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Sermon Illustrations for Ash Wednesday (2018)

Illustration
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Orville Lynn Majors was called by the “Angel of Death” by the news media. Majors died in September 2017, at the age of 56 of heart problems. Majors was serving a 360-year prison sentence at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City for the murder of six elderly people. It is believed that he also killed hundreds of patients in the mid-1990s, while he was a licensed practical nurse at the Vermillion County Hospital four-bed intensive care unit in Clinton, Indiana. Majors would inject the patients with epinephrine and potassium chloride and they would the die of respiratory failure.

A police investigation began in 1995 after another nurse reported that the unit’s death rate increased to 120 from 31 or fewer during the previous decade. Majors was on duty and often alone during these deaths. At his home used vials and syringes were found. Statistical studies linked Majors to as many as 130 of the 147 deaths in the I.C.U. unit from May 1993 to March 1995. Prosecutors only selected seven cases they could prove, and Majors was convicted on six of them. During the investigation, while his license was suspended, Majors ran a pet and flower shop in his hometown of Linton.

A motive for the killings was never discovered, but once Majors was overheard as saying these patients were “a waste.”

Application: Our lectionary reading discusses judgment and the need for repentance.
Ron L.


Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12
Recently a 1700-year-old obituary written on a small limestone block from the Third Century AD that was found in Egypt was translated by scholar Lincoln H. Blumell. It read, simply: In peace and blessing, Ama Helene, a Jew, who loves the orphans, [died]. For about 60 years her path was one of mercy and blessing; on it she prospered.

The inscription raises some real questions. On the one hand it identifies Helene as a Jew. On the other hand “Ama” was a term of honor applied by Christians to women who served in God’s ministries, including, but not exclusively, nuns. And though there had been a thriving Jewish population in Egypt over a century earlier, it had largely been wiped out after the Jewish Revolt of 115-117 AD. 

Of course the name Helene was neither Christian or Jewish. It was the name of the woman whose face launched a thousand ships, Helen of Troy, whose abduction from Greece incited the Trojan War.

Whoever this woman was, she lived a long time, around 60 years, during an era when life expectancy was around twenty five to thirty years. Not only that, she made care for orphans her special ministry, something that would have pleased Isaiah, and certainly pleased God.

Today we receive ashes in recognition of the fact that from dust we come, and unto dust we shall return. Let us turn our attention to the words of Isaiah, who reminds us that the fast God prefers is …to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Frank R.


Isaiah 58:1-12
A fellow was leading in prayer using one of his same old phrases which was, “Oh, Lord, touch the needy with Thy Finger.” Suddenly, as he was praying, he stopped. The silence caused people to rush over to him and ask if he were ill.

“No,” he said, “but something seemed to say to me, “Thou art the finger.”

Matthew West sings a song called “Do Something” in which he ponders the same concept. Here are the words of the first part of the song.

I woke up this morning
Saw a world full of trouble now
Thought, how’d we ever get so far down
How’s it ever gonna turn around
So I turned my eyes to Heaven
I thought, “God, why don’t You do something?”
Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did, I created you”


The emphasis in this passage is social righteousness and the discussion itself centers on fasting.  Through his prophet God exposes the people’s hypocrisy.  The people wanted to fast; they wanted to show outward evidence of doing God’s will.  After all, what did a little abstinence matter if they could retain their basic lifestyle of disobedient rebellion against the moral demands of God? In this prophetic message Isaiah reiterates that going through the motions is not enough.  It was time for them and us to do something.
Bill T. 


1 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10
The ashes of Ash Wednesday are the best illustration of this Lesson. The text is about God’s surprising ways of acting, how he takes bad and weak things and uses them to work good. Just like the ashes tonight, what’s left of the dead palms we waived last year become tonight emblems of the life that God will give us despite the fact that due to sin we are all headed for the grave. Martin Luther had a nice way of describing the hidden character of the Christian life:

You see the whole of the Christian life has to be hidden and remain hidden this way. It cannot achieve great fame or put on much of a display or show before the world. So let it go at that. Do not worry about the way it is hidden, covered up, and buried, and the way that no one notices. Be content with the fact that your Father up there in heaven sees it. (Luther’s Works, Vol.21, pp.163-164)

This is an important insight, the realization that, as the Reformer says, “sin remains in the baptized and the saints as long as they are flesh and blood and live on earth.” (Luther’s Works, Vol.25, p.20). We need this awareness to keep us focused on Jesus and grace:

Sin remains in the spiritual man for the exercise of grace, the humbling of pride, and the repression of presumption. (What Luther Says, p.1319)

In making this point of our total dependence on Christ and his grace, the lesson stresses Christ becoming sin. Luther takes this position and says that Christ is the greatest of all sinners:

And all the proponents saw this, that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, descecrator, blasphemer, etc. there ever has been anywhere in the world. (Luther’s Works, Vol.26, p.277)

Christ is the greatest sinner, because the sins of the whole world (including all assembled) have been laid on him. This is such good news, the great French philosopher Blaise Pascal once powerfully told us:

Then Jesus Christ comes to tell men that they have no enemies but themselves, that it is their passions that cut them off from God, that He has come to destroy these passions, and gave men His grace. (Pensees, p.164)

The ashes testify that our passions are dead and in their place is Christ the greatest sinner, showering us with his grace.
Mark E.


1 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10
Now is the day! Is today the day for us? Is it this Ash Wednesday? It sounds like it is everyday! It sounds like Jesus is the ever present answer!

Jesus became like us. He must have been tempted as we are tempted. It must have crossed his mind that Mary would have made a good wife and he could have made a good living as a carpenter. Satan even tempted him to take over the whole world right then if He worshiped him!

He differed from us mainly in that he refused to yield to temptation so that he could be substituted for us. He took our place and suffered for us and for our sin. He had great endurance in troubles and hardships. He was beaten and imprisoned for us.

The Apostles in Nepal also suffered like Paul and won many people to Jesus through their ministry. They won some through their willingness to endure sufferings, beatings and imprisonment but especially through their love and truthful speech.

Other missionaries I have known have also suffered but also won many through their love and the truthful words they spoke.

Many prospective believers on the mission field were happy to hear that there was only ONE God and not a collection of “deities” of many different characters and sexes. You could see the ugly faces of those gods hanging from pegs in the many stores who sold them. Maybe the parents bought them to scare their kids!

 As Christians we have something unique to offer others. God has adopted us as sons and daughters through our baptism. We also have the faith of our parents. In our church we should act like brothers and sisters.

Should the poor be happy when they lose medicade? Would they ever go hungry if they belonged to our church? Would we sacrifice on their behalf as Jesus sacrificed for us?

We should never boast about how much better we are then those sinners out there who are violent and who are in prison for their sins. If we are so good, Jesus would not have needed to die for us! Every time we receive the Lord’s supper we should realize that WE are the sinners Jesus died for!
Bob O.


2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Paul’s description, “… but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;” makes it sound hard to be a follower of Jesus. Clearly, the faint-hearted need not apply or even attempt to be followers of Christ. Now I would agree except that we are strengthened for this journey of following Jesus by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts: “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left…” These are the attributes promised us through God’s grace and empowerment.

As we enter the season of Lent, we may be tempted to “give up” something we like, some temporal thing, as we were taught as children. It may be better for us to try to proclaim our faith in Jesus using purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God. Maybe our call this Lenten season is to live into our calling to follow Jesus and to commit to those behaviors, no matter the consequences. I will be journaling my progress this Lent, determining how well I am living up to the call to follow Jesus. That will be more important, and likely more pleasing to God than giving up chocolate.
Bonnie B.


Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
During World War II, Norman Rockwell longed to use his artistic abilities to support the war effort. It was his desire to put on canvas the “big idea” for which we were fighting, but a void remained. Suddenly, at 3 a.m., on July 16, 1942, Rockwell sat bolt upright in bed. He had his big idea. President Roosevelt in his State of the Union Address pronounced the “four essential human freedoms” that summoned the nation to armed conflict. Rockwell would portray in oil each of these freedoms, translating the spoken ideology into commonplace scenes everyone could understand.

“Freedom of Speech” portrayed a man standing in rough work clothes, speaking openly at a New England town meeting. “Freedom of Worship” depicted a group of people in prayer, each of a different faith. “Freedom from Want” placed a family around a Thanksgiving dinner table. “Freedom from Fear” pictured two children being tucked into bed, safe and secure, while the father held an evening newspaper, the headline reporting the bombing of Europe.

Application: If an individual lives by the Four Freedoms, he or she will be storing their treasures in heaven.
Ron L.


Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… (Matthew 6:19-20).”

It is possible to pay a fee, name a star, or buy a square inch of the moon’s surface, and receive a certificate announcing the same.

Such a certificate is worthless. You can’t pay to name a star, although your name might be registered in some unofficial book. Only an official astronomical body can name a star. Nor can you really buy a piece of the moon. The same is true for that as well.

On the other hand, people enjoy doing this because they’re giving a gift that is in the heavens, beyond the ability of others to spoil or tarnish it.
Frank R.


Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
A preacher I read about shared how someone in his congregation wanted to bless him by giving him a new suit.  Out of the blue, a sales rep from a clothing store in town called and asked if he could come take his measurements.  All he would tell him was that the gift was to be anonymous. Reluctantly, the minister went along and got a beautiful new suit out of it.

As the story continued, he added, “But I was never able to thank the donor.  To this day, I don’t know who gave it to me.”  He said, “I thought of several people in the congregation it might have been.  Every Sunday I’d look over the congregation and pick out an individual or two and think to myself, ‘It’d be just like him/her to do that sort of thing.’  But then, I had no way of knowing for sure.”  He concluded with this, “When you know who gave you the gift, you can say, ‘Thank you,’ and that’s the end of it -- the cycle is complete and the donor has his/her reward.  But with anonymous giving, it’s different.  Since you don’t know who to thank, the gratitude goes on and on.”

When it is done anonymously, without show, the gratitude goes on and on. Don’t brag about the spiritual things you do or do stuff just to let others see it. Don’t seek to get the credit or reward now.
Bill T.
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Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Abram despairs because God’s promises have been so long delayed, he doubts they will come true. God’s response is not only to repeat the promise, but to give Abram and Sarai very slight name changes, to Abraham and Sarah. This slight alteration changes their perspective. God’s promises do come true.

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For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith… For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants… (vv. 13, 16a)

We live by faith! Faith, as the author of Hebrews says, is “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

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Janice B. Scott
Call to Worship:

Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." In our worship today let us explore what it means to take up our cross and follow him.


Invitation to Confession:

Jesus, like Peter, we don't always understand what we should do.
Lord, have mercy.

Jesus, we often try to avoid any suffering.
Christ, have mercy.

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Stan Purdum
(See Good Friday, Cycle A; Good Friday, Cycle B; and Proper 23/Pentecost 21/Ordinary Time 28, Cycle C, for alternative approaches.)

We will meet Psalm 22 in its entirety on Good Friday, but here the lectionary designates just verses 23-31. The lectionary psalms generally illuminate the week's First Lesson, which in this case is about the covenant initiated by God with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 17. The nine verses from this psalm, while not inappropriate, nonetheless leave us looking for an obvious connection with the First Lesson.

Mark J. Molldrem
A friend related to me how, when he was a youngster, he spent a lot of time on the other side of the block all wrapped up in touch football and whiffle ball and hide-and-go-seek. But there were other important events going on for which his folks knew he needed to be present, like going to church, mealtime, bedtime. So, they blew a whistle to call him home from the other side of the block.
Donna E. Schaper
Some gardeners can grow everything and others cannot. Sweet peas are a particularly difficult plant for some. They sprout two little leafs and a withered string of a hand reaching up. Then they stop growing. Something underneath is wrong. In the soil. Down deep. They don't want to live.

People who have trouble with sweet peas try over and over to grow them. They load the soil with enough chicken manure to fertilize five gardens, much less the five square feet where they'd like to see light pink and purple and sweet.
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What names did people call you as you were growing up? What nicknames did your parents or grandparents saddle you with? I hope most of the names were endearing. But were others nasty or hurtful? Were you given a nickname because of how you looked or how you talked? Because of where you lived or what you wore?

Did anyone ever give you a name because they felt they knew what your future would hold? If so, did that spur you on in your destiny or did it hold you back and discourage you? Did they nickname you in honor of what they believed you would become? I hope so!

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