February 26, 2020 Ash Wednesday
Dust we are!
Ash Wednesday, our Lenten journey has started. What is this journey all about? The biblical witness is found in the opening epic of the human story. After the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden we hear God’s words: “you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). It is a somber bit important thought. Dust we are!
Ash Wednesday calls us to repent. It reminds us (in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer #88) that two things are involved in genuine repentance: “the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new.”
The journey towards Easter is the way of the cross. The Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Christians in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” New life with Christ involves a daily surrendering of the old life. The first step of this Lenten journey invites us to acknowledge our mortality and our sinfulness and surrendering of the old life. This is done by the imposition of ashes!
Even at the beginning of this journey we are keeping in our sight the cross of Jesus Christ where Son of God was suffering as an innocent man for our sins.
The shadow of the cross is before us for it is at the cross that we see the terrible consequences of sin.
And it is perhaps time for humankind to be honest: we hardly ever live up to the God’s dreams and ideals for us. God created us just little lower than heavenly beings and yet, we stubbornly follow our own path. Humans don’t learn from their history, our collective arrogance makes it hard to accept that we are not gods, and we refuse to bow before the most High!
So, at the beginning of Lent it is not only important to acknowledge that we are sinners. It is a healthy thing to face the fact that we are frail, broken and that we need redemption. It is good for us to realize that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
It is when we face the fact that we cannot save ourselves that we will rely on God to redeem us. Jesus in Mark 2:17 says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Therefore, even though the cross speaks of terrible suffering, it also shows us God’s deep love and mercy for us and for our world. When we walk the road of Lent, we walk toward the love and mercy of God, given to us in Jesus Christ.
One simple meaning of the word repentance is “to turn around.” Lent calls us to turn around toward God – toward our crucified Lord Jesus Christ. Once turned, we walk toward him. Then he becomes our focus this season. The focus of Lent is not ourselves and not the opinions of others.
In Matthew 6 Jesus warns the whole Christian community not to lose our direction and our focus on God. It is easy to lose our focus and to concentrate on the little steps that we take – the good deeds that we do. When we do this, the opinions and approval of others begin to matter much more than they should.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that when we practice giving alms, when we pray, and when we fast, we must not do these things for public approval. This is like watching the little footsteps we take along our faith journey and waiting for the applause of others for our meager progress. When we live this way, it is all about the approval of others and not about our relationship with God.
This is how our society likes to work, and we must be careful not to be entrapped by it in our walk of faith. Today we have society sections in our newspapers picturing who has attended the latest charity function and how much was raised. Very worthy charitable or nonprofit groups are careful to publish donor lists on their programs or in their newsletters, bending over backwards to recognize all who contribute and to publicize how much was given. They’ve developed the “Gold Givers,” the “Silver Givers,” and the “Bronze Givers” categories.
This is not necessarily bad, actually it is very generous and beneficial to our society.
However, the danger is real that we transfer this approach to our practice of our life of faith. Jesus tells us that, for our own spiritual health, we need to practice our almsgiving, prayer, and fasting in private, and not seek any honor or earthly reward because of it. God does not have “Gold,” “Silver,” and “Bronze” categories for us.
On this Ash Wednesday, we lift our eyes and our hearts to the cross of Christ.
Yes, we will pray; yes, we will give offerings;
yes, some of us may even fast.
But we do these things because of gratitude for what Christ did and not because of any hope for approval and recognition.
You will come forward to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our true repentance. This can be very meaningful for us as individuals and as a worshiping community – we are all marked by sin and the power of death. Ashes are a startling reminder of the harsh reality of sin and death, of our need for forgiveness and salvation.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that our hands are empty, but God’s are not. Because God loves us and we are God’s children through Jesus Christ, we have the gift – the absolute gift – of new life now and beyond the grave. This is the promise and the relationship that hold us in life and in death. This is a promise worthy of our attention, worthy of the commitment of our whole lives. This is why we walk the road of Lent with our eyes on our crucified Lord and Savior.
In this season of Lent, listen to Christ. As we live in relationship with Christ, our prayers don’t have to be impressive and long; our giving should be generous, but not to impress others; and our fasting or devotional reading or self-denial should never be flaunted for public consumption. God hears and sees us and, as Jesus promises in our Gospel reading, we will be blessed by God.
You and I are on the road to the cross of Christ. Let’s keep our eyes on Jesus and his death and resurrection for us. Lent calls us to prayer. It calls us to help others and to do good deeds. Lent calls us to practice our faith diligently and with discipline. But if we understand the mercy and liberating love of God then we will do all these things in thanksgiving and to the glory of the God who saves us. Amen.