Ash Wednesday gives us an opportunity to confront a truth we so often don’t want to face: that we all are dying; that our time on earth is running out; that none of us is going to have all the time in the world to sort out our priorities, to get our lives right with God, to make amends for the ways we’ve hurt each other, to become the kind of people we know God wants us to become, to love and serve and bear witness for Jesus.
Ash Wednesday reminds us to live life with urgency, to make Jesus Christ—and nothing or no one else—the center of our lives. Then we can say, along with Paul, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
I believe this is the best Ash Wednesday sermon I’ve ever preached.
Sermon Text: Philippians 1:18b-26
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Like all of you who heard about it, I was deeply troubled by news from last Sunday about the ISIS terrorists who beheaded 21 Christians on a beach in Libya—just because they were Christians. From what I’ve read, they posted the executions on the internet for all the world to see. The terrorists said, “Safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for.” Crusaders! As if the church in Egypt isn’t among the most ancient in the world—as if the church in Egypt doesn’t predate the rise and spread of Islam by hundreds of years!
Whatever! I don’t expect terrorists to be good at history. It angers me. I pray that God will use peace-loving nations of the world to put an end to their evil once and for all.
I admire the courage of these 21 Christians who gave the last full measure of devotion to our Lord. And it challenges me because as a Christian, I can’t help but imagine myself in the place of these martyrs. What would that be like? What would I be thinking?
The truth is, however, this is precisely what’s going on with the apostle Paul in today’s scripture. He’s in a Roman prison because of his faith—probably in Ephesus—and he’s facing possible execution. He’s not sure what the result of the trial is going to be, whether he’ll live or die. In fact, he feels torn about it. We can hear Paul “thinking out loud”: If he does get executed, that means he’ll go on to be with the Lord, which, he says, is “better by far” than remaining in this world. But if he stays, he’ll get to continue the work that God called him to do—to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. Since he knows that there’s still so much work to do, however, he believes that God will spare his life so he can continue his work. But it doesn’t matter much to him. After all, he says, “to live is Christ,” which is amazing in and of itself, “and to die is gain.”
Don’t misunderstand: Paul doesn’t have a death wish. He’s not at all near the end of his rope. He isn’t depressed. He isn’t suicidal. He’s completely in his right mind. He seems perfectly O.K. with either living or dying, since, either way, he’ll be glorifying Christ. He’d prefer to stay on earth a while longer so he can continue his work, but not because he’s doesn’t look forward to dying and being with the Lord.
I hope the Holy Spirit gave each of those 21 Christians in Libya that same strong faith!
How is Paul able to face death with such courage? Because nothing on which Paul places ultimate value and worth depends on his being alive to enjoy it. In other words, he doesn’t lose anything that he greatly values by dying. On the contrary he only gains more of what he values! Because Paul’s treasure isn’t on earth, “where moth and rust destroy, or where thieves break in and steal.” Paul’s treasure is in heaven, where the only treasure that ever really matters is found. Jim Elliot, a 20th-century American missionary to Ecuador who was martyred for his faith, said it best in a 1949 journal entry when he wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Paul, like Jim Elliot, like those 21 martyrs in Libya, could face his own death with such equanimity because, for Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Do you think that Paul was a special kind of Christian? Some kind of superhero Christian, and that what was true of him doesn’t need to be true of us? No, in Colossians 3:4, Paul says Christ is supposed to be our life in the same way! Besides, Paul is more like you than you think: Remember, like most of you—and unlike yours truly—Paul wasn’t a full-time pastor. Remember, he had a day job, as a tent-maker; he had to go to work and make a living outside of church work, just like the rest of you. He did church work for free!
Now, please don’t get any ideas about me… I’m just saying! Paul’s more like you than you think! All of us should be able to say, Christ is my life!
I mentioned on Sunday that I would be watching the 40th anniversary special of Saturday Night Live. And I did. It was great. And one of the many stars making an appearance was the very funny actor Alec Baldwin, who has hosted the show more than nearly anyone. Alec is about as famous as they come. He has a younger brother named Stephen, who isn’t nearly as famous. At one time he was. Back in the mid-’90s he was a rising star, with a breakout role in the movie The Usual Suspects.
About 18 years ago, he and his wife were living in Tucson, Arizona. They had a cleaning lady named Agusta. Baldwin’s wife, Kennya, noticed that as Agusta cleaned the house, she sang constantly, and everything she sang was about Jesus. This kind of bothered her. Finally, she asked Agusta, “Why do you always sing about Jesus? Don’t you know any other tunes in your repertoire?” Agusta burst out in laughter. And she spoke some words that would change the lives of Stephen and Kennya for eternity. She said, “Understand that the reason why I’m laughing is because you think the only reason I’m here is to clean house.”
As Kennya later explained to her husband: “Agusta just said the funniest thing, She said that the real reason she’s here is to tell us that at some point in the future you and I are going to become born-again Christians, and at some point after that you and I are going to have our own Christian ministry.” Baldwin said that at that point in his life he was making more money than he could ever possibly imagine making. He was emerging as a big star. Jesus, he said, was the furthest thing from his mind. The idea of becoming a Christian was preposterous to him. But that experience, he said, was the beginning of his journey of Christian faith.
And not that Stephen Baldwin is complaining, but his decision to accept Christ was a very costly one. He said he stopped making the kind of compromises that actors often have to make to sustain a successful film career, so the roles dried up. Not that he’s complaining. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Or, as Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul.”
What’s striking to me about Stephen Baldwin’s story is this: I don’t really worry that I’m going to be asked to give up my life on account of my Christian faith. None of us, fortunately, is probably ever going to be in that situation. But what Stephen Baldwin actually did give up on account of his Christian faith, well… Here’s a real-world example of someone giving up something that, if I’m honest with myself, I too often want for myself: money, recognition, popularity, awards, the respect of my peers.
We’re way beyond just giving up something for Lent here… Stephen Baldwin didn’t give up these things for, you know, six weeks… He gave them up for about 20 years and counting. And to his great credit, he seems perfectly O.K. with being—along with Kirk Cameron and a handful of other stars—a laughingstock, the butt of jokes, fodder for late-night comedians on TV. I’ve heard the jokes about Baldwin! If I were him, I’m not sure my pride could take it! Yet he seems perfectly O.K. with it! Like the apostle Paul later in Philippians, he can look at his life before Christ—and all the things he strived for, all the things he wanted so desperately—and say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Not that I would ever be in danger of having those things that Stephen Baldwin had and gave up, but if I did, would I be willing to give them up? I hope so… But it would be hard! My priorities so easily get out of whack!
Needless to say, when you know you’re dying, when you know your time is running out, your priorities change. You make a point of saying what needs to be said. You make a point of doing what needs to be done. You live life with urgency. You don’t waste time on nonsense. You don’t let yourself get caught up in petty squabbling and fights. You focus on what’s most important.
In a few moments I’m going to take ashes, make the sign of the cross on your forehead, and say, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Because the purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us of a truth that we often don’t want to face: that we all are dying, that our time on earth is running out. That none of us is going to have all the time in the world to sort out our priorities, to get our lives right with God, to make amends for the ways we’ve hurt each other, to become the kind of people we know God wants us to become, to love and serve and bear witness for Jesus.
All we know for sure is that we have this time. So… what are we going to do about it?
If you haven’t seen the movie God’s Not Dead, and you want to, you might want to cover your ears, because here’s a spoiler alert. Near the end of the movie, the atheist professor who debates the Christian student is struck by a car in a hit and run. He lay there dying, but a pastor is there who shares the gospel with him and asks him to invite Jesus into his heart. Which the professor does. And the pastor, who knows the professor is dying, says, “In a few minutes, you’re going to know a lot more about God and Jesus than I do.”
I thought about that scene when I did the funeral for Gail Burel this week, and I told that congregation: “What would Gail tell us if she talk to us right now? She would urge those of you who’ve never invited Christ to come into your life as Savior and Lord to do so while there’s still time. And for the rest of us who are saved, she would say, “Make the Lord Jesus your top priority! Let him be your everything. Let him be your treasure. Let him be life!”
I turned 45 today. Forty-five. Kyle King wished me a happy birthday—many of you know Kyle. And Kyle said, “Are you going to give up ‘getting older’ for Lent this year?” I thought, “I wish!”
But on second-thought, I’m glad I’m 45! I’d rather be 45 than 40, or 35, or 25. Why? Because I’ve grown a lot closer to Jesus than I was back then. I’m more faithful to Jesus than I was back then. Because I’ve surrendered more of my life to Jesus than I had back then.
Because, while I’ve still got a long way to go, Jesus is much more of my life today than he was back then. Sure, I was better looking when I was 25. I didn’t have all the gray hair back then. I could run faster without all the aches and pains.
But I’ve got more of Jesus, and that’s better than anything!
Brothers and sisters, friends, don’t wait to get your life right with God. Do it now. Do it today.
 Mark 8:36 NIV
 Philippians 3:8-9 ESV