Ash Wednesday: Mutual Considerations

Lessons: Psalm 41, Joel 2:12-19, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Hymns: LSB 610, 607, 628, 418, 915, 436

Listen to the entire service here (the sermon alone is above).

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      Six years ago, Ash Wednesday fell on February 14, the day the Church observes St. Valentine. As you know, that has occurred again today. And the next time it will happen will be in 2029, should our Lord Jesus Christ choose to delay His return beyond then.

      During Advent last year, the three Wednesdays in Advent all fell on days that the Church commemorates various saints. I think it is interesting that Lent has begun in the same manner this year. Like many annual observances in the western culture bearing names with ancient Christians, St. Valentine’s Day is based on a real person—a Christian—and time has introduced various customs that are in practice in our age. Today is known for romance, cards, candies, and all things pink. It’s somewhat a strange way to remember a Christian pastor who was martyred for refusing to cooperate with the Roman Emperor. You see, back in AD 269, the public practice of Christianity was not legal in the Roman Empire. The ruler, Claudius II—became known as Claudius the Cruel—needed to maintain a strong army to continue his bloody campaigns. However, young men were reluctant to join his military. Claudius thought men were unwilling to go and fight because they were attached to their wives and families. So, Claudius came up with a solution—to ban all engagements and marriages in Rome. Without the menace of family in the way, men would then fight the king’s battles.

      A pastor named Valentine refused to follow the decree and continued to perform marriages in secret. But when Emperor Claudius found out, he ordered Valentine to be put to death. He was beaten with clubs and beheaded on February 14, 270. It is said that he wrote a note of encouragement on an irregular shaped piece of paper to a child of his jailor. This led to notes of love which we commonly see to this day.

      There are many other legends concerning this man. In fact, books commemorating the martyrs identify three men who were named Valentine and were supposedly all martyred on February 14. These documents were written hundreds of years later, so it is difficult to know what is certain about Valentine, or the various men named Valentine. In fact, the name was a common name, derived from the Latin valens, which means strong or worthy.

      In AD 496, the Pope declared February 14 to be celebrated as St. Valentine’s Day—the observance of the martyr. He did this in part to end the Feast of Lupercalia on February 15, which was a pagan festival of love. So between the supposed note and the replacement of a pagan love holiday, it is no surprise that this day became associated with love.

      All three of tonight’s readings—which are the regularly appointed readings for Ash Wednesday—include the word “love” once. One of them speaks of the love of God—in Joel 2:13, it is written, “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” God abounds in steadfast love. Hence, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

      The Scriptures connect the love of God to Christ’s sacrificial payment for the sins of the world. Consider these passages:

  • “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
  • “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).
  • Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).

      It is also written, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).

      Such wonderful love by which God loves us unconditionally! He doesn’t first consider how likeable we may be, how much He can control us, or how receptive we may be to His teachings. Instead, Jesus loves us by laying down His life for us in order to reconcile us to our Father in Heaven. When Adam and Eve sinned, God declared, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Yet, at the same time, He promised that through her Seed would come the Savior who would destroy the Serpent to redeem sinful mankind. God also killed an animal and made garments of skins and clothed them, prefiguring the sacrificial payment of Christ, who would be slaughtered on the cross and then rise from the dead to clothe us sinners with His very righteousness. Such love!

      We are reminded very solemnly of who we are when the ashes are imposed upon us. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Such strange words to hear on Valentine’s Day. But then when we consider that a cross is placed on our foreheads—symbolizing the love of God in Christ—we will gladly remember that we are not only dust, but we are marked by our Savior as redeemed by Christ the crucified. At our Baptism, this same cross is placed upon our foreheads and our hearts to mark us as redeemed by Christ the crucified.

      In tonight’s Psalm, we prayed, “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him; the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.” Concerning this psalm, Dr. Martin Luther rightly said, “This psalm is a prayer in which Christ Himself prophesies and complains about his betrayer, Judas, and those who would have Him crucified. He asks that He may be raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand.”

      So Jesus is speaking in this psalm. And what does Jesus say? “Blessed is he who has regarded the Suffering One; the Lord delivers him in times of trouble.” The Lord will not abandon those who are not offended by Christ the Crucified One; He will deliver them from their sin and grant them salvation.

      You see, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, so also we love Him who redeemed us and grants us life. He we see Him as our Savior and He sees us as His saints. After all, we have been united with Him through Baptism into His death and have been raised with Him into newness of life. We share in His life and His death. We are raised with Him and live to God in Christ Jesus.

      He considers the poor in spirit and grants them the Kingdom of Heaven. We consider the Poor One, and He delivers us in the day of trouble. The consideration is mutual—blessed by His love. Amen.

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen