I attended the Ash Wednesday service at the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church. My plan, for the next several weeks, is to attend the church’s weekly Lenten services, followed by the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. And, yes, I hope to do a blog post about each one of them, as a way for me to process the service and to preserve it for myself and anyone interested.
The pastor opened his sermon by referring to an old car commercial, depicting a car that went through various terrain. The slogan was, “It’s not about the destination, but the journey.”
The pastor said that the journey is indeed important, but so is the destination. He told a story about when he was in Hawaii with other Lutherans, and his group wanted to see a waterfall. The directions were not clear, so his group was trying to find the waterfall. They were walking on what they thought was a trail—-for a while, they were trying to convince themselves that it was a trail—-but it was not. They were lost, and they did not reach their destination.
The pastor applied this to repentance. Whereas the directions to the waterfall were not clear, God has laid out God’s instructions.
The pastor got onto the topic of godly verses ungodly repentance. II Corinthians 7:9-10 refers to godly repentance, but, according to the pastor, it also seems to imply that there is such a thing as ungodly repentance. What is ungodly repentance?
The pastor defined ungodly repentance as repentance that is superficial and does not accompany or lead to an authentic change of mind—-which encompasses more than intellectual thoughts but also includes moral decision-making.
The pastor told a story to illustrate ungodly repentance. The pastor was trying to get to an elders’ meeting at a Lutheran church where he was serving, and he went way over the speed limit. A cop stopped him, and the pastor told the cop that he was trying to get to an elders’ meeting; the pastor was wearing his collar, so he hoped that the cop would go easy on a clergy-person. It turned out that the cop was a lapsed Lutheran. The cop remarked that his grandmother went to that Lutheran church, and he should be going, too, but he never does. The cop decided to let the pastor off in an attempt to get right with God.
There were two things wrong with this cop’s repentance, the pastor related. First, it did not lead to any change on the cop’s part: it was not as if the cop started attending the church! But, second, the cop was trying to solve the problem of his alienation from God on his own. According to the pastor, he was like Adam and Eve in the Garden: rather than turning to God, he was trying to be God, assuming autonomy.
What is true repentance? According to the pastor, it entails being challenged by God’s law and asking God to be merciful to us, sinners (Luke 18:13). It includes dying to a desire for sin. It entails wanting oneself to decrease while Jesus increases (John 3:30).
But, the pastor said, even this focuses on us. For the pastor, we are helpless to save ourselves. Many of us, when confronted with our transgression of God’s law, may become resentful rather than repentant.
The pastor then talked about how God grieves for our sin. The pastor detected God’s grief at Adam and Eve’s sin when God in Genesis 3 asked them where they were and who told them that they were naked. It was manifest when Jesus asked God to forgive his persecutors, for they know not what they do (Luke 22:34).
These were the highlights of the sermon, as I recall them. I could identify with what the pastor said about resenting God’s law: I often feel that God’s law (as I understand it) is the problem because it is too high of a standard, one that I, and very few people, can reach. But I wondered how the pastor envisions God healing our attitudes. Is it through an act of monergism, of God unilaterally transforming our hard heart?
We sang different songs, but one that particularly ministered to me was an old Lutheran hymn called “Today Your Mercy Calls Us.” You can read its lyrics here. The hymn is worth reading because it illustrates the meaning of forgiveness and highlights God’s love: