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Rev. Christopher I. Thoma +
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday, 25 February AD 2009

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Even after the events of September 11, even within this tragic economy, even after being in my basement with my wife and children when the tornado that ripped through Fenton a few years ago shook my home’s foundation, I still find (at least from what I know and have read) that when it comes to frightening situations in this world, that very few things compare to the dark, seemingly unending days of the London blitz of 1940, when Hitler’s war machine bombarded the city with ferocity for 57 consecutive nights. 43,000 people killed. Over a million homes destroyed. I try to imagine the scene, to be in the backyard bunkers, locked behind a steel door as the air raid sirens screamed across the countryside calling men to arms and all hands to their battle stations. Mothers turning out the lights and holding their children close as outside the spotlights traced the sky and the cannons fired their rounds at the jackboot of Hitler looming in the skies overhead. It’s not hard to imagine those families sheltered in the darkness as the pounding onslaught and the bombs rattled their frames and the tremors shook the ground taking their breath away.

I try to imagine the dread of the people in England not long before this when they first learned in 1939 that they were at war, since Hitler betrayed the treaty in Munich 11 months prior and invaded Poland, when the headlines read: Prime Minister Chamberlain Ousted and Churchill Elected (Chamberlain being remembered in history for appeasing Hitler), when Churchill first stood before the House of Commons in his new government and said with a careful, aristocratic lisp what was going to happen, what was at stake: “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.” I can only imagine the fear at his words.

There probably won’t be any bombs dropped on Hartland tonight, God forbid this to happen. Odds are you probably won’t go home to find your house in ruins, not literally at least. You might go home to bad news of the economy, loss of a job, cancer. But nevertheless, no matter what you hear, Ash Wednesday’s words are more severe and piercing than the alarm bells of London. To hear its words is to recall most distinctly the war being waged in this world, that just as Adam heard those terrible words of condemnation in the garden, words that make all other tragedies trivial and dependent, the words ring in your ears too. No matter how hard you try to avoid it throughout the rest of the church year, tonight there is no avoidance. Ash Wednesday reminds you “Because of what you have done… from dust you are…and to dust you shall return.” Tonight you remember and do so being marked for death by ashes and soot. Tonight you are brought to the remembrance of your grievous sins and the helplessness of your condition. Tonight you reckon all of your works as insufficient and you do so with the mark of battlefield ash. Tonight you hear the Lord proclaim and by His words you know without a doubt, that no man should think more highly of himself than he ought. Tonight you recall the dust of the ground from which you are taken and to which you will return. Tonight you venture down the mountainside with Jesus, down from His Transfiguration into the valley of the penitential season of Lent and you know without a doubt, if you live and breathe in this world, you fight a war that you cannot win. You need a Savior. You need a victor. You need Jesus Christ.

In the face of great fear, to his people Churchill gave hope amidst the ensuing battle: “You ask what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. Victory. Victory at all costs – victory in spite of all terrors – victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.” The spirits of England’s people soared with the inspiring words from their leader, though of himself, Churchill could guarantee nothing with regard to the outcome of the war.

Your Easter victory is guaranteed at even this point in the Lenten battle. Lent is an engaging of God’s people, His foot soldiers, in a battle against the flesh, but this guarantee is not in the fast. Long after the season has ended and you have forsaken your fasting and gobbled down that first chocolate bar of Easter, the Church militant battles on, on toward victory, victory at all costs. And the cost, nothing your fighting could have ever afforded. The only affording payment, the death and resurrection of God’s son.

There is your victor. There is your payment. There is your victory. By faith given of the Holy Spirit, see His glory there on the cross as in this Lenten season His passion is recalled and the battle replayed. Recognize His faithful suffering for your sin. His Holy Law is the siren signaling the danger overhead and the repentant charge to shelter. His Gospel promise is your bunker. His suffering is the steel door that protects mother and child. His death is the fiery detonation that lights up the sky and brings down the devil’s war machine. His resurrection is the proved decimation of the enemy’s forces. His return is the finality of the war for the Church Militant and the becoming of the Church Triumphant.

In the dreadful battlefield ashes that stir up in the wind of this world’s life, in the swirling cinders of Ash Wednesday, real, guaranteed hope of eternal life arises and looks forward to hope. The guarantee is there. It is now on your forehead in temporary, symbolic ash as it is there upon your forehead and heart in permanence by your Holy Baptism. You are marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. When you go home tonight, look in the mirror and see the gritty mark of the battlefield ashes and know that you are dust and to dust you shall return, but know even more so that as God breathed life into the dust, so also He has breathed life into your battle-wearied soul by the power of the Gospel.

May God grant to you faith this Holy season to believe this Gospel.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.