Thursday, February 23, 2012
Life in the dirt....
What did you think the first time you say ashes? Maybe you thought the person hurt, or perhaps dirty. And when you discovered that they were marked by ashes on purpose, what did you think? Why would you mess up a perfectly good face with ashes? Especially since these ashes admit the bruise of our mortality (sin) and publicly acknowledge that we are prisoners of this mortality (death)? There is only one answer. Truth. Sin is a dirty business. It is a filthy thing. It stains inside and out. From the heart proceeds all wickedness and sin.
We were not born a noble people. Since Adam and Eve, we were born with this mark of sin. We came from dirt and sin made sure we would never forget it. "From dust you came," says the Pastor as he marks a rough cross upon our foreheads. No, we are not noble by birth but common, dirty and ordinary because of sin. Even if we never contributed one bit to that inherited sin, there is more than enough guilt in us to stain more than our foreheads. Sin is a dirty business and we are up to our eyeballs in its dirt. But we have added to what Adam and Eve bequeathed to us. We have added a mountain of sins of thought, word, and deed, of evil things done and good things left undone. We are dirt made even dirtier. Our hearts send forth desire into the mind, to give it voice in the words off our lips, and to give it form in the deeds borne of our fallen natures. As if that were not enough, we don't even know where or how to begin to clean up our terrible mess. Any ordinary person knows if you cannot clean the mess up, the best you can do is to try and hide it where not so many see it.
If you think we wear ashes as some mark of holiness, you are sorely mistaken. They admit no holiness – only sin. They say on the outside the deep dark secret inside. They point not to righteousness but guilt. They tell others what God already knows – the deep, dark secret of our hearts. We came from dirt. We are dirt. And we are the dirtiest dirt there can be.
"And to dust we shall return..." As if it were not enough to admit where we came from and who we are, we have a future that ends in dirt. We were dust into which God breathed the breath of life, we renounced that life and ended up the living death waiting for dirt to reclaim us as its own.
Like Job sitting on the ashes of his repentance, we call to God knowing full well that our future lies in the dirt – unless and until God intervenes. Like David grieving the death he caused, we call to God knowing that though we have no right to speak, His is the only source of mercy and forgiveness to give hope to our lost condition Job says: "I heard of you in the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."
But do not get me wrong. The ashes on our foreheads are not expressions of despair. We come not to celebrate our misery but to rejoice in the God who has come to our aid. The ashes are in the shape of a cross. In other words, even dirt is not beyond God's reach. Even ashes are not beyond His grasp or power. The Spirit has called to us that we may call to God today in repentance and ask Him to give what He Himself has promised to us – forgiveness, life, and salvation. Today we pray for Him to take our filthy hearts not as something precious and good, but to take what is filthy with sin and marked for death and make them new. We ask Him to wash us clean inside as well as outside, to make new what is old and dirty, and to give life to what death has claimed. We do so not with uncertain voices but because of the cross and God’s eternal promise sealed in the blood of Christ which cleanses us from all sin.
Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. . . God already knows who we are and what we have thought, said and done. These ashes tell Him that we know, too. We know that we are dust, that we are dirt, and that our hope rests not in us but in the wideness of His mercy and the redeeming grasp of His grace.
I'm telling you that it would be better if we forgot about Christmas entirely and kept remembering Ash Wednesday all our lives. For in the soil of all our failures, regret, contrition, and repentance, Christ has planted His cross and built us up in hope. Christ comes only to the dirty not for the clean, only for the sick with death and not the healthy, only for the sinner and not for the righteous. He is born for us helpless sinners we are that the helpless might not also be hopeless.
Our cowardly hearts don't want to be anywhere near these ashes. But the Spirit give us the courage to admit our sin, to confess our death, and the faith to lay claim to the redemption which is ours in Christ. Jesus says, "Come, you sinners, and I will make you clean, whole, and righteous." In faith, Jesus, we come. Rejoicing, we come. Calling upon Your own promise, we come. Amen.