Welcome to our Ash Wednesday service. I am sorry that you are here.
It’s a beautiful day outside. It almost feels like spring. It’s a nice change from the cold, dark days of winter. Outside, people are walking around enjoying the day, completely untroubled by what I am about to tell you now:
You are going to die.
Some of you didn’t need me to bring you that news. Your oncologist or cardiologist has already delivered that message to you or to someone you love. That’s an unimaginable burden to bear. Most of us just go through life oblivious to our mortality. Our culture denies the reality of death, but its power is very real. Some of you know its power more intimately than others.
That thought is a real downer, but that’s what this service is all about. In a few minutes, I will put ashes on your face and say, “Remember, O mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It’s a sneak preview of another day when someone very much like me will throw dirt on your face and say, “This body we commit to the ground. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”
It’s like you are getting to attend your own funeral!
Wouldn’t it be nice to attend your own funeral and hear all the good things people say about you? After all, you’re a great person!
What will we say about you today? You wouldn’t hear this at your real funeral:
You’re kind of a jerk.
Well, sometimes you are. Sometimes you are that wonderful person they will talk about at your funeral.
And we won’t say the word “jerk” in our ritual today. Instead, we will use the word “sinner.” Being a sinner is actually much worse than being a jerk, but calling someone a sinner has absolutely no emotional impact. Call me a sinner, and I think, “Eh.” Call me a jerk, and I either get angry and defensive, or maybe I recall the times I actually have been a jerk to you and to others.
But that’s today’s other theme: sin. All are sinners. I am a sinner. You are a sinner.
This season of Lent, by the way, is not the time to point fingers at others and shout, “Sinner!” It’s a time to look in the mirror and see the sinner sadly staring back.
So, there you are. You are going to die, and sometimes you are a real jerk.
I’m a little like the ghost of Christmas future, showing Scrooge his own grave and the fruits of his life.
There’s nothing like a little taste of our own mortality to get our attention.
In a song released in 2008, Nickelback asked:
If today was your last day and tomorrow was too late
Could you say goodbye to yesterday?
Would you live each moment like your last
Leave old pictures in the past?
Donate every dime you had, if today was your last day?
If today was your last day
Would you make your mark by mending a broken heart?
And would you call those friends you never see?
Reminisce old memories?
Would you forgive your enemies?
Death puts life in perspective. It reorders our priorities and clarifies our values.
In one sense, this is just who we are. We are made of dust, and to dust we will return. Scientists tell us that we are made of stardust, the remnants of giant stellar explosions that formed the elements. Genesis records that God shaped the dust of the ground into human form, and breathed into it the breath of life. Both scientists and the Bible agree: the natural end of man is death, and a return to the elements from which he came.
So, sin and death, that’s what we are talking about today. What cheer!
Of course, we are also here to talk about Jesus, to whom we will seek to draw closer in these forty days.
Jesus, remember, who conquered the grave, the first fruit of the age to come.
Jesus, remember, in whose death our sins are forgiven and into whose likeness we are being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In Romans 6, the Apostle Paul associates our hope with our union with Christ in baptism:
Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.
There has already been a funeral for the jerk; when we were baptized into Christ, we were baptized into his death and buried with him. In that same event, we were raised with Christ to live a new life. For Paul, that new life begins now. We should – and can – live less like jerks and more like the men and women God created us to be.
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
In Christ, we can be brave enough to look sin and death square in the eye! The seer of Revelation proclaims these words of the risen Jesus:
Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living One. I died, but look–I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave. (Revelation 1:17-18 NLT)
With the Psalmist, we can confess:
For He knows how weak we are;
He remembers we are only dust.
Our days on earth are like grass;
like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone
–as though we had never been here.
But the love of the LORD remains forever
with those who fear Him. (Psalms 103:14-17 NLT)
At your grave, before we say the words about ashes and dust, we will say this:
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother (or sister) …
and then we will say your name – the name that you were given at your baptism when you were united to Christ, washed in his blood and sealed with the Holy Spirit.
Remember, O mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but there is one who saves sinners made of dust.