But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Ash Wednesday – 2024

 Job 4:14-20

A well-known African-American spiritual includes these poignant words:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

The song repeatedly asks the rhetorical question, “Were you there?” When these momentous events, so important for human salvation, occurred, were you there?

Of course, no one who has ever sung this song or heard it sung, was there when Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead. But just the thought of these events can indeed cause those who ponder them to tremble: to tremble with awe, to tremble with grief, to tremble with a whole array of emotions.

And maybe there is some comfort in the distance that does exist between those who sing this song today and the extraordinary events of the past that the song recalls. What comes through in the song is the implication that if we had been there to see these things happen, we would probably have been overwhelmed by what we saw.

If pondering these events from a distance causes us to tremble, can you imagine what the reaction would have been if we were actually there, seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling everything, up-close and personally?

But there’s something else that makes us tremble when we ponder it – or at least that should make us tremble – something that is up-close and personal and not at a safe distance. What also causes us to tremble – to shudder profoundly and to be shaken to our core – is God’s wrath against human sin.

If God punished Lucifer and the angels who fell away from him, he will certainly also punish humans who fall away: who rebel against his righteousness, who defy his authority, who ignore his commandments, and who in their wickedness defile and corrupt themselves.

What Job in ancient times knew, we also know. What made Job tremble, makes us tremble:

“Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake. … Then I heard a voice saying: ‘Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can a man be more pure than his Maker? If [God] puts no trust in His servants, if He charges His angels with error, how much more those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before a moth? They are broken in pieces from morning till evening; they perish forever, with no one regarding.’”

Ever since the so-called “Enlightenment” emerged as an intellectual and cultural movement in the eighteenth century, our civilization has moved ever further away from its previous abhorrence of sin – as God’s law defines sin – and ever further away from its previous fear of God’s punishment of sin.

Man is now the measure of all things. And man’s will is now the standard of what is right.

Of course, people have always sinned. What is new and different now is that sin is called righteousness, and evil is called good. People in general no longer tremble at sin, and at the knowledge that God will punish sin both in time and in eternity.

But we do tremble. With God’s help we tremble, because with God’s help we are defying a society that defies God.

We are gathered here in this place on this evening to begin our observance of a special season of humility and repentance, and a special season of pleading for God’s much-needed forgiveness.

And as we repent, and as we plead for divine pardon on account of our offenses, we take a second look at the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. And maybe we don’t tremble as much as before.

Consider what the prophet Isaiah said about the sufferings of the Messiah who was to come. He described him as “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” That makes us tremble.

But Isaiah also says that “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” And we stop trembling, because we now know that we have a true and faithful friend in Jesus.

Isaiah also tells us that this suffering servant was wounded and bruised; and that he was chastised and punished, with many painful stripes from a whip laid upon his back. That makes us tremble. Yet Isaiah also tells us:

“But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.”

The trembling stops. We are at peace now, knowing that the wounds and bruises that should have been upon us, were upon our Substitute before God instead; and that the chastisement and publishment from God that we deserve has been absorbed – according to God’s loving and gracious will – by God himself, in the person of his Son.

Indeed, according to Isaiah, this Savior was “cut off from the land of the living.” His suffering was full and complete, and unto death: sufficient to pay the penalty of all sins committed by all people over all time. We might tremble a bit once again.

But death is not the final chapter in this man’s story. He shall live again, and his saving work shall continue in the spreading of his gospel. Isaiah tells us that

“He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many.”

So now we really do cease from our shuddering and our shaking. In this moment – with these comforting thoughts, and with these confident God-given convictions – we stand before God without fear.

God has allowed us, by faith, to have a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. And that truly does change everything.

In knowing our risen Lord by faith – and in knowing the forgiveness, life, and salvation that he gives and gives again to those who cling to him – we are justified before his Father in heaven. Jesus spreads his righteousness over us, and lays it upon us: to cover all our sins, and to extinguish God’s wrath against our sins.

During this penitential season we may still tremble, at those times when we ponder the deep and profound mysteries of our faith, and when we ponder our own frailness and weakness before the holiness and power of almighty God.

But also during this penitential season, at those times when the soothing grace of God’s pardon and peace is one again delivered to us in Word and Sacrament – and as the nail-scarred hands of our risen Savior embrace us in love – the trembling will stop.

And we will know that in the eternal home that Jesus is preparing for us, and to which he will welcome us, the trembling will stop forever.

We were not there when they crucified our Lord. We were not there when they nailed him to the tree. We were not there when they laid him in the tomb. And we were not there when God raised him from the tomb.

But certain people were there when those things happened, and these people witnessed those momentous events first-hand. In the sermons that will be preached during the midweek services that will be held during this Lenten season, over the next five Wednesdays, we will present vignettes and character studies of some of these people.

Hopefully we will be able to learn a few things about them, and in the process will also be able to learn a few things about ourselves. Please join us! Amen.