Ash Wednesday 2014 – 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
I was confirmed in a class of 9; one of whom I never saw again after that Sunday; 3 of whom I never saw again after the school year ended; and the rest just sort of faded away from church by the end of the first year of high school.
What happened to them?
Perhaps you are more familiar with this formula: each year, you see a number of young people graduate high school; in late summer and early fall they head off to college. You see them back on weekends; you see them back for Thanksgiving and Christmas; but you never seem to see them in church on Sunday.
What happened to them?
But this is not just a young people problem. An individual attends regularly for quite some time, and then misses a Sunday here and a Sunday there. Pretty soon they only come once a month; and then only on Christmas and Easter; and eventually not at all.
What happened to them?
Or a family goes on vacation for the summer, and then in the fall, they never seem to get back into the habit of regular church attendance.
What happened to them?
This is not an isolated instance. How many names are on the books of this congregation? How many are here today? How many are here on Sunday?
You can of course place names to each of these situations; perhaps at one time, even your own name was in this situation. You can add in the various circumstances that made each situation unique; makes the issue just a little bit more complicated then it appears on the surface to the casual observer.
You can look at the names, picture the faces, and you can name a reason, or two, or a dozen, as to why this person or that person is not in worship on Sunday morning.
But do you really know the reason? Do you ever sit back and ask yourself why the same thing keeps happening over and over again? Do you ever look at solid Lutheran families, and wonder how their child could have ever left the church? Do you ever ask yourself how someone can willingly not come to church on a regular basis, and ultimately place their salvation in jeopardy, assuming they still believe at all?
Because that is the ultimate issue here: there is a faith issue at stake here. The salvation of souls is at stake; because say what you will, more people are in heaven who went to church then did not go to church; so the odds of receiving eternal life increase greatly when you are regularly in the Lord’s house, hearing His Word, confessing your sins, remembering your baptism and receiving the body and blood of Christ.
So what happened to all those who are missing?
What reasons have you been led to believe?
Well, you can start with college professors spewing anti-Christians teachings at them; then go on to a general anti-Christian mindset in society which causes those young in the faith to question what they had previously known; and yes, this is due at least in some part to faults that are the church’s own making.
For others, you can say they are mad at the pastor, or mad at the members. You can say that worship grew stale. You can say that they need a break after so many years. You can say that life is just busier than it used to be; and that you cannot reasonably expect people to come every Sunday any more.
So, if those reasons are true, and we have all heard them at one time or another, how come you are still here, and they are not?
Better yet; how do we avoid those reasons for others leaving the church from becoming your reason for leaving the church, and ultimately the faith?
Well to start with, we need to look at those reasons for why others left: what if I told you they were all lies?
How can they be lies you say? You have heard them from multiple sources on multiple occasions.
And I believe you. And I believe that is what they said. And I believe that is what people in the future will still say.
Consider for a moment the original lie that the devil told Eve in the Garden of Eden: You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and evil.
That’s not what God said. The devil lied. The devil told Eve that she could find God somewhere other than His Word; she could find God in herself. And she believed him, and she ate of the fruit; and you know the rest.
The devil has convinced others, and he now tries to convince you, that God can be found in places other than in His Word. God can be found in nature; God can be found in your home; God can be found in your car; God can be found in your work; God can be found wherever you want Him to be found, even in yourself.
How does the devil do this?
Well, the devil has a good marketing department. The devil comes in and tells you that you are special; that you are different; that you possess a special kind of faith that no one else has. He tells you that robe of Christ’s righteousness is out of date; he looks at the Lord’s Supper and tells you that is cute for the uneducated, but you are smarter than that. He looks at the liturgy and the Bible and tells you that is out of touch with what everyone else does. He takes it all away and leaves you standing there naked; and proclaims that now you are ready to change the world.
You feel awkward at first, but no one questions you; no one challenges you; certainly no one tells you otherwise. Why not? Because they have all been sold the same lie that you have.
Today, as you sit in ashes, you notice that you are naked. You have taken off the full armor of God and traded it in for the lie that you can find God and the answers that you seek someplace else besides His Word.
Those who have left the church are searching for something that is not there, that never has been there, that has always been right here. God Himself is present here in the Word and in the Sacrament. Stop chasing after a lie.
The answer to the origins of the world and the reason for the chaos that now reigns supreme is in the Word. The answer to the struggle and strife in the church and outside of the church, is the forgiveness and absolution that is found here at the altar. The answer to the hunger and thirsting that you feel inside of you but cannot satisfy, is found here in the sacrament. The answer to the uncertainty that you experience in whether or not God even knows your name, is found here, at the font.
The answer to the lies of Satan, is the truth of Jesus Christ.
Now the devil is smart, and he will dress these lies up in different ways; but they all come back to the same old lie: that you can find God in places where He has not promised to be.
Today, as you sit in ashes, know that the word of God is shaper than any two edged sword, piercing to the division of bone and marrow.
To hear that you have been lied to is going to cut deeply in your soul; but rather than walking away insisting that the lie that you have been told is true; repent, and cling to the firm foundation of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
For to those who build their faith on the truth of Christ, there is the sure and certain promise of forgiveness, life and salvation.