Friday, February 15, 2013
Ashes, Dust, Moths, & Rust
The texts for this message are Psalm 51:1-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10.
You may have seen one of the big news stories that broke last week, about a skeleton archaeologists found in England last fall that’s now been confirmed as the remains of King Richard III. This is the King notoriously accused of killing his two nephews in the Tower of London so he could seize the throne. Shakespeare wrote a wonderful tragedy about him—this hunchbacked tyrant, whose soul was more twisted on the inside than his body on the outside, and who was finally killed at the end of a desperate battle. “A horse! A horse—my kingdom for a horse!”
For five hundred years, no one knew what became of the remains of this man who spent his life conniving and struggling for power and finally wore the English crown. But last week British scientists officially announced that the king’s remains have been recovered—they found them under a parking lot. The archaeologists concluded that Richard met a violent death—there was evidence of ten wounds, eight to the head—one of those was the fatal blow. It also seems like the body was mistreated after he was killed (the naked corpse was supposedly on public display for a while), before it was basically crammed into this tiny grave. And, of course, if that weren’t enough, after all of his schemes and efforts to become king of the realm, to grasp all of that power and wealth, Richard III almost spent all of history beneath some asphalt, with a clear view of the bottom of a Land Rover.
King Richard III’s story nicely sums up a lot of what Ash Wednesday is about. Sin – Richard was this infamous sinner, hated by so many, and the way his remains were handled testifies to that. And mortality – the King of England, just as dead as anyone else, and his body even lost and forgotten. Dead and gone.
The king’s story echoes the sober acknowledgements of sin and mortality we heard in this evening’s scripture readings. In Psalm 51 we hear one of the most unrelenting admissions of sin and guilt in the whole Bible. The psalm’s ascribed the David, his confession after the whole debacle with Bathsheba and Uriah. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love! Cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me…” David’s not watering things down, talking about his regrets or how he’s messed up; it’s sin, iniquity, transgression. The ‘man after God’s own heart’ (Acts 13:22), King David, was on his knees before God with a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart (51:17), looking for deliverance and salvation, because of his sin.
As we receive the ashes on our foreheads this evening and enter into the 40 days of Lent, we're called to be mindful of our sins, to come before God with a broken spirit in repentance—not watering it down, but truthfully acknowledging how we are selfish, loveless, proud, hateful, or lazy, whatever it is. You know your sins. In the Bible ashes are a sign of repentance: over and over again you read about people putting on sackcloth and ashes and crying out to the Lord for forgiveness. That’s why we receive these ashes tonight, as a sign of our repentance.
And fasting, as Christians traditionally do during Lent, is an act of penance and an expression of our repentance; it’s supposed to help us prepare ourselves for Easter. In the story of David’s repentance after his affair and the death of Uriah, the king fasted and refused to eat any food for a week (2 Sam 12:15ff). This is a sign that we’re earnestly seeking reconciliation and we’re dedicating ourselves to God and nothing else, nothing that would try to assume God’s place in our lives.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are about sin.
Then in Matthew, Jesus reminds us of mortality—just how fleeting things are in life. Earth is the place of moths and rust, where thieves break in and steal (6:19). There’s no permanence here; everything’s subject to decay and deterioration. The truth is, it’s only in the Kingdom of heaven that things are really lasting, that there are no moths or rust consuming things, no thieves coming in to steal them. It’s only with the Father that there’s security against the sheer impermanence of our present lives. Our lives will end and everything we know and love over the years will eventually be gone too.
Ashes have long served the church as a sign of that fact, because ashes are like dust. In Genesis God creates the first man from the dust of the Earth. And when we die, eventually, our remains will turn back into the ‘dust of the Earth’ (cf. Gen 3:19). That’s why, when Abraham wanted to plead with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction, he began by saying “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). Of course in everyday life, cremation is probably the clearest connection we see between ashes and death. And so the ashes we receive tonight are a reminder of our mortality, that we are dust.
And when we fast during Lent, we’re again acknowledging our mortality. Fasting says that food isn’t the source of real life. What we get from food isn’t lasting. We depend on God; we receive lasting life from God, and fasting names that and practices that.
So Ash Wednesday and Lent are about mortality.
Now, for most people all of this talk about sin and dying probably doesn’t sound like gospel, doesn’t sound like good news. At very least you don’t want to feel like you have to identify with David in Psalm 51—“I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (51:5)? Come on, I’m not that bad, right? And there are some individuals who really can’t handle the sober message of Ash Wednesday, people who are already struggling every day to find meaning when life seems so short sometimes, and the universe so big, while we’re just a speck in the middle of it all… To come to church and be reminded that you’re going to die, to be reminded of your iniquity and the reality of judgment—that just feels someone’s kicking you when you’re down. You need good news.
Well here’s the good news. Lent and Ash Wednesday don’t have the final word. All this talk about death and sin, it’s all true. But there’s a bigger truth, a more determinative truth, on the horizon, and it’s not fasting, but rejoicing; not ashes and dust and moths and rust, but resurrection. At the end of Lent comes Easter. That’s the gospel truth. That’s what Paul was talking about in 2 Corinthians: you can be reconciled to God (5:20). He made him who knew no sin, Jesus, to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him, in Christ (5:21). Righteousness. You can have a clean heart. It’s not all about our sin anymore. It’s not all about dying because of your sins. God has acted, so things can be different. He’s spoken a different word over us. When you feel like you’re just an unknown, you’re dying, under punishment and sorrow, you’re poor, having nothing at all… the reality is, in Christ, you’re known; you’re alive; you’re not killed; you’re rejoicing; you’re rich, possessing everything. When it seems like sin and dying are it, like you just live your life and do your thing, until you die, and that’s the end of the story—you’re under the ground, under a parking lot, forgotten, gone… when it seems like that’s all there is to life, the risen, living Jesus says ‘no’. The cross isn’t the end; death isn’t the end. And that is our God’s final word; that’s the truth about life and death and ashes and mortality and life.
No other word has the final say on our lives. Not Shakespeare, as beautiful and stirring and enduring as his words are. Not Psalm 51 and the reality and weight of our guilt and our failures—not even those words you hear at the graveside, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” That is not the last word. Jesus Christ speaks the last word, a better word (Heb 12:24). Lent’s a time to remember our mortality and our sin, but also to remember the one who robbed mortality and sin of their claim on us. For every sooty cross we see, we have to remember that after the cross, after the darkness, after death, comes life and light, and an empty tomb. We have to remember what God does with dust. He takes it in his hands and molds it and shapes it, and then he puts his lips to it and breaths life into its lungs. The God we meet in Jesus, the God we seek during Lent, is finally the God who trades us beauty for our ashes (Isa 61:3).
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.