Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5;20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
We do this for many reasons, but one of them is to be reminded that while we are surrounded by dust—while we even are dust—there is something that transcends the dust and ashes of the world we have created for ourselves. We sometimes forget that. In our preoccupation with daily life, we become so caught up in our own plans, our own desires, our own comfort and convenience, that we forget that all the appetites we strive to placate are living on a diet of dust. The money we slave away to earn and carefully save for ourselves, the titles and degrees and honors we yearn for, the people we seek to impress or persuade, the control we wish we could wield—all of it is dust, temporarily arranged in a pleasing pattern.
Of course, we know those things can’t save us, but the truth is we turn to them anyway; we trust in God, but we also hedge our bets. All that stuff in the Bible is fine for Sundays, Pastor, but the real world doesn’t work that way. The ones who think so are naïve, foolish; they’re asking for trouble, they’ll never get ahead.
And so we take these ashes tonight and put them on our faces as a reminder that we are going to die, and so are all those things in which we trust. We proclaim with these ashes that this is not only inevitable, it is necessary, even good; because unless those things die, the new life that God offers us will never come to birth. Lent is a time when we practice letting go of those things that we think we need—even things as small as caffeine or sweets—so that when they fail us, we will not find ourselves relying on dust.
There are three spiritual disciplines which Christians have practiced during Lent: prayer, sacrificial giving, and fasting. The idea is that in prayer, we “return to the LORD our God,” as Joel says; we strengthen our relationship with God by not only learning to talk with God, but also to cultivate our ability to listen for God, to recognize God in the mundane and the terrible as well as in the glorious.
Sacrificial giving is the practice of giving away the stuff we think we need. Usually money, but not always, it teaches us not to rely on something that will disappoint us. We tend to think we own what we have, that we have earned it, that we deserve it. To make a sacrifice is to give up a part of our wealth as a reminder that it does not belong to us at all, but to God; we are merely stewards of the gifts of God—be they money, time, love, influence, power, or whatever else—called to use those gifts for the benefit of all God’s people, not just ourselves. Almsgiving has been a popular form of sacrificial giving. Giving to panhandlers and beggars who we know cannot repay us (and, as we often suppose, are likely to misuse our gifts) is a lesson in humility and a reminder of how we receive from God what we can never hope to return.
Fasting is what we mostly think of during Lent, but these days we associate fasting more with preparing for a blood test than with anything spiritual. But fasting is perhaps the most approachable of the Lenten disciplines—it’s not hard to find something to give up. It teaches us what we are able to live without. The little bit of discomfort that we must endure as we do without chocolate or gasoline shows us that we are weaker than we think we because all it takes is the absence of a little bit of dust to make us miserable; but it also shows us that we are stronger, that we don’t need those things as badly as we think we do. Fasting teaches us to be grateful of the gifts that God gives. Unlike dieting, fasting is not intended to give us any physical benefits, but to strengthen our soul, to bring us closer to God by removing the little creature comforts that so often distract us.
Each of the three disciplines is, in its own way, is a way of shaking the dust from our eyes to more clearly see the one and only thing that is not dust. While our daily existence is filled to overflowing with opportunities to nurture our trust and our dependence on dust, the physical things that increase our comfort or grant us material benefits, Lent is a time for us to set aside these things and remember who is the Source of All Life.
Tonight, we will confess to God, before the whole company of heaven, and before our siblings gathered here that we have become distracted by the dust around us. We will confess our reliance upon this dust, and the ways that that reliance draws us away from God. Unlike most times we gather, we will not receive an absolution, a declaration of forgiveness. The absolution will not come until Maundy Thursday. Though we will go home tonight and wash these ashes from our foreheads, throughout the forty days of Lent we will sit with our confession, our sin as exposed as the black crosses we will receive on our foreheads. We will sit with it an consider the ways in which our trust in the dust and ashes that vie for our attention is killing us, killing our neighbors and our community, killing our world. We will sit in that death, awaiting the forgiveness and the salvation that comes from Easter.
But as we sit with this death, we are not alone. With ashen crosses on our brows, we will again approach the Lord’s table to receive bread for the journey, nourishment along the way, remembering that God has not, does not, and will not forsake us. Just as God sustained the Israelites through their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, God will sustain us through the forty days of our Lenten journey. Sinners though we may be, distractible and easily swayed, God is faithful; God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Like infants nursing at a mother’s breast, we will learn once again in this meal that God and God alone can sustain, protect and provide for us, and that God will never cease to do so.
So come, let us join together in this journey of Lent. Let us wear the crosses of ash, but let us also remember that underneath those crosses is the cross with which we were marked at our baptism, an eternal seal of the Holy Spirit and the promise of God’s deliverance. The ash will wash off tonight, but that seal never will.