A Severe Mercy – Ash Wednesday Sermon on Mark 8:31-38

[Editorial Note: This sermon was originally preached by Rev. Dr. James T. Bushur, assistant professor of historical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary. It was also published previously in Gottesdienst. Our thanks to Dr. Bushur for allowing us to publish it here. We referenced it in episode five of Crux. -Ed.]

Ash Wednesday: “A Severe Mercy”

Mark 8:31-38

“We commit his body to the ground; ashes to ashes, dust to dust in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection…” This is the announcement at the burial of God’s beloved children.  “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.”  Dust represents death.  Man is taken from the dust, but the sinner must return to the dust.  Dust represents the death of all men; it signifies the destiny of every child conceived in the image of Adam.  Dust is the end that all men share in common.  This is not true of ashes.  Ashes do not merely represent death, but sacrifice.  Ashes are the result of the burnt offering; it is the constant residue left on the altar, the constant reminder of man’s need for mercy and atonement.  Ashes represent that death which is an act of sacrifice.  The death of all men is signified by dust; but only the Christian’s death is signified by ashes.  For the death of God’s child is the greatest act of worship; it is the perfect liturgy in which we humble ourselves before God.  Our death is no longer the futile end of a vain life—a life that ends in dust; rather, our death is a pure sacrifice in which we are offered into the hands of the Father.

The solemn season of Lent begins with the imposition of ashes.  The ashes mark us for sacrifice.  Just as the rancher brands his cattle to mark them as his own possession; so Jesus signs us with His cross to show that we belong to Him.  And just as the cattle are driven, sold, and slaughtered at the discretion of their owner; so we are called to submit to the will of our Creator.  The mark of Christ’s cross means that we must let God have His way with us; and the fact that He marks us with ashes means that our Lord wishes to use us for sacrifice.  The bloody cup of the cross that Jesus swallows in full is the same cup that is given to us to sip.  Lent is not only the time of Jesus’ death; but also the time for us to take up our cross and follow; it is the season to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of true repentance and sincere faith.  The ashes inscribed upon us represent both Jesus’ death and our own death with Him and in Him.  All who are born of Adam must return to dust; but all who are born of Christ must turn to ashes.  For in union with Him, our death is a pleasing aroma that rises into the heavenly sanctuary.

A friend once asked me: “Why do we need to go through Lent every year, if we already know that Jesus died for our sins?  Why do we need to confess our sins repeatedly?  Why do we need to partake of the Holy Sacrament often, if we already understand what Christ did for us?  The reason, dear friends, is that true faith is not merely about knowing; it is about living.  This is the lesson that St. Peter must learn.  For when Jesus asks the question, Peter knows the answer.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answers boldly: “You are the Christ.” When it comes to knowledge, Peter is the chief of all the disciples.  However, when it comes to living the life of the disciple, Peter does not fare so well.  For when Jesus describes what His life as the Christ will be like—that He must suffer, be rejected, killed, and rise again—then Peter becomes cowardly.  For Peter, as for all of us, it is simply easier to know all the answers of the Gospel, than it is to live the life of the Gospel.

However, Jesus leaves no room for doubt: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”  True faith is never content to know about Christ; rather it seeks full participation in His living presence.  True faith joins itself to Christ; it communes with Him in body, soul, and mind; it seeks to live with Him and in Him. The true disciple does not merely wish to understand the past works of our Lord; but he seek to participate in His ongoing mission.  The life of the disciple is not so much characterized by a faith in search of understanding, as it is a faith in search of bodily resurrection and the life immortal.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  Lent is the time of our committal.  Christ now invites us to share in His sacrifice; He calls us to enter into His own battle against sin, death, and hell.  For the Son of God joins Himself to human flesh and blood for this very purpose. In Jesus’ crucified body, the victory has been accomplished.  In His broken flesh and obedient will, the battle is once and for all determined.  Yet, Jesus does not wage this war for His own benefit.  This Lenten Season, Christ seeks to accomplish His victory within your heart, within your flesh, within your soul.

“Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”  Jesus’ greatest weapon against the powers of hell is His cross.  The cross is His altar; the means by which His immaculate flesh turns to ashes; the place of sacrifice.  In the Holy Supper of His body and blood, Jesus now invites us to share in His cross; He calls us to participate in His life of humility, suffering, prayer and self-denial.  For these are now our greatest weapons against the devil.  For in this sacrament, we find that the contrite heart is invincible against sin.  The penitent man is never accused of wrongdoing.  The dying man does not suffer decay.  In communion with Christ’s flesh, we can never remain in the corruption of dust; but, like our Master, we now turn to ashes becoming a perfect sacrifice sanctified by the Spirit and acceptable to the Father.

Sheldon Vanauken once called the Christian faith a “Severe Mercy.”  This phrase truly describes the crucified life of the Christian.  It is indeed severe because it empties us of our idols; but it is mercy because it fills us with Jesus Christ.  It is severe because it brings repentance and sorrow over sin; but it is a mercy because it grants forgiveness and the joy of angels.  It is severe because it finally takes our life; but it is a great mercy because it gives the only true life in the kingdom of God.  To Christ be all the glory forever and ever.  Amen.