1. Yes—it is I whom God calls to repentance.
2. Yes—it is I for whom the Savior willingly goes.
In Old Testament times, God summoned his people to Jerusalem three times a year, in pilgrimage. They were to appear before the Lord at the three high festivals—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. You know from the gospels that Jesus himself made that trip a few times, as well as one last time.
Today we begin our annual pilgrimage of sorts. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our 40-day trek through the Passion History of our Lord, visiting familiar places along the way and culminating with us gathered, in spirit, in the upper room, at the foot of the cross, and at the entrance of the empty tomb. Forty days—for the 40 days in the wilderness, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he battled temptation to remain sinless for us.
Our Lenten series this year takes us to all those familiar places and does so by using three words of truth each week—words that focus our spiritual attention on what’s important.
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin our Lenten journey by looking in a mirror at ourselves— reflecting on our sinfulness in the light of God’s Word, but then looking past our own reflection to see that Jesus is standing right there behind us—our Hope, our Cure, our dear Savior.
We begin by making the three-word question of the disciples our own: Is it I? It comes from that upper room on Maundy Thursday, where Jesus spoke many, many comforting things to his disciples. He was preparing them for the fierce trial of faith that they would undergo the next day—watching him, their teacher and Lord, hang in agony on the cross. But not all Jesus’ words were comforting – some were warning instead.
As the disciples and their Lord began their last meal together, Jesus became visibly agitated and then, he said: “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” You could probably hear a pin drop in that room. Then troubled voices filled the void with concern and shock: “Is it I? Is it I? Is it I? Is it I? Is it I? . . .” And Judas too had to ask, otherwise, his silence would have been revealing: “Is it I, Rabbi?”
In their original language, the way the disciples phrase their question, you can tell each was hoping Jesus would answer, “No, not you.” Matthew says they were all filled with grief over what Jesus had said, so the questions didn’t come from pride, not from self-confidence (“It couldn’t possibly be me!”). No, by now the disciples all knew that Jesus could read the hearts and minds of people, including theirs. No, these were questions prompted by doubt and fear, and each was looking for reassurance.
But, you know, even asking the question says something. “Is it I?” reveals what sin has done to us and what sin has the potential to do to us. None of us here today is the one who actually betrayed the Lord Jesus to his enemies, but each of us has sinned—daily sinned. We’ve felt the same fear and doubt the disciples felt. Each of us can’t boast about how strong we are in our faith. Instead, we know what a powerful force sin is in our own lives and what awful potential for self-destruction sin brings with it. Just think of the vivid illustration at this supper. How could Judas do it? He had seen Jesus heal the sick. He had seen Jesus walk on water. He had seen Jesus feed thousands . . . and had even helped pick up the leftovers. He had been sent out as a missionary by Jesus and had preached the gospel. He had been given authority to do miracles himself—and probably did many. “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born,” Jesus simply said. How—how could Judas do it?
The real question is: How can I? How can I do it—after I have heard God speak so clearly in his Word about right and wrong, about being holy in thought, actions, and speech? How can I do it—when I read many examples of people in the Bible, see examples today (perhaps, sadly, in my own family) of those who once believed but chose to turn away from Jesus? Do I really stop to think about what sin can do in my life? And not just the problems and irritations it causes or the frictions in personal relationships… Do I really realize that sin can drive faith from my heart and leave me to stand before God’s holy throne when I die with no excuse and an eternity of hell before me? In this way, this day—Ash Wednesday—is a reminder of our own mortality and the judgment that will follow.
These words bring truth: “Is it I?”—Yes! It is I whom God calls to repentance. It is I who am sinful from birth. I who daily sin against my Lord. The letter of Hebrews says that God’s Word is sharp, like a sword, and reveals the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12). Jesus’ announcement in the upper room forces us to examine ourselves. When we do—what do we find? Grief, doubt, and fear when we honestly look at ourselves.
But in that upper room there is also Jesus. There, in the person of that God-man Jesus, is love we can’t understand. In love, he does confront us with our sin, like a doctor diagnosing a disease. Jesus confronts us so that we stop living in denial or dreaming about our own greatness. He does it so that we turn to him and are saved, for apart from him there is no Savior. His words reveal who we really are behind all this, but more important, his words reveal who he is and why he came.
“The Son of Man goes as it is written of him.” Almost a passing comment by Jesus in this text, but a statement loaded with love and comfort for us! He is “the Son of Man”—true God, yet true man. But by taking on our human nature, Jesus became our brother. He shares our humanity. He’s been here on planet Earth. He knows what temptations we face; he faced them all. He knows how we struggle in weakness; he chose to live in weakness too. He knows what grief and sorrow we carry around in our hearts; he knows how frightened by the future we become at times. And he knows all these things not simply because he is true God but because he is true man who experienced life in the sinful world just as we do.
And this Son of Man “goes as it is written of him.” The last supper, the upper room really isn’t highlighting the tragedy of Judas (although it certainly is that). Rather, this is Jesus’ story; it’s all about him—this story that began before the creation of the world. The history of how the Son of God created all things good in the beginning. Of how his enemy Satan declared war against him by corrupting the crown of his creation, mankind. Of how the Son stood in the garden with Adam and Eve; cursed the serpent and promised to come and make all things good again. Here he is—in the flesh and in the upper room. All the prophecies written about him for this… The final, hellish battle was about to commence. He “goes.”
He goes for you, for me, for all. Although later that night he wrestled in prayer with his Father about this battle, perfect love drove out fear. He “goes” to the courts, Sanhedrin, Pilate’s, Herod’s halls, to the flogging post, through the streets of jeering Jerusalem, up gory Golgotha, onto the cross. He “goes” into the tomb, a place utterly foreign to the living God. But he will go out of the tomb too. And he will tell his frightened followers: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:10). Then he will go to the right hand of God and rule all things for them—for his people, for you. He will go as it was written and make all things good again.
So ask: Is this really for me? Is it—this work of Jesus that washes away my sins? Is it really for me—forgiveness and peace? Is it really for me—a glorious future in heaven that he promises to me and to all who believe in him? Yes, it is for you, it is for me that Jesus the Savior willingly goes. Whoever trusts in him will never be put to shame. Put your faith in him!
Indeed, walk with him—during this season, by his words of truth. But not just during these 40 days of Lent – walk with him every day. Fight the good fight of faith by the power of the Spirit—struggle against sin and cling to your Savior. Because, by faith, you can say, “It is I – the one God calls to repentance; the one for whom his Savior willingly goes” to bring forgiveness, peace, and blessed assurance of salvation. Amen.