Death Recalls Us To the God of Life
Rev. Kurt Lantz Ash Wednesday Joel 2:12-19
February 17, 2021 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear people threatened by death,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting us for just about a year now. At some point we started to take the health and safety measures seriously, on both personal and community levels. We have gained a lot more understanding, more coping strategies, ways to keep the social and economic life going. Have we taken time to look at things on a spiritual level? What does this pandemic mean in terms of our life before God personally and for all humanity? Perhaps it is a little bit scary to think that God might actually have something to do with all of this. Was He at all involved when this virus got into the human population at some point in some particular place due to some mistake someone made in handling food or animals? If God did indeed have something to do with this, what is His purpose, and what does it mean for me and my world?
We don’t have to search the internet or late night cable television shows to find some modern-day prophet emotively gesticulating about the end of days. We don’t have to go to the bookstore, online or across town, to find some resource on God and the Global Pandemic. We have something called a Catechism, a summary of the teaching of the Bible as it relates to the life of the Christian. It has been called a handbook for the life of faith. It is practical. It applies to all ages. It works for all times and all situations. It is God’s Word from the Bible, with short explanations written by the insightful, learned, and faithful Dr. Martin Luther, to instruct young and old, and provide them with a guidebook to make their way through the Christian life.
In our midweek services this season of Lent we are going to work our way through the Catechism and see what instruction it might have for us Christians living in a time of pandemic. In these services we usually take just a part of the Catechism and look only at The Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer. This year we are going to jump and skip throughout the Catechism and see what the Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, the Christian Questions, and other parts might have to say to the faithful as we navigate our way through our time of plague and pestilence. On this Ash Wednesday, beginning the season of Lent, we note the theme of repentance, both personally and in community, and we apply it especially to our current situation in global pandemic.
The First Commandment: You shall have no other gods.
What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
Christian Questions with Their Answers:
1. Do you believe that you are a sinner? Yes, I believe it. I am a sinner.
2. How do you know this? From the Ten Commandments, which I have not kept.
3. Are you sorry for your sins? Yes, I am sorry that I have sinned against God.
4. What have you deserved from God because of your sins?
His wrath and displeasure, temporal death, and eternal damnation.
Romans 6:21, 23 “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death... For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
5. Do you hope to be saved? Yes, that is my hope.
6. In whom then do you trust? In my dear Lord Jesus Christ.
Death, all death, is the result of sin. It is the punishment visited upon us for our sins. In one sense we remember that this is a general principle insofar as all people die at some point because all of them have sinned at some point, and not necessarily that the manner in which a person dies is a direct result of one particular sin that they have committed. So, for example, people who die from COVID-19, a very specific virus, are not all guilty of some specific sin that they committed within the last month of contracting the virus. They are not all guilty of the fourth commandment in regard to failing to obey the authorities who have mandated that they wear a mask in public. They are not worse sinners in regard to failing to love their neighbour than anyone else.
But at the same time, every death is the punishment for sin. Every person deserves to die because all have sinned. “What have you deserved from God because of your sins? His wrath and displeasure, temporal death, and eternal damnation.” You deserve to die because of your sins. Just because your death does not come in direct connection with your sin or in direct proportion in comparison with the sins and deaths of others, does not mean that you do not deserve to die. In this sense, every death serves as a reminder for us that everyone is a sinner. Every death should serve as a reminder to me, that I deserve to die because I am a sinner. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This virus is a fearful thing. It has spread around the world. Reportedly, it has killed more than 2,000,000 people. But should the virus really be the source of our fear? The virus brings death, but there would be no death if not for our sins. We should fear sin more than we fear any virus. We should put in more effort to prevent sin, than we do to prevent the spread of a virus both on personal and communal levels.
Yet, even so, although sin has its own disastrous consequences, the sentence of death for sin was pronounced by our God. It is fear of Him that should drive us to flee from sin, to take precautions against it, to avoid sin at all costs. And to repent of it whenever we become aware of it in our life.
Sin is gross. Much of it affects our sensibilities, but a lot of sin doesn’t. There is a lot of sin that we are not bothered about at all, and there is a lot of sin we don’t even notice or perceive. We have grown accustomed to sin as something unavoidable, and so we stop trying to avoid it. We don’t resist sin in our thoughts, words, or actions. We don’t think twice before saying the hurtful, manipulative words. We don’t try to rein in our thoughts when they go off in unbridled passions. We don’t take steps to change our sinful habits unless it will improve how we look in the mirror.
We need to use the Law of God as our mirror. We need to know and take to heart the Ten Commandments that God has given us in His holy Law, to reveal to us our our sins. The Catechism’s short and simple explanations of the Commandments help us to do this. We need to remember how destructive our sins are to others and to ourselves. “The end of those things is death.” And we need to fear the God who created us, who gave us life, who defines what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, and who promises that “the wages of sin is death.”
“You shall have no other gods. We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Above all, above death, above reputation, above sickness, above all we should fear the God who threatens with death (temporal and eternal), but only so that He might give the gift of eternal life. All have sinned and all will die, but there is salvation for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For God has sent His own Son, the sinless One, to die for all, that the punishment of death might be done away and eternal life be freely bestowed on all who trust in Him.
We not only fear God above all things but we love and trust in Him above all things. He alone is the one who can save, not only from the COVID-19 virus but from all death (temporal and eternal), not ultimately through a laboratory created vaccine, but through the injection of His own Son into this world of death. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17)
In the Old Testament Reading for Ash Wednesday, the prophet Joel points the people to God, in the midst of the threat of death. Whether from a plague of locusts or the invasion of an armed host, the Word of the LORD makes it clear that death was coming as an agent of God’s wrath, sent by Him as punishment for the sins of the nation. The Ten Commandments reveal to us not only our own sins but all of the abominable sins to which the entire world has given itself.
But Joel also proclaimed that the God who visits the punishment of death upon whole nations of sinners is also “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” So the call goes out to the people to repent, to gather in sackcloth and ashes, rending their hearts before the only God who could avert the plague of death, and who was indeed compassionately disposed to do so.
“Return with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and wailing, for the LORD is gracious and compassionate.” (Joel 2:12-13). Gather the people to prayer: the elders, the children, the nursing infants, even the bride and groom about to be married. If a wedding is to be put off for this call to repentance, then nothing should stand in the way of the people coming together to call to the LORD to be the God He has proven Himself to be, to live up to His name and save His people from death, from sin, from His wrath.
We have learned to wash our hands. Have we learned to repent in dust and ashes? We have learned to don a mask. Are we willing to put on sackcloth? We are queuing up to receive a vaccine. Are we heeding the call to gather at the sacred assembly? We have put off weddings to abide by social distancing guidelines. Would we be willing to put them off in order to heed the call to repentant prayer?
This is Lent. We practice this every year. This is what the fasting, the extra prayer services, and the extra offerings for charity are all about. We respond to the threat of death by rending our hearts in sorrow over our sins as a nation and individually. We pray, fast, and give alms without hypocrisy as Jesus directed us to do in the Gospel Reading for this day. We remind ourselves that God is to be feared above all and that it is our sins that have brought this calamity upon us. So it is to God alone that we cry, because He indeed can and is willing to save us. He does not desire the death of sinners, but that they turn from evil and live. He sent His Son Jesus for this very purpose. He can save us from this pestilence, even as He has saved us from all death and damnation.
“We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” That is what the Catechism has taught us from God’s Word. It is what we should be doing at all times and especially in this time of pandemic when death looms so large and has forced us to make changes in our daily lives. A truly repentant heart results in change in daily life as well. True fear, love, and trust in God turn us away from our sins to faithful prayer for ourselves, our friends and family, our nation, and for the world. This pandemic reminds us of the universal catastrophe of sin and of the universal atonement that God has provided in His Son Jesus. May we remember both the cause of this plague of death and also whom to trust for our salvation.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.