Each year as we approach Ash Wednesday I ask myself, “why do we do this?” Why do we place ashes on our forehead and say, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Now I do understand the symbolism of ashes because we find that in the Bible. While we don’t know how or where it all started, there are several places in the Old Testament where people sat in ashes or dumped dust and ashes on their heads as a sign of their remorse and repentance. The people who did this were sorry for what they had done and how they had turned away from God and treated others poorly and the ashes were a tangible way for them to say they were sorry and wanted to change their ways. A classic example of this is found in the story of Jonah. While we know the story of Jonah more for Jonah’s running away from God, when Jonah finally did go and preach to the people of Nineveh and called them to return to God, this is what happened. Jonah 3:3-6.
Over the course of time people gave up sitting in dust and ashes but they continued to use ashes as a symbol of remorse and a desire to repent. As early as the 6th century we find in the guidelines for Christian worship that the placing of ashes on people’s foreheads was used as a sign of repentance and by the 11th century using ashes as a sign of remorse and a desire to return to God was common in the life of the church. So this tradition of placing ashes on our forehead as a sign of acknowledging that we are sinners who desire to return to God may seem somewhat strange, but it is an ancient part of worship that gives us a tangible way to say that we are sorry and want to return to God
But what about the words we say? I’ll be honest; I never really thought about where they came from until I went and looked it up and found that these words come from the end Genesis 3. After Adam and Eve sinned and turned away from God, God pronounced judgment on them and part of the consequence of their sin was this, Genesis 3:19 by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken, for dust you are and to dust you will return.
So the words we hear tonight are the words that Adam and Eve heard when they were confronted with the reality of their sin and the truth is that these words need to remind us not of our mortality but of our sinfulness. Just like Adam and Eve, our sin separates us from God and from the spirit of God that brings us life so without that spirit, without being connected to God we are just dust and to dust we shall return. The truth is that the only thing that makes us more than dust is God. In Genesis 2:7. The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being. So Adam and Eve really were just the dust of the earth and what gave them life was the spirit of God but when they sinned they separated themselves from God and God’s spirit so they were nothing more than dust. With God they had life but without God they were just dust.
The season of Lent needs to be a time when we acknowledge that with God there is life but without God we are just dust and to dust we shall return. Like Adam and Eve, we are formed of the dust and like them we are frail and weak and sinful and if we try to live life on our own without God’s power and presence and love then we will just return to dust, but if we allow the spirit of God to breath into us and the love of God to forgive us then we will experience the fullness and power of life and life eternal. So that is what we need to do in this season of Lent, allow the spirit and power of God to fill us and forgive us and the only way to do that is to first acknowledge that we need the spirit and power of God fill us. In many ways, humility and confession really are the beginning of faith – the gospels teach us this.
The gospels don’t start with the story of Jesus but with the ministry of John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus and John prepared the way by preaching about repentance. John called people to humble themselves, confess their sin and repent which means to turn away from their sin and back to God. Now John didn’t use dust and ashes as a symbol of repentance, he used water. People entered into the water because they knew they needed to be forgiven and cleansed and they entered into the water to say that they wanted to die to their old way of life and rise up to live a new life. So whether it was the ashes of the Old Testament or the waters of the New Testament, people had to acknowledge that they were sinners who needed to repent and turn back to God.
And that is part of what we do tonight and all through this season of Lent. We humble ourselves and confess our sin. In a few moments we will sing and use scripture as a means of repenting and turning back to God. We will enter into silent times of prayer and reflection where we can personally ask God to forgive us and tonight we will share in communion which will be a meal of repentance and forgiveness. The spirit of God cannot enter into our lives if we will not confess our sin and allow God to enter in. God doesn’t invade us – he waits for an invitation. Jesus says he stands at the door and knocks and those who open the door are the ones that Jesus will enter into and bring life. So we need to humble ourselves, confess our sin and allow God to enter.
But I hope that this season of Lent we will take things a step further and open ourselves up not just to the forgiveness and grace of God but to the real power of God to transform us. For the next several weeks we are going to be looking at the miracles Jesus performed and these miracles not only show us the power Jesus had to change people’s lives but the it shows us the desire Jesus had to change people’s lives. Jesus didn’t perform miracles just because he could, he performed miracles because he wanted to help people. Jesus wanted to heal people and lift them up spiritually, emotionally and physically. Jesus wanted to bring people the fullness of life. My hope is that as we explore these miracles and the power of Jesus we will see that Jesus still wants to do these kinds of miracles in our hearts and lives not because he can but because he loves us.
So yes, we are dust, but we are dust loved by God. Yes we are mortal but Jesus redeems our mortal bodies and helps us put on immortality. Yes we are sinners, but we are sinners deeply cared for by a God who sent his son to forgive us and bring us back to him when our sin drove us away. In Genesis 2 God breathed into the dust to create man and women because God wanted to share his life with us. When sin cut human beings off from God returning them to dust, Jesus came to bring the world back into a relationship with God making us more than dust. When our sin cuts us off from God – the love and grace of Jesus still brings us back to Him so that we in the end we won’t have bodies of dust and ashes that will return to dust and ashes but through Christ we will become a new creation.
In love, God breathed into the dust of the earth and created Adam and Eve and in love God continues to breath into the dust and ashes of our lives to redeem us and that is what this day is all about. We are dust and as long as we choose to live life on our own to dust we shall return, but if we will humble ourselves, confess our sin and allow the spirit and power of God to enter into us, then we will experience the fullness of life here and now and the fullness of life eternal.
So I invite you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination and repentance, by prayer and fasting and by reading and reflecting on the word of God. I invite us all to begin this season by humbling ourselves before God through a time of confession in song, word and silence where, like Adam and Eve, we can come face to face with the depth and reality of our sin and its consequences.