[This message was shared during Ash Wednesday worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, last night.]
As we all know, before the risen Jesus ascended into heaven, He told the Church to tell the world about Him and to make disciples. But, from a marketing standpoint, Jesus has made that a difficult task.
For example, the passage of Scripture that informs the designation of this as Ash Wednesday is Ecclesiastes 3:20, where we’re told: “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” The Message translation/paraphrase of the Bible renders that verse this way: “We all end up in the same place—we all came from dust, we all end up as dust.”
Happy talk, huh?
Want some more happy talk? Here’s a terrible Valentine’s Day confession on my part: I’m not keen on having floral arrangements in my house. Flowers are pretty outside. But when they come into a house and fill the place with their fragrance, all I can think of is funerals.
Most of us don’t really like funerals. Funerals may give us strength, encouragement, peace, and hope from God’s Word and the fellowship of the Church. But they wouldn’t happen if people we cared about didn’t die.
I'm willing to be that if you and I had the choice between going to a movie, a game, a restaurant, or a funeral, I doubt that the funeral would be anyone’s first choice. Death isn’t a topic we like to consider, whether it’s the death of someone else or our own deaths. (As someone has said, "I don't mind dying as long as I don't have to be there when it happens.")
And yet, we set aside a day on the Church calendar every year dedicated to reminding us that you and I are dust and to dust and you and I shall return, that we’re going to die.
That’s a marketing problem for Christians.
When I look at how other things are marketed on TV, radio, and the Internet, I don’t see the promise of death.
The commercials for resorts market fun in the sun, an endless party.
The weight loss people market a new you who will attract the opposite sex.
The beer people do much the same.
The insurance companies, furniture stores, car dealers, diamond merchants, online retailers: Not one of them feature death in their marketing.
If anything, they tend to pitch their products as being able to help us fend off death, overcome our human limitations, even make us godlike in our control of aging, illness, money.
This applies even to the funeral home people whose commercials make only oblique reference to how hard, relentless, and unforgiving death is.
But we Christians gather each year at the beginning of Lent to put ashes on our foreheads.
So, why the difference between the Church and the world?
Here it is: The world wants to believe a lie; the Church seeks to live the truth.
There are actually two lies that the world, along with the devil and our sinful selves, wants to believe.
The first lie is that everything is vain and futile, that we’re going to die, so just “eat and drink and be glad.” This was the futile conclusion reached by King Solomon, a man who used the wisdom given to him by God to make himself wealthy and powerful at the expense of his own integrity, faith, and salvation.
This lie is rooted in the notion that there is no way out, that all are going to die, and that the grave or the crematorium will be the inevitable end of us. So, this way of thinking goes, you should do anything and everything you want. Nothing matters. Just grab whatever your version of the good life is and enjoy it till you die.
The fact is that for the person who trusts in the God you and I meet through Jesus Christ, this life isn’t the whole story.
Even Job, the man in Old Testament times who endured so much sorrow, could say centuries before Jesus died and rose, as a person of faith: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”
Job trusted that despite his own sins and mortality, the God Who made the heavens and the earth, could also give life again to those who repented and trusted in God.
What Job believed by faith is now available to all who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, God in the flesh, Who offers us beyond the grave or the crematorium.
The New Testament tells us: “...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
We are ashes and dust. We must understand that. It shows us how finite and dependent on God we are, how much we need Jesus to save us from ourselves.
But as surely as God scooped up dust from the earth and animated it to give life to the first human being, He gives new, eternal lives to those who turn to Christ for life. This life isn’t pointless or futile when we seek, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to live it for Jesus Christ!
The other lie the world tries to sell is the idea that death isn’t that big a deal. It’s just a speedbump to eternity. In this view, everyone’s going to have life with God, whether or not they’ve paid any attention to Jesus, the only One Who can give us life with God, in their whole lives on earth. These people see death as a hiccup.
This lie is the very one that the serpent told Adam and Eve in the garden. When the serpent learned that God had told the couple that if they partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would die, the serpent said: “You will not certainly die” (Genesis 3:4). He chose not to add the fine-print caveat, right away. “You will not die right away…” Instead, he portrayed God as being stingy with His blessings because he didn’t want Adam and Eve to know about or experience the consequences of evil.
The serpent then said: “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Again, the fine print was missing. The serpent should have said, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil. But because you’re creatures, not the Creator, you won’t be able to handle the knowledge of evil like God, Who is perfect and holy, can. It will be like kryptonite in your hands. It will be like a flame to a moth. It will kill you.”
This neglected fine print reminds me of the ten to fifteen seconds in the middle of every prescription drug commercial. After telling you how wonderful their product is, the advertisers add a bunch of disclaimers including one that can be summarized: It could kill you.
In the garden of Eden, the FDA hadn’t been invented yet. So, naively cynical, Adam and Eve bought the lie of endless life apart from God hook, line, and sinker.
Christians know that death is a big deal.
Death is real.
We must reckon with the reality of it.
We are born sinners and sinners die.
Medicine may extend our lives for a time. It may enhance our lives for a time. And that’s wonderful.
But in the words of that twentieth-century poet, the late Robert Palmer, we know that “no pill’s gonna cure my ill.”
The gospel tells us that we must turn away from our sin (we must repent) and trust that Jesus will give us life even after we die.
Jesus, the One Who rose from the dead, promises: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
So, why ashes? Three reasons.
First, ashes remind us of our dust-iness, our mortality, of our utter dependence on God. Dust could never turn itself into a human being made an image of God. Only God could make something as magnificent as human beings from a clump of dust. Every human being can say with King David, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14).
Second, ashes remind us of the judgment which this old creation will undergo. The apostle Peter tells us that when Christ brings down the curtain on this creation: “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.” (2 Peter 3:10) We must not grow too attached to this creation as it is.
Third, ashes represent repentance and renewal. Sometimes, our forestry service conducts controlled burns. Forests often erupt in natural fires. They’re God’s way of bringing renewal. Foresters cooperate with natural fires by confining them to certain areas, allowing old brush and threatening plant life to be burned away and for new life to emerge. From the ashes emerge the sprigs of new trees. Jesus once spoke of the resurrection life that would emerge from His death: “...unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24) Just so, when we repent, dying to our sins and our sinful desires and, instead seek to live in utter dependence on Christ, we are given new life from God. As often as we repent and trust in Christ, God will keep renewing us all through eternity. (Martin Luther said that the Christian is to live in daily repentance and renewal.)
We commemorate Ash Wednesday each year because we believe in telling ourselves, each other, and the world the truth: Death is real, but death is not the end for those who trust in Christ.
These ashes--you and I--have new life through faith in Jesus.
Paul puts it better in Romans 8:1: “...there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
If the ashes on our foreheads remind you of that tonight, then this symbolic beginning of the Lenten season will have done its work. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]