Ash Wednesday Sermon
Text: Job 42: 1-6
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.
They’re haunting words aren’t they? The words ring in our ears like funeral bells. Ashes to Ashes—I hear it and I taste the words. Ashes stick to your tongue, ashes cling to your clothes. When I preside at a funeral, I always feel a tremendous sense of humility when I turn toward the coffin before it is lowered into the ground, put my hand on it, and say, “We commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
I always think of the ashes that are the last part of a campfire. Faces are illuminated faintly by the slowly dying embers inside a haphazard bundle of logs. A night of stories, laughter, and fellowship naturally retires to a lulled hush as a campfire turns to ashes. Like campfires, our lives come to an end and we retire to ashes.
On this day we are called to remember that we are made from dust, and we will return to dust. Our life on this earth is finite—and as sure as our bodies, our societies, and even our sense of self arose from the primordial dust of time and space, all of it will return to this simple, yet inescapable origin. These words recall the creation story, in which God crafts our very existence from the dust and ash that is leftover from the tumultuous process of creating everything else. Many scientists posit a theory that the big bang will eventually collapse on itself in a dramatic reversal of infinite expansion. Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust. All will become nothing—and then what?
Though it may not be on the front of our minds, we will eventually die. Our bodies will decay or be burned, our mind and heart will cease being the place where our spirit resides, the memory of us will eventually fade among generations who had no immediate contact with our presence on this earth. Everything having to do with the vibrancy of my life will fade like that dimming campfire until there is nothing, not even a memory of me. Our tombstones will grow more and more worn, our names and lives will vanish with the winds of change.
Perhaps it’s just a folly of my youth, but I find it hard to imagine that there will come a time in the not so distant future when I will cease to exist, when my presence on this earth will not have amounted for anything. Perhaps I could tell myself that the world wouldn’t be the same without my presence having been in it, but how do I know that? One of my family Christmas traditions that makes my mom really happy is watching “It’s a wonderful life.” I’ve learned from repetitive viewing of George Bailey’s moral dilemma that I really do matter to the well being of the world, but there’s a more important source of my confidence that the world will be better off with me than without me even after I have died and been forgotten.
Though its “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” for me, I’ve given myself to something that lasts—God’s Vision! The mark you’ll receive on your forehead in a few minutes is a visible sign to ourselves and our community that we have made a decision about the placement of things in our lives. I see that mark on our forehead saying, “I commit myself to hoping for God’s Kingdom—and those efforts are going to make a lasting impression on the world.” Ash Wednesday is a gentle reminder that we are only temporary…..but God’s Vision is Eternal!
What is in God’s Vision? As Christians we believe it involves good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, liberty for those who are oppressed, voice for the voiceless, strength for the weak.
The symbolic role that John the Baptist saw Jesus fulfilling when Jesus came for baptism was to “Baptize with fire.” Christ brings a purifying fire to the world that we’ve constructed with our egos, with our ignorance, with our hatred, with our sin. We celebrate a God who raises a new and better vision of the world and of ourselves like a Phoenix from these very ashes. Though I may pass to dust before this Vision is realized, Christ calls us to Hope for “the day of God’s favor.”
We must not allow our own finality to cloud our vision of what God has in store for Creation. We are part of that story, and God needs us to help fulfill that vision. By participating in this ongoing creation, we turn dust into beauty—we turn ashes into a Kingdom! By recognizing our own finality, and in so doing giving up the idea that our own fulfillment should be the center of our attention, we have the opportunity to give ourselves fully to the task Christ has put before us—opening eyes to the Kingdom, the Vision of God.
The cross of ashes that you wear on your foreheads today is a testament to this Gospel. You might be stared at today by people who aren’t quite accustomed to this ritual, but when and if that happens I would encourage you to share the Good News that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Yes! The recognition that we are very temporary is Good News indeed! Why? Because when we recognize that we are temporary, we recognize that God’s Love is eternal. When the false idols of our very understanding of “Self” crumbles to the ground, we fall down on our knees in awe and wonder at the great “I AM.” When we contemplate our endpoint, we no doubt remember our starting point. At each end, we see a Loving creative God--The one who made us, who fashioned us lovingly with mud and dust and Breathed the Breath of Life into our nostrils. This Alpha is also the Omega—waiting to change us into new creations as our bodies wither and die, and the Breath that was breathed into us at birth is taken back into the One who Breathed.
This is our hope, this is our testimony. This is why we do funny things like wearing a cross of ashes on our foreheads. What is old has died, and in us—in new wineskins, new wine is poured. ThanksbetoGod!