The Pure and Holy Lamb of God
Ash Wednesday Sermon
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18–19)
The phrase “spring cleaning” sounds a bit old-fashioned and outdated to twenty-first-century ears. But even in these busy times, we do find it necessary now and then to stop and do some major cleaning around our houses, if not for the sake of cleanliness for survival’s sake. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but the frantic, frenzied lives we live leave little time for either. And it begins to show after a while.
You can live with a certain amount of clutter in your house, but messy souls are quite another matter. Lent comes around each year to reeducate us in repentance. You could call it a spring cleaning for the soul. That’s why Lent is such a good thing for us, spiritually speaking. For forty days Christians are led on an annual pilgrimage with Jesus to His cross, through His bitter suffering and redeeming death, to His grave, and then on to His glorious resurrection.
We call this a penitential season and rightly so. It is a time of repentance. But because repentance involves both sorrow for sin and faith in Jesus, which brings forgiveness and new life, Lent is also a time of cleansing and renewal—cleansing and renewal in Jesus, the very Lamb of God. That’s what we will be doing in these services: airing out our souls, clearing out the clutter of our sin-filled hearts, tossing out the trash, and finding refreshment and renewal in the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, which cleanses us from all sin.
The focus of our meditation tonight and in all the services of Lent and Holy Week will be the great Lenten hymn “Lamb of God, Pure and Holy.” Each time we gather here before the cross we will contemplate another perspective of our Savior’s redeeming love as it is highlighted in God’s Word.
Tonight, then, as we begin our Lenten journey, the sinless Lamb of God comes clearly into focus in the words of the apostle Peter, who writes that Jesus is “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).
I don’t have to remind you how unique Jesus is in that department. The Bible says the Son of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary as true man, just like us in every way except one: He was without sin. In that way He is different from you and me, for we are sinners through and through. But in every other way, Jesus is exactly like us, including the fact that He faced the very same temptations you and I face each day. The difference is that Jesus resisted every one of those temptations. And we, on the other hand, often cave in to temptation—or even embrace it with open arms. Thus we find ourselves defiled and contaminated by sin from head to toe. It should not surprise us when we feel dirty and polluted deep within, for we have fouled ourselves not just in what we do but also in what we say and how we think. There is truly nothing good in us when it comes to our sinful nature. Sadly, we are thoroughly blemished and defiled in our sin. Worse yet, by nature we find ourselves disqualified from the presence of God and we stand under His wrath and judgment.
Yet we have an advocate with the Father: Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. He knows the onslaughts of doubt and temptation first hand; He is familiar with every trick of the devil. Jesus bore our sorrows and is well acquainted with grief. He is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses because He has endured them all Himself and knows every one of them first hand.
Our consolation is not found in Christ’s sympathy and compassion, however, but in His sacrifice. In His suffering and on the cross, Jesus exchanged His righteousness for our sin. He, the sinless Son of God, was made to be sin for us, though He knew no sin, so that we are credited with His righteousness. All who trust in Christ not only find their sins removed and absolved, but by faith in Jesus they also share in His holiness; before the judgment seat of God they stand just as holy as Christ is, without blemish or defect.
But the apostle teaches that the heavenly status we have in Jesus, the Lamb of God, also has profound meaning for the life we live here on earth: “you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18).
At first this does not seem to connect with us because our life does not seem very empty. How can it be when it is crammed with so many activities? All kinds of things crowd our calendar and fill our time. With all the demands on our time and attention, it is quite difficult just keeping our heads above water, much less stopping to catch our breath.
Amid our fractured, frenzied lives, Lent comes as a breath of fresh air, bidding us to pause and reflect on what is going on around us. St. Peter gives us a fresh perspective on the whirlwind blur of our lives. He labels it bluntly: “the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18).
Who could call our life empty, we wonder? With our busy agendas and all the things that need our daily attention, the problem seems to be just the opposite. We seem to be suffering from too much rather than too little. If we have few minutes to stop, we’ll find something to do. We seem to have a glut rather than a famine. But that is precisely the problem. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Life on overdrive is not really living. Going faster and faster, we are getting nowhere fast. We may accumulate a good share of the trophies that many people consider signs of success, but if that is all we have to show for our time and effort, we do not have much. We may have a full life as some people count it, but when you get right down to it, such a hectic, compulsive life is full, all right—full of emptiness.
The world around us is always trying to sell us a bill of goods. We hear a great deal of talk about “freedom,” but what it boils down to is the freedom to do as you please, is the freedom of the unbridled will. The Bible brands such freedom as bondage. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” we read in Proverbs, “but in the end it leads to death” (14:12). That is the problem with life in this fallen world. All that glitters is not gold. Things are not always what they seem. Turn a sinner loose to do as he pleases, and you have sent him down the path to hellfire.
But that is what the world would like. Sin masquerades as freedom. Abortion is called “freedom of choice.” Homosexual activity is labeled an “alternate lifestyle,” a question of personal freedom. Under the guise of “freedom of religion,” Christian imagery is removed from public view and Christian vocabulary is banished from public discourse. All these aberrations are labeled “freedoms,” and the claim is made—just as in St. Peter’s day—that these freedoms are a precious heritage handed down to us from our forefathers. But these so-called “freedoms” are not freedom at all. They are bondage to sin and slavery to death.
No wonder, then, that St. Peter calls such bondage disguised as freedom what it actually is: empty, worthless. Listen again: “You were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). Note the passive nature of that redemption: “You were redeemed.” This is no do-it-yourself project. Such an empty way of life, despite its curb appeal, is actually slavery—and a slavery from which people cannot free themselves.
It happened now and then in the ancient world that slaves would actually purchase their own freedom. But the slavery to sin and death that you and I have inherited from our ancestors is not possible for us to abolish. No pile of silver or gold, no amount of stocks and bonds, no accumulated net worth could ever be enough to free us from the bondage in which we were born and the chains we have forged for ourselves by our own sins in thought, word, and deed.
Only the blood of Jesus Christ, the sinless Lamb of God, the pure and holy Lamb of God, could redeem us from the tyranny of Satan. There is a price tag on sin, you see, and that price is extremely high: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But Jesus came, this Lamb of God, this Lamb of ours—this pure and holy Lamb—to lay down His life on the cross and pour out all His blood that we slaves might be freed.
Ash Wednesday is so-named from the ancient Christian custom that all the baptized receive the sign of the cross in ashes on this first day of Lent, together with the words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” (see Genesis 3:19). It is a sobering thought, and one we all would do well to ponder. One day each of us will depart this life and stand before the judgment seat of God. We cannot—we dare not—stand in that holy place clothed in the defilement of our sin, in the empty, futile life we have inherited from our forefathers. But through the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, we have the perfect claim of sonship, clothed in the pure and holy righteousness of Christ Himself, faultless to stand that day before the throne.
Now, in this holy season, we contemplate the depth of the love of God, our merciful heavenly Father, who loved the world so that He gave His only Son the lost to save (see John 3:16–17). Entering this world in human flesh, Jesus shouldered the burden of our sin and guilt and the shame and defilement of it as well. He took upon Himself the rotten mess we have made of our lives that He might blot out all our sins by His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. As the pure and sinless Son of God, He could and did cleanse and free us from bondage to the defilement and filth of our sin.
By His grace, you are His and He is yours this night. So cleanse your souls in Him. Lay down your burdens, put away your sorrow, set aside your heartache and your pain. All this and more the pure and holy Lamb of God has taken with Him to the cross that by His death He might redeem you, make you pure and holy like Himself, and set you free to live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. You can be sure of that, even as He is now risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. He has prepared a place for you in heaven. And where Jesus is, there you shall be also, In Jesus name, amen and amen.
The peace of God, and of the Lamb be and abide with you always, amen.