A sermon for Ash Wednesday. (The first day of Lent).
Ash Wednesday is a night for remembering. Already, in our service, you have been marked with ashes and you were urged to remember that you are dust and that to dust you will return.
Not everyone realizes that the words, “you are dust and to dust you will return” were first spoken by our God. When Adam, desired to grasp equality with God and disobeyed him, he was banished from the garden and sentenced to death. God’s words to him were these,
“Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”Genesis 3:17-19
God had created the man by forming his body from the dust of the earth and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. After his disobedience, God indicated that the day would come when he would take back the breath that he had breathed into Adam and Adam would be buried in the dust from which he came, his flesh would decay, and his bones would crumble.
Each of us shares in the sentence pronounced upon Adam that day. We each received our form and breath from God. Our life and breath are gifts from him that have been misused and God has decreed that those who sin shall die.
Because God has decreed death, you cannot escape it. If you escape murder and accident, you will die of disease or old age. Eat as healthily as you like, walk your 10,000 steps or more every day, get the very best of medical care, and you will still die. You cannot prevent your death. You are dust and to dust you will return.
In Psalm 90, Moses laments our situation.
You return man to dustPsalm 90:3-6
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
A few gloomy verses later he says,
So teach us to number our daysPsalm 90:12
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
In other words, remembering that we are dust that lives by God’s grace and that we will return to the dust is essential for true wisdom. It is essential because it causes us to seek eternal life from God, the only one who can give it.
For this reason, Solomon, famous for his wisdom, encourages us to remember our God and to do so while we are still young. In the book of Ecclesiastes he urges us:
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.Ecclesiastes 12:1-7
Only God can give life and it is he that determines the number of our days. Only he can deliver us on the day when he comes to judge all nations, when the sun, and the moon, and the stars are darkened and people are few because war, and famine, pandemics, and natural disasters have been visited upon an unrepentant humanity. And so, Hebrews says those who are wise will understand that today is the day to return to God and be saved.
But there is still more to remember this evening. Having remembered that we shall die, we should also remember the one who has concurred death, Jesus Christ, our God, who lived and moved among us sharing our dusty frame.
He gave his body into death for us and shed his blood for our forgiveness. He yielded his last breath to God, the Father. Perfecting the obedience by which he had lived as a servant of God, so that he might gain eternal life for us.
Tonight, we will remember his sacrifice as we partake of the sacrament of remembrance that he instituted for us. His body and blood will be given us that by eating in faith, we might live forever by the power of his indestructible life.
I say indestructible because death could not hold him. His body did not return to dust but was raised. Having died and risen, he cannot die again but lives and reigns with the Father forever.
All this he did for us. That we, too, could escape death. That after we have returned to dust, he might call us out of the dust on the last day and give us a share in his life and glory.
The apostle John wrote:
“What we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”1 John 3:2
The day is coming soon when our mortal flesh puts on immortality, and his life and breath are given us for eternity.
So, tonight remember that you are dust and to dust you will return; remember the God who created who and his claim upon your life; and remember Christ, your redeemer, who loved you and gave himself for you, that you might rise from the dust of death and share his glory forever. Amen.