Date: March 2, 2022
Festival: Ash Wednesday
Text: Matthew 16:13-18, 21-28
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Sermon Hymn: LSB #560 Drawn to the Cross, Which Thou Hast Blessed
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s sermon text is elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, so I invite you to open your Bibles to Matthew 16:13-18 and 21-28:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it…
From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord! This shall never happen to You!” But He turned to Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Then Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
What Marks You?
The overarching theme of Ash Wednesday and Lent leading all the way to Easter is the cross. The cross is the mark of the church, which has a double meaning. First, the mark of the cross identifies who we are: we are the church, Christians, God’s redeemed people who follow and worship Jesus the Son of the Living God; and second, the cross marks the kind of life the church lives, which is dying—dying to yourself and living to Christ until death, lest you lose your life by living for yourself.
The cross, of course, did not always have this glorious meaning behind it. Crucifixion was a brutal method of torture and killing. The purpose of the cross was not only to kill but also to shame criminals like murderers and thieves. Yet in keeping with God’s character of exalting lowly things, the early Christians exalted the symbol of the cross from the lowly place of shame to the high place of glory and confidence.
Peter, the other disciples, and everybody else in first-century Palestine had an unfortunate familiarity with Roman crucifixion. Crucified people were usually hung on major roads with their crime written above their heads to deter people from committing those crimes. Imagine seeing rows of crucifixion all along Mission St. and US-127 every single day! Jesus’ crime was being King of the Jews, and the message was, “You have only one true king: Caesar.”
When Jesus was crucified, like everyone else who underwent such shame, He hung naked by His arms so that His chest muscles contracted, causing difficulty in breathing. In order to breathe, Jesus had to prop Himself up with His nailed feet, which only increased His pain and suffering. He would have lost control over all His bodily functions with insects feeding on His body on top of unquenchable thirst, muscle cramping, not to mention the pain from the nails in His limbs and the previous ripping of His flesh with bone and muscle exposed, His back scratching up against the wood of the cross as He breathed and as His crown of thorns dug into His skull with blood flooding His eyes, in addition to the verbal abuse and mockeries He endured. Not only would the sight have been unbearable but imagine the smell!
To His disciples who were quite familiar with this brutal torture and death, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” Who knows what the disciples might’ve been thinking? They may have looked at each other with looks of confusion and discomfort. Because by commanding them to take up their cross and follow Him, He was ordering them to follow Him to death—to die for Jesus just as He was about to die for them. For centuries, the cross had been a mark of shame, and now we mark ourselves with this symbol as we wear it around our necks, tattoo on our skin, and many of you are currently wearing this mark upon your forehead from the imposition of ashes earlier.
But what marks do we usually identify ourselves with? What marks do we tend to force upon ourselves? For some of us, we have marks on our bodies that make us insecure about ourselves. These little flaws and imperfections mark us so much that we think we stick out like a sore thumb—ugly and marred for everyone to see. Our hair gets greyer, our skin gets more wrinkly, we have a birthmark or pimple or beauty mark we don’t like, we get stretch marks from pregnancy, we’re not happy with our weight, we don’t like the sound of our voice or our accent; and for a few significant others they have a serious birth defect for all to see. Some are even so unhappy with the bodies that God the Creator has given them at birth that they identify as the opposite gender, or no gender at all, or even something else they invent.
The world teaches us many of these false identifying. Beauty magazines teach us that our bodies are never perfect enough. Women are never beautiful or thin enough, so they tell you to use this makeup to cover up your shame and go on this diet to look like this size 0 model; and men are never muscular or manly enough, so practice this diet and exercise routine to look like these buff celebrities.
The world’s Critical Race Theory teaches that coloured people like me are inevitable and perpetual victims of The White Man (you’re all my oppressors, apparently), and it’s only the enlightened white progressives who can help liberate me from this imagined oppression, which somehow isn’t racist. And if you’re white, you’re born racist and you need to repent of your inherent racism, except they offer no forgiveness for the “repentance” they demand of you. Whether white or brown, you must be ashamed of your skin colour.
The world also teaches that if you’re not happy with the body you were born with, you can make something up from your own fantasy world to have your ideal body. And the world teaches that if your unborn baby is likely to have Down’s Syndrome or some other defect, it is better to kill them than to give them a chance at life at all.
Or maybe there’s a mark upon us that’s invisible. We suffer with some sin we constantly commit, and we begin to identify ourselves with that sin; we suffer with mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder or whatever it may be, and so we come to believe that we are isolated from everyone else because no one can understand what we’re going through and no one in the entire history of the earth has suffered like we have suffered; or we mark ourselves with our sexual orientation; or we suffer with an unseen physical or mental disability; and so on.
The world teaches us false things about these as well. We have stigmatised mental illness—that depression is a myth, an excuse for laziness, and something you just need to “snap out of.” And it’s worse if you’re a man—to ask for help in any way is a sign of weakness and you’re not a real man. As a result, men suffer 3 times the suicidal rate as women because the world has taught them that they’re weak men if they open up about their feelings. Even we Christians are guilty of stigmatising mental illness, saying “you just need to have more faith,” and so they suffer even more because apparently their faith is not “enough” for God.
The world is not any kinder to women either. They teach that women who want to raise their children and be a good housewife instead of seeking a career to pile up treasures on earth are clearly being oppressed and emotionally abused by her husband, and that it is somehow more honourable and braver to move up the business ladder than it is to raise precious little children. And we assume that all disabilities are visible, so when we see someone parked in a handicap spot, but they’re not visibly disabled in a wheelchair or whatever, we assume they’re not actually disabled and are taking advantage of the system. In cases like my own invisible disability, people assume I’m lazy when I’m actually in pain.
The Mark of the Cross
And so, while we force identifying marks upon ourselves, we also force others to be identified by the false marks we place upon them. Whatever they may be, we have identifying marks that increase our shame and we project our shame upon others. But as you experienced earlier, you are marked by something entirely different. This is not a new mark you’ve never had before either; rather, the mark is a reminder.
This mark reminds you of two things in a Law & Gospel paradigm. As Law, the ashy cross reminds you that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You are going to die, and the ashy cross is a stark reminder of this fact. Therefore, you need to repent for the forgiveness of your sins lest you perish. But even more, as Gospel, the mark of the ashy cross reminds you of the mark of the cross you received upon your forehead and upon your heart when you were baptised. In Psalm 51[:5], David writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” As we were brought into this world as infants, the first thing that marked us was sin, the wages of which is death [Romans 6:23]. But in the waters of Baptism, Christ removed this dark mark and marked you with something else: His cross. He marked you with His death and resurrection—His salvation.
So, when you go to the mirror later to wash the ash off your forehead and you see the mark of the cross, remember where your true identity lies. It’s not in whatever physical or mental imperfections you may have or whatever identity you make up for yourself, but in the cross of Christ—His redemption. It is true that you shall return to dust from whence you come, but from that dust you shall rise like a phoenix from the ashes to life eternal.
Taking Up Your Cross
One final thing the mark of the cross reminds us of is the life of the Christian. Our life is one of taking up our cross and following Jesus, which means, once again, to follow Him to death. So, ask yourselves, “Am I ready to die?” …First, we deny ourselves by dying to whatever distracts us from Christ and rather living to Christ and what He has taught us. For example, we are so concerned with building a perfect society through the right political parties and agendas and the perfect political leader, but if we keep trying to save our lives in this way, we will end up losing them. Are you ready to die to that and live to Christ’s kingdom? Rather, while we are certainly citizens of earthly kingdoms, we build treasures in the heavenly kingdom by following Christ, whom we follow to the grave. Are you ready for that? Whether this be in the form of martyrdom, a sudden tragic loss of life, or a peaceful passing in our old age, we all follow Jesus until it is time for us to clock out and rest from our labours.
Taking up our cross means we will suffer since Jesus Himself suffered. Jesus literally took up His cross on His way to Mt. Calvary where He was crucified. “No servant is greater than his master,” Jesus said [John 13:16]. We carry our crosses just as our Master carried His. So, as scary as it might sound, the mark of the cross on your foreheads is also a reminder to take up your cross and follow Jesus to death as His redeemed people, whatever that may look like. And although death is tragic and an aberration from God’s original design of creation, the Christian dies a glorious death and no Christian dies in vain. Speaking about Himself, Jesus says, “He is not God of the dead, but God of the living” [Mark 12:27]. God is not interested in dead things; it is inevitable that He raise His people from the dead just as it was inevitable that Jesus, the Son of the Living God, conquer death and rise from the grave!
Jesus said to Peter, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against [the church].” We usually interpret this as the gates of hell attacking the church, myself included. But what are gates? They are fortifying structures; they are forms of defence meant to keep things out. Gates don’t go on the attack; they guard whatever is behind those gates. In His death, Jesus breached the gates of Hell and proclaimed His victory over it, and then He rose from the dead of His own power! Satan thought he struck a major blow to God and His people when he struck Christ’s heel with nails on the cross, but in His death, Jesus assaulted death itself by striking the head of that vile serpent [Genesis 3:15]. The cross of Christ broke open the gates of Hell! And unlike Hollywood portrayals, demons did not come breaking forth from its depths; rather, the Living God invaded Hell and conquered it!
Therefore, as we take up our cross and follow Jesus to death, the church is constantly assaulting the gates of Hell and invading its depths, and they cannot prevail because you are children of the Living God, whose Word quite literally gives you life. The gates of Hell are assaulted wherever the Living Word of God is preached, read, and sung—wherever it is upon your lips and hearts. The devil cannot stand to hear God’s Word upon your lips in prayer, reading, and singing. Wherever the Word of God is, the devil and his demons are overthrown, for the Word made flesh entered his domain and overthrew the devil’s authority. This is why Satan cannot stand the Word wherever it can be heard, because he is powerless against it, because it broke down his gates and destroyed his servant, Death.
We therefore take up our cross not in fear but in triumph—it is our banner that we carry into the gates of Hell to proclaim our victory over it because Christ our King conquered Death, our final enemy. We march through these gates with the battle hymn of heaven, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:54-55]. For death is now a tailless scorpion and the devil a toothless snake who cannot prevail against the church of Christ our King.
Let us pray: “Merciful God, you called us forth from the dust of the earth; you claimed us for Christ int he waters of baptism. Look upon us as we enter these Forty days bearing the mark of ashes, and bless our journey through the desert of Lent to the font of rebirth. May our fasting be hunger for justice; our alms, a making of peace; our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts. All that we do and pray is in the name of Jesus, for in his cross you proclaim your love for ever and ever. Amen” [For All the Saints, 775].
Schumacher, Frederick J., and Dorothy A. Zelenko. For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church. Volume I: Year 1, Advent to the Day of Pentecost. Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2003.