Sermon for Ash Wednesday -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Seven years ago on Ash Wednesday I preached my Ash Wednesday sermon for the people of Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where I was then serving as Senior Pastor, via satellite from Jerusalem and the West Bank. When Vicar
Scott and I reviewed that sermon again last week we both realized that the messages from that sermon continue to be important in 2015.
Ash Wednesday is the day on which we begin our pilgrimage to Easter, following Jesus as he heads to Jerusalem willingly for what will be his trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection.
Lent is an Anglo-Saxon word that comes from the same route as “length,” since it occurs when winter days are lengthening into spring. In other languages, Lent is called “pascha” or Passiontide, from Christ’s passion, that is, Christ’s suffering.
Between Ash Wednesday and Easter there are 46 days. Usually, we speak of the 40 days of Lent. Since Jesus rose from the tomb on a Sunday, Sundays are festival days and not considered part of Lent, although they are part of the Lenten season.
Thus, we end up with the 40 days of Lent. That is also why some people fast during Lent on every day but Sunday.
Why are there 40 days in Lent? No one knows for certain, but 40 has always been a special and holy number. In the early Christian church people fasted for the 40 hours from the time of Jesus’ death on Good Friday until the hour when they
believed Jesus had risen early on Easter Sunday morning. We also remember the number 40 from other times in the Bible: The 40 days of rain from Noah’s time, the children of Israel wondering for 40 years in the wilderness, Moses spending 40
days and nights atop Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, Jonah waiting 40 days before prophesying at Nineveh. Jesus’ temptation comes after 40 days of fasting and there are 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
Lent has not always been 40 days. Early Christians marked it in many time periods: 3, 6 or 7 weeks were common. In the 4th century the Christian Church in Jerusalem fasted for 40 days before Easter and that become the norm for Christians by
the 6th century.
Ash Wednesday falls on a different date each year because the timing of Easter Sunday moves each year. Unlike a state holiday with a set date, Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring. This practice dates from
centuries ago so that pilgrims coming to the Holy Land could have moonlight to guide them on their nighttime journeys.
Ash Wednesday gets its name from the use of the mark of the ash on a person’s forehead, an Ash Wednesday custom from the ancient Christian church, now common in Roman Catholic and most Lutheran and Episcopal congregations, among many
others. This custom traces its roots to devout Jews in Old Testament times who used ashes on their foreheads as a sign of grief and mourning. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are traditionally the ashes of last year’s palms from Palm Sunday.
This links one Lenten and Easter season to another. (Vicar Scott and I carefully burned last year’s Palm Sunday palms last Friday and yesterday I mixed the ashes with olive oil, providing the ash for our foreheads today). The words used with the
placement of the ashes on one’s forehead are traditional, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Seven years ago I preached via video from the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Old City section of Jerusalem and from Bethlehem in front of the separation wall. It was Kris’ and my third visit to the Holy Land. On that visit we were
struck again by both the beauty and barrenness of the Holy Land. We love the sights and the smells and, especially the people of Israel and Palestine. And, each time we have visited we been received with great hospitality and grace by our
Palestinian Lutheran brothers and sisters.
And, each of our visits has been marked for us with a “taste,” so to speak, of the difficult nature of life for Palestinian Christians here. Palestinian Christians, now just 2 or 3% of the population, often are put in a double bind – hated by some Israelis
because they are Palestinian and mistrusted by some Palestinian Muslims because they are Christians. Their Christian faith gets them no breaks for life there. They are subject to all the other indignities that come with life for Palestinians in an
occupied land – regular military interventions, internal checkpoints, difficulty in finding and keeping employment.
I finished my sermon in 2008 standing in Bethlehem in front of the “separation barrier” built by the Israelis between Palestinian and Israeli territory. This barrier has reduced the incidents of suicide bombings in Israel, but it has often been built
within Palestinian territory on land on which the Israelis did not have the legal right to build it. The separation barrier has divided Palestinian lands and cut off Palestinians from lands, some of which have been in their families since the time of
Christ. It has further isolated and even divided Palestinian villages. And, it has made day to day life for Palestinians, never easy since the occupation by Israel following the 1967 war, even more difficult.
When I first shared these words in 2008, it was a pretty sad story. It still is. Not much has changed Palestinians and Israelis in seven years. And, things are even worse for Christians and Muslims in Syria and Iraq and Lybia, among many other
But, and this is the reason that ideas from 2008 are worth repeating in 2015, even in the face of all of this, Jesus Christ who we now also follow to Jerusalem as Lent begins; this Jesus Christ has the courage, the audacity, to promise us that he will
bring peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
And, that is still the hope of Lent for all of us here in the USA and for people around this world in 2015 as it was in 2008. Despite recent and what may seem to be continual setbacks, in Jerusalem and the West Bank and in so many other parts of
this world, there is always hope for peace.
In the Gospels, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
Jesus Christ can and will bring peace. Let me say that again, - Jesus Christ can and will bring peace. Such a peace is not easy as the continual conflict in the Holy Land and across the Middle East has well shown. Such a peace is not easy as
continued acts of terrorism and violence around the world well show. But, it is, it must be, the hope and prayer for all of us, for all Christian people.
Jesus Christ brings peace for you and me in our daily lives and even for the people of Israel and Palestine and even for all the people of this far-from-peaceful world, in 2015 and every day.
Shalom, salaam, peace.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Jesus Christ Brings Peace
Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica