Heart to Heart: Sackcloth and Ashes to Robes of Righteousness
+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation this Ash Wednesday is from the prophet Joel, where he speaks, “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love… Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…
There’s a story of a vain emperor who loves clothes, wearing nothing but the finest apparel and suits. More than ruling his realm and caring for his people, the emperor would change clothes almost hourly, and his tailors were only too willing to oblige. Not surprisingly, the king’s proclivity for fashion drew two con-artists posing as tailors, saying they could make the finest suit the emperor would ever own, made of fabric so light, it is almost invisible to the eye. In fact, the only way one couldn’t see the clothes would be if one were too stupid, foolish, or undeserving of their position to see them.
This offer is too good for the emperor to pass up, thinking he can use the suit as a test to see which of his advisors are foolish or otherwise unfit for their positions. Unfortunately, he ends up the fool; conned by the two faux-tailors, the emperor dons the “new suit” and leads a procession through the town for all to see his marvelous new duds. The townsfolk are all shocked to see their emperor, stark naked, but no one wishes to say anything for fear of looking stupid. It takes a small child, who could care less about such trivialities, to call a thing what it is, by declaring that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Realizing he has been duped, the emperor can only grimly carry on for the rest of the processional, in his nakedness and shame.
Why did the emperor feel ashamed? Certainly, he was ashamed of being so foolish as to believe the con-men, but adding insult to injury, he was naked. That original shame felt by humanity, a shame which we feel the desire to cover up with clothing. Adam and Eve’s first clothes were hardly fashionable – fig leaves sown together, but they covered their nakedness and, undoubtedly, thought those clothes could fool the very God Who created them. Now fast-forward to our day, and you quickly find how we take pride in the clothes we wear. Some things don’t change; like Adam and Eve, we believe we can deceive God and He will not take note of our shame. We want to be responsible and cover up our sin. It does not work. Our clothes, whatever the brand, are used to cover up our nakedness, but they cannot cover the shame of sin that we attempt, in vain, to cover.
If the desires of our hearts were laid bare for all to see, we would indeed be ashamed. Evil thoughts, sexual desires, selfish wants, impure motives, jealousy, anger, envy, drunkenness, strife, idolatry; need I continue? This is the condition of our hearts, and we seek to hide it. Yet, man is incapable of hiding the truth from God. We may fool those around us, and we may be fooled by those around us, but the Lord God sees the condition of all hearts. He knows we are guilty, and that we are guilty of it all.
As Adam was formed from the dust, when his life was no more, when he died because of sin, he returned to that dust, and now his body is dust. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, The wages of sin is death. We die because of sin, and this is what we remember during Ash Wednesday. We are born sinners, and our journey leads us back to the dust of death. Any attempts to cover up our sin, every effort to pay up always results in the same destination: the grave. We are dust, and to dust we shall return.
In this sorry spiritual state of affairs, the prophet Joel speaks. The people of Israel have wandered away from their God. They have been unfaithful in word and deed. They have sought other gods and played the harlot. So the Lord will turn them over to disaster. They will be oppressed and downtrodden. They will suffer want and weep in their distress. Joel calls out, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” The ancient tradition was to express terrible anxiety and distress by tearing your garments, displaying your state of sorrow. But the rending of garments will only reveal the problem: a corrupt and sinful heart. A torn garment shows the problem, a torn heart begins to heal the problem.
Rend your hearts and not your garments! Put on sackcloth and ashes. Repent! Return to the Lord! David tells us in Psalm 51, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” That is why we have gathered here this day to put on ashes, to repent. We know our sin, and it is ever before us. We know the sorry condition of our blackened hearts, and that we, of our own strength and power, cannot return from our sin-stained exile. We cannot return to the presence of the Lord our God. The ashes remind us of our sin, of the condition of our hearts. But ashes in the sign of the cross … remind us of a gracious and merciful God.
Yes, an instrument of torture and death is the means by which God has cleansed our hearts and exchanged our garments. The cross—the place where Jesus is raised up in our place. The cross—the place where Jesus is stripped of His robe and all of our sin is revealed as He hangs naked in our stead. For He who knew no sin became sin for us. We attempt to cover our sin, but Jesus reveals it so that it might be washed away by His blood. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow.
What do we get in this felicitous exchange? Listen to the words of St. John as he describes those who are gathered around the throne of the Lamb in His kingdom, and you’ll get the answer:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.
A great multitude who wave palm branches as they worship their Savior. Note that they are clothed in white robes. These are no fig leaves they wear; they are not adorned in filthy rags. They are clothed in white robes, robes that have been cleansed, washed in the blood of the Lamb. Their garments of sackcloth have been exchanged for robes of righteousness.
The sackcloth and ashes are gone. It is the blood of Jesus that washes away sin, His blood that washes our robes and makes them white. Jesus takes our sackcloth and ashes, and clothes us in righteousness – HIS righteousness. Now, when the Father sees us, He no longer sees our shame, nor our nakedness. He sees His Son, so drenched and thoroughly cleansed by His blood are our robes! Our hearts are restored! The exile is over! The journey is finished with the coming of that blessed Day! We are returned to the presence of our God, and we rejoice in the robes the Bridegroom has provided for His Bride.
+ In Jesus’s holy, precious, and mighty Name. + Amen.