Sermon for Ash Wednesday C, 2016
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Weighty words are those. They are perhaps the most universally accepted statement in the entire liturgy of the Christian faith. Even the hardened atheist would recognize truth in those words. He would not acknowledge that it was the hand of God who shaped the primordial soil of Eden into man and breathed life into his nostrils, but even the atheist knows, and perhaps in some ways the atheist knows better than anyone, that we come from dust. In their thinking the entire universe was once dust and gas that coalesced into stars and planets and on this planet life came forth from that dust. But that shows the reach of the Law. The Law establishes boundaries, but it knows no boundaries itself.
You are dust and to dust you shall return. We all know it. But it takes God’s word to reveal the how and the why. God shaped Man from the dust with the intention that he never return there again. But man sinned, Man transgressed the boundaries of the boundless Law, and the Law crushes Him with no escape. “The wages of sin is death,” says the Law. “From dust you have come, to dust you shall return.”
It is man’s fallen nature to run from this law. Cain flees when he realizes that his sin of murdering his brother will lead to his own death. Moses likewise leaves Egypt when it becomes known that he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. You can see it all around you today. Gyms, health food stores, prescription drug commercials on television, all appeal to our desire to break through the Law and put off death. When death becomes inevitable, we have moved it out of the home to a sanitized hospital room.
We try not to think about our impending deaths or the deaths of loved ones. We apply make up to cover blemishes on the living and the dead. We embalm bodies to slow down their return to dust. Yet any town you might happen to visit has a cemetery.
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We acknowledge those words are true, yet so often we try to hide from them but we cannot. The righteous Law of God establishes death as the boundary of Man’s life. Yet the Law’s boundlessness knows no limit on the boundaries it sets. All men face death.
Yet there is more truth to be known than the Law that cries out, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is the still small voice heard throughout Scripture. Joel records it: “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart. . . .Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:12a, 13b; ESV).
Thus the Gospel answers the Law. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But the ashes on your forehead are in the shape of the cross, traced over the baptismal seal marking you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. Never again come forward to receive ashes on your forehead if you do not recognize this. For the ashes are nothing but a symbol of despair if they are not received in remembrance of your baptism. If not associated with the cross of Christ and His death, of which Baptism makes you a participant, then the ashes are but the gloomy face of a hypocrite seeking to be noticed by others and then you have received your full reward now.
But ashes received in the sign of the cross, placing the dirt of your sins into the mark of Christ’s redemption, are the confession that God has formed you from dust, and that though your body returns to dust it shall no more be confined to dust than Christ’s body of whom the Psalmist writes: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:10, ESV).
In this holy season of Lent, therefore, we are reminded that we have no righteousness. That is the key to understanding our Lord’s Words in the Sermon on the Mount. You have nothing but sin; Christ has nothing but righteousness. Yet the ash cross on your forehead reminds you that in baptism Christ has made your sin His own. So do not practice sin; Christ has taken that from you. He has died to it so that it is no more. Your unrighteousness is gone; do not return to it. But Christ also gives you His righteousness—new life by the power of His resurrection. That is what you are to practice. The righteousness of faith, the righteousness of Christ.
Don’t you see? Nothing you can do can earn you a reward from the Father, because the righteousness in which you live is the reward of the Father, but it’s not your righteousness. Christ alone has been obedient in all things. Christ alone is the Man against whom the Law has nothing. Yet Christ takes on Your sin and endures the eternal weight of the Law’s justice against your unrighteousness. For this active and passive obedience the Father rewards Him. He is raised from the dead. His flesh does not see corruption. But the Father also rewards Him by giving Him you. The reward of Christ’s righteous life and innocent death is that you are made righteous and given innocence.
This is what Paul is saying to the Philippians when he writes:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11, ESV)
Christ has taken your sin; He has endured your death. Therefore even though you return to the dust He promises that He will not leave you in death. This Lenten season let us count all things as rubbish, in order that we may gain Christ. Let us put off any pretension of having our own righteousness, but neither let us cling to our sin. Rather, give Christ your sin and live in His righteousness. Remember that you shall return to the dust, but the Crucified One will not leave you there.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria