March 6, 2019 + Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia
Psalm 79:8: Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us.
“Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.” I said those words a couple hundred times this morning, and then another [so many] tonight. Sometimes words repeated lose their impact. These words, however, become more insistent with each repetition. Remember … Remember … REMEMBER.
They also start to lose their individual character. After awhile the words stop being to Matthew, Mary, John, or Julia, but to Adam – to our first father. Franzmann summed up well the unity of the human race taught by Scripture: “In Adam we have all been one, One huge rebellious man” [LSB 569:1].
Ashes are a sign of repentance. Ash Wednesday makes that repentance corporate. We all have individual sins to confess, but on this day we all claim the inheritance of our first father. We are Adam’s sons and daughters. We were in him when he sinned. The judgment spoken to him hangs also over us: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” [Gen. 3:19].
We do things to forget. Alcohol and television can blur the painful reality for awhile. We segregate the aged in their own facilities, and keep the dead at a distance with the saccharine comforts of the funeral home. But today demands that we not forget. Remember, remember, remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.
And in remembering, we find that God also remembers. It seems odd to think of God remembering, as though He could forget. But the Scriptures show us that when God remembers, He has pity and takes action.
When we are going through difficulties, they can appear interminable. “How long?” is a common cry of the saints in Scripture – and it’s a common feeling of ours too. How long will this go on?
The reminder that God remembers is for our comfort: you are not alone, you are not forgotten. God knows. He sees. He has compassion. He will act. All of that is wrapped up in that beautiful phrase “God remembered.” In the account of the great flood, it not only rains for 40 days, the waters prevail on the earth for 150 days. After all that time, after all that death and destruction, then Gen. 8 opens with these words: “Then God remembered Noah.” God keeps His promises. In the next chapter He sets the rainbow in the sky and says, “I will look on it to remember [My] everlasting covenant” [9:16]. God remembers Noah, but then sets up a reminder to all of Noah’s children that He remembers us. In other words, He wants us to remember that He remembers.
This world deludes us into thinking that if we are to have strength, success, power, wealth, we will have to gain these these things by our own decisive action and cunning. But the Scriptures, and Ash Wednesday in particular, tell us to remember two things: First, that we are dust, and cannot help ourselves; and second, that God alone is our help. Ps. 20 says, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; But we will remember the name of the Lord our God” [v7]. Remember and trust here are synonymous. You can trust in weapons—horse-drawn chariots, the symbol of a king with money and an army—or you can remember God’s name. We know what God can do with horses and chariots – He drowns them in the Red Sea.
Throughout the Old Testament there is a troublesome pattern with God’s people. They remember for awhile, and then they forget. They remember, and then they forget. Psalm 78 summarizes this well:
When He slew them, then they sought Him; And they returned and sought earnestly for God. Then they remembered that God was their rock, And the Most High God their Redeemer. Nevertheless they flattered Him with their mouth, And they lied to Him with their tongue; For their heart was not steadfast with Him, Nor were they faithful in His covenant. But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, And did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, And did not stir up all His wrath; For He remembered that they were but flesh, A breath that passes away and does not come again. [vv34-39]
This tendency to forget and to fall away is in us too. Our daily prayers and regular confession of sins is all part of our Christian discipline to not forget, but to remember who we are and who God is. And in this beautiful passage we see also this character of God, that He has compassion on our weaknesses. “For He remembered that they were but flesh” - the fall has horribly weakened our human nature in body and soul. Lent is a time for exercising and strengthening our battle against this flesh, but our strength must come from the outside, through the Word of God and the power of Christ’s obedience and faithfulness.
The day will come when you will experience the wrath of God; this is shown us in death, and in other disasters that visit us. The holy prophet Habakkuk teaches us to pray to God like this: “In wrath remember mercy” [3:2]. This is our prayer in the day of trouble. But from the New Testament we have something even better; in the hour of trouble we can pray the prayer of the dying thief: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” The Lord’s remembrance brought him, and will bring you, even to paradise.
So now we come to the Supper, done in the remembrance of Jesus. Here we remember Jesus and He also remember us. He will do what He promised. He will remember our sins no more.
So remember, dear friends, that you are dust, you are dying. But remember also that Jesus has overcome death, and gives to your mortal bodies His immortal life in this Sacrament. He remembers you now, He will remember you in the hour of death. And your sins He will remember no more. They are gone. +INJ+