a little while longer in exile.

And when you think about it, that's a lot like the position Daniel was in. When we open up Daniel chapter 9, it tells us that he'd been reading the scroll of the Prophet Jeremiah, and he saw there that the Jews had been consigned to exile in Babylon for seventy years – no less, but no more (Daniel 9:2). The seventy years was drawing to a close, so you'd think that would make Daniel pretty cheery. Hooray, we're going home!

But instead, Daniel responded with “prayer … fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). That doesn't sound so cheery! Daniel was actually pretty worried. He'd been looking around his fellow Jews – some old men like him (after all, he's in his eighties by this point), but most who'd been born and raised in Babylon – and he had to ask himself, “Are we really more righteous now than we were seventy years ago? And if we aren't... will the timer reset?”

So Daniel, in this beautiful and heartfelt prayer of confession, put himself in the place of his people. It wasn't all his personal sin – some was, but not all – but he took it on himself and confessed it anyway. And you could say there are five movements in this prayer of his.

First, Daniel admitted the truth about who God is. He confesses that God is “the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (9:4). He says that God is “righteous in all the works that he has done” (9:14). And this is the God who brought his people out of Egyptian slavery with a mighty hand and made himself famous (9:15). We need to catch a glimpse of the beauty and truth of God – the Creator, the Deliverer, the One who's glorious and righteous and faithful.

Second, Daniel admitted the truth about who he was, who we are – limited creatures rebelling against the very God who made us. “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled … We have not listened to your servants the prophets” (9:5-6). And in spite of everything that had happened, Daniel had to admit, “We have not entreated the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth” (9:13). We're just dust on its way back down, but we have the gall to spite the One who breathed life into us from the start. That's not just true of Daniel's generation. It's true of us – and unless we admit it, we have no hope at all.

Third, having taken a good hard look at who God is and how we've treated him, Daniel admits what justice will look like if we get what we deserve. “To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you” (9:8). “The curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him” (9:11). We deserve shame. We deserve a curse. We deserve to stay stuck in our mess – forever. And if God gave us what we deserve, what would be fair and just, that's exactly where we'd be – eternal exile.

Fourth, Daniel makes a request: Please give us something besides what we deserve. “Let your anger and your wrath turn away” (9:16). “God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy … make your face to shine upon your desolate sanctuary” (9:17). “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act” (9:19). In other words, even though it's what we deserve, don't punish us any more. Set us free. Make us new. Forgive our sin. Restore a healthy relationship between you and us. Let us come back home – not just to the land, but to your presence. Let us see you smile again, God.

And fifth, Daniel establishes the reason why God might even consider doing something like that. And it has nothing to do with how much we've learned. It has nothing to do with how good we are. It has nothing to do with how much value we can provide. It has nothing to do with how much money we can tithe, or the fancy rituals we can carry out, or the fact that we're nice to our neighbors. It doesn't have the slightest thing to do with anything we can do – not any of our works of any nature. Daniel's brutally, painfully clear in this prayer: “We do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy” (9:18).

And that's all that can be said, in the end. Friends, there is not a thing you can do to earn your way into God's good graces. There is nothing you can do to deserve a second chance. There is no test you can pass to get into paradise. No matter how much you put in the offering plate, no matter how often you're in church, no matter what rituals you go through – none of them earn you a thing. Not a thing at all. If that's what you're leaning on, you will fall.

But if you stretch out an open hand to God and ask for mercy, that's a different story. Because that's when you'll find another hand grabbing yours, when you're dangling from the edge. And you can latch your finger safely in a hole the size of a Roman nail. Because if you want to know if God is merciful to you, if you want to know if God can forgive you, if you want to know if God is patient with you and willing to set you free from exile, from slavery, from all the power of sin and death – just look at Jesus. He's the Mercy of God made flesh.

As we meet here today, as we recite the fifty-first psalm and offer up prayers of confession, we're going to become painfully aware of our sin. If you aren't, you need to listen more carefully and think more sincerely. And we know that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23). Every single one of us here deserves the death penalty. Every single one of us here has sinned and spat in God's face. But God has great mercy in store for us. We don't deserve it. We haven't earned it. If God had decided not to even offer it, he would've been perfectly justified.

But his mercy is greater than our unrighteousness. His grace is greater than our ingratitude. His love is greater than our estrangement. And his salvation is greater than all our sin. That's the God we meet in Jesus Christ, the God to whom Daniel prayed – and Daniel's prayers were answered. So don't give up hope, and don't lean on lesser things. Lean on Jesus in faith. He's the only stable Rock.

Cry out for mercy – and because he is so rich in mercy, he'll hear our prayer. Not because of our righteousness, but because of his mercy – mercy that stretches even to the gift of new life in Christ, who delivers us from our exile, and a new lifestyle in the Spirit, who mightily works in us all the love that the Law could never reach, to the glory of God the Father. All he asks is that we confess, repent, and trust him. Let's open our hearts and call upon our great and awesome God in a psalm.

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