2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Ash Wednesday, I suppose, is not our favorite day on the church calendar. And I say that because Ash Wednesday reminds us of things that maybe – just maybe – we don’t want to be reminded of. And yet, it’s good that we are all here tonight. We know that we need to be here. There ARE a few things that we need to be reminded of. SO that’s what I’m going to do.
Tonight – whether you come forward for ashes or not – and again – receiving ashes is not obligatory – but whether you receive ashes or not – you’re going to hear these words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” See? You just heard them.
Real uplifting though isn’t it! And yet – this is the reality check that you have come here to hear tonight. Tonight is a reality check. By the way, if you’ve ever wondered where these words come from – they are the words that were spoken to Adam after he and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden. Just as they are about to get the boot from the garden, the Lord says, “…you [will] return to the ground from which you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The first thing that Ash Wednesday does is to remind us that we are mortal. That we don’t live forever – well – at least not in these earthly bodies anyway. And the ashes placed on our foreheads or on our wrists is a reminder to us that eventually our bodies will turn to dust.
Now there’s a depressing thought! And yet, that’s one of the things that Ash Wednesday reminds us of. We do not live forever in these bodies. And some of you are probably thinking, “Thank God for that.” Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality – that our bodies – these bodies that we inhabit – will someday turn to dust.
Of course, most people just don’t like to talk about death and dying. It’s like the story of the man who felt he had to bring the subject up to his aging mother.
“Mom,” he said, “you’re no longer a spring chicken and you do need to think ahead of what’ll happen in the future. Why don’t we make arrangements about when . . . you know . . . when . . . you pass on?”
The mother didn’t say anything. She just sat there staring ahead.
“I mean, Mom,” he continued, “like . . . how do you want to finally go? Do you want to be buried? Cremated?”
There was yet another long pause. Then the mother looked up and said, “Son, why don’t you surprise me?”
Yeah, we don’t like to talk about death do we! But one of the things Ash Wednesday does is to remind us that “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
There’s another thing that Ash Wednesday reminds us of. And you’re not going to like being reminded of this either. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are all flawed creatures. Romans 3:23 reminds us that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Every one of us. And one of the things that Ash Wednesday encourages us to do – in fact – what the whole season of Lent encourages us to do – is to repent. To let go of the things that are dragging us down. To acknowledge that there are things in our lives that we are clinging tightly to – AND that are keeping us from being the people God wants us to be – AND doing the things God wants us to do.
The problem I think for most if not all of us is that even when we are aware of those flaws – sometimes – sometimes – we just refuse to let go.
Let me tell you “the story about a boy who jumped on the bumper of his Dad’s truck in order to hitch a short ride across the yard. His Dad didn’t see him.
The truck hit a bump and the boy accidently slipped down the bumper and was dragged for several yards before his dad heard him screaming.
The father ran around behind the truck where his son was still holding on to the bumper. He could see that he was not seriously hurt. Still, the boy’s knees and legs were scraped up pretty badly. The father asked the obvious question, “Why didn’t you let go?”
I wonder if that won’t be a question which our heavenly Father will one day ask us. “Why didn’t you let go? Why didn’t you let go of those things that separated you from me? Why didn’t you let go of your bad habits? That destructive lifestyle? Why didn’t you let go of your pride? Why didn’t you let go of your fear?”
These are the things that Ash Wednesday reminds us of. Number one, that we are mortal. And number two, that we are all flawed people. And if I were to say, “Amen” right here and sit down – you would all be thinking – “Well! That was inspiring. Glad I came here to hear that!”
SO I’m not going to say, “Amen.” Not just yet anyway. Because there is another side to Ash Wednesday. The message I want you to hear tonight is not all gloom and doom. There is a Good News side of tonight’s message. A Good News side – a Good News reminder – as to why we are here tonight.
And that Good News reminder is this. You have been redeemed. Yes, Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are mortal and that we are flawed, sinful beings. But the Good News message tonight is that you have been redeemed.
Listen again to what St. Paul says in our reading from 2 Corinthians. He says, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the greatest need that we flawed, mortal people have: to be reconciled to God.
Warren Wiersbe tells a story about a man who came by his office one day. The man said he needed help. “My wife and I need a re-cancellation!” he blurted out. Now there’s an interesting word. “Re-cancellation.”
Wiersbe knew the man meant “reconciliation.” But in one sense, he writes, “re-cancellation” was the right word. They had sinned against each other and the Lord, and there could be no harmony until those sins were canceled.
Folks re-cancellation is what tonight is all about. It is what the cross is all about. All our sins – your sins and mine – were canceled by Christ’s death on our behalf.
One pastor put it like this: If you were telling someone how to make a cross, you might say, “Draw an ‘I’ and then cross it out.”
As we make the sign of the cross – whether with oil at baptism – whether as a blessing at the table of the Lord – whether it be with ashes on the forehead or wrist – or whether you are simply in the habit of making the sign of the cross when you pray – the first thing we do is to make a vertical stroke, as if to say to God, “Lord, here am I.”
But then we cancel it with a horizontal stroke, as if to say, “Help me, Lord, to abandon my self-centeredness and self-will; make Yourself the center of my life instead. Fix all my attention and all my desire on You, Lord, that I may forget myself, cancel myself, abandon myself completely to Your love and service.”
As our sins are canceled by the death of Christ on the cross, then we are reconciled with God. Nothing stands between us and our Loving Father. This is not something that we should ever take for granted.
There is a Lenten drama in which a young boy is working in his father’s carpentry shop in Jerusalem. He is assisting his dad in building a cross.
At one point in the drama the boy is weeping. “What is wrong?” his father asks.
He responds, “I went to the market place and I saw Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher we love to hear, and he was carrying the cross we made in our shop! They took Him to Golgotha and nailed him to our cross.”
His father insists, “Oh no, son, that wasn’t our cross. Other people in Jerusalem build crosses. That wasn’t our cross.”
“Oh yes, it was!” says the boy tearfully. “When you weren’t looking, I carved my name on the cross that we were making. When Jesus was carrying his cross, he stumbled right beside me, and I looked, and my name was on his cross!”
Ash Wednesday reminds us that each of us constructed the cross on which Christ died. We are mortal creatures, we are flawed creatures, but by the cross of Jesus Christ we have been redeemed. We have been reconciled to God. That is the Good News of Ash Wednesday.
Tonight is a night of reminders. But the really important thing to remember is this. Let tonight be a reminder – let the ashes be a reminder – that you have been redeemed. Learn what this means. Your sins are forgiven! Your sins are gone! And it’s all because of Jesus. In Jesus Christ – God has reconciled you to Himself.
Good News! Good News indeed! And now I can say, “Amen.”