Are we but dust?

Sermon,  March 6, 2019 –  Ash Wednesday, Year C

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today begins the season of Lent, which culminates in Holy Week and our remembrance of the crucifixion of Jesus, and then the joyful celebration of his resurrection on Easter, the high point of the church year.  I am firmly of the belief that just as we cannot possible fully celebrate Christmas without experiencing Advent, so we cannot fully celebrate Easter without passing through the penitential season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday sets the tone for Lent.  One of the things that used to puzzle me about Ash Wednesday were the words that went with the imposition of ashes “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  That sounds rather bleak and without hope.  In fact, it sounds like what a Christian might say to an atheist in a debate – “if there is no god, then we are just dust and when we die we will return to dust.  But if you are a Christian, your body will be resurrected.”  So, why is the Church telling us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return?

In order to understand this, we need to go all the way back to the beginning to the first part of Genesis.  As you might remember, God created the earth and all that is in it, including human beings.  But Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and their disobedience had grave consequences.  When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, the consequence of their choice was physical death.  In Genesis 3, God says to Adam “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

These words that the Church speaks to us as we are marked with ashes is a stark reminder that we are all under the curse of death for our sins.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote “for the wages of sin is death.”  This is not a thing that we like to hear, but it is important to understand as we begin our Lenten journey.  Left to ourselves and our own devices, we will all die, and we will return to the dust of the earth from which we were created.  There is nothing that we can do to change this fact.

Our culture today hates to hear this message.  We want to think that we are the kings and queens of our own destinies and identities, that we are owed passage into heaven and acceptance by God on our own terms.  We think we are basically good and decent people who will all get to live eternally with God simply because we are who we are.  But this is not the message of the Gospel.  The Bible tells us that if we ignore God and live for ourselves, we will have no hope, and all that we can expect is to return to the dust of the earth.

But stewing in bad news is not what Lent is about, and it is not what Ash Wednesday is about.  Ash Wednesday is quite literally a “come to Jesus” moment for us.  We are confronted with a very difficult truth that if we don’t turn to God, we don’t have anything to look forward to.

But if we do turn to God, then there is good news.  The collect for Ash Wednesday speaks this truth clearly.  “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.”

God loves us and his desire for each one of us is that we turn to him.  The season of Lent concludes with Good Friday when Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross for our sins.  By his death he atoned for our sins.  On Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, demonstrating to us that death is not the end.  Resurrection is the defining event of God’s new creation, and the resurrection of Jesus is the first step in this new creation.  We believe that God will someday do for us and for all creation what he has already done for Jesus Christ.

Listen to Paul writing in his first letter to the Corinthians: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him…The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  And listen again to Paul from his letter to the Romans “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  One of the great values of the Church year is that we take our time to fully experience all the emotions and truths of the Christian journey.  It is not all about joy and thanksgiving that we have been saved from certain death.  We also need to experience the sadness that comes with acknowledging our sins, the grief for our part in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ our Lord, and the repentance and gratitude that this should instill in us.

In ancient times, people wore sackcloth and ashes to publicly express or show their sorrow or regret for having done something wrong.  It was an act of humility.  And so the ashes we are about to receive should be the same for us.  As we will hear momentarily these ashes will be for us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by God’s gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.

And so let us begin our Lenten observance, recalling the words we heard earlier in the service, and which you can find on page 265 of the Book of Common Prayer: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

Let us pray,

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,, Amen.

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