Ashes to Ashes
[Hold up gold tube] Anyone know what this is? This is a burial record holder. Long ago, when a funeral took a casket to the cemetery, this was a part of the luggage. It went with the casket, and inside was the information about the person, casket, and plot.
It was given to me by a funeral director as a gift because he saw that I was always looking for dirt. You see I put dirt in here to take to graveside services, so when you die and I do your funeral, I will take dirt from this receptacle, pour it over your casket and say, “We commit this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Ash Wednesday is an odd day. Christians around the world take a moment to stop and remember: “I am going to die. My days are numbered.” You and I came from the earth, and to the earth we will go. It’s pretty sobering.
I will never forget the first time I put ashes on someone’s forehead, someone I knew, someone I sat with as their spouse had surgery, someone who prayed for me before every Sunday worship service, I’ll never forget thinking as I made the Ash Cross: God, I’m telling this person they’re going to die!
Fast forward a couple of years, and my wife came forward with our son. It truly was all I could do to smear ashes on my boy’s head and get those ancient words out, “Remember, from dust you came, to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel.”
So why do we do this?
We do this because our days are numbered. We have approximately 26,000 days to live. It sounds like a huge number, but when you consider that at only 33, I’ve lived 12, 174 of those days, nearly half, it doesn’t look like so many...and when one of those days is over, it’s gone...There’s no getting it back.
We have so many ways to dull that reality: TV, make-up, cosmetic surgery, games, sports, beer, drugs, relationships, even religion.
But the reality is: Our days are numbered. When Jesus came he invited us to live the abundant life, and living the abundant life means living intentionally, deliberately, thoughtfully, faithfully.
This day we make the sign of the cross in ashes to symbolize our mortality and frailties. The dust and ashes are a sign to us that we will someday die. They are a reminder to us to live each day to its fullest. What is important? What do we want to live for? What do we believe? What do we want to accomplish? What legacy do we want to leave? The dust and ashes bring these to mind...
But we the ashes also remind us of our sins, our failures, our shames, our regrets, our pains, and our sorrows. In the ancient world covering oneself with ashes was a sign of sorrow, humility, and repentence. A loaded word, repentence, means nothing more than “Turning around.”
And so the ashes are made in a cross, the symbol of the God who lived, and breathed, and died with us. The symbol of the empty tomb, and the symbol of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the grave.
In amazing irony, the ashes reflect God’s exchanging death for life, sin for forgiveness, regrets for joy. This sign is a sign of hope to those who believe in God through Christ Jesus. It is the sign of new life...not just in eternity, but right now.
So we hear the words of Isaiah tonight, admonishing us not to just play at the religious game, but to go out and life the crucified life.
For the next 40 days, we are to take a special time to reflect and hear God’s calling in our lives.
This Lenten season, God invites us all to a fast of addition. A fast of righteousness. The Isaiah 58 fast: This Lent I encourage you not to just subtract or fast from something, but to add something to your life.
Call it a fast, call it reflection time. In our church we’ll be calling it 40 for 40, reflecting 40 minutes for 40 days You can call it whatever you want. but I invite you to give to others by sacrificing our most precious possession: Time.
Take some time to give. Take some time to love. Take some time to feed the hungry, clothe the destitute, heal the sick, free the oppressed.
And when we do that, we will have no need for ashes. No need for sackclothe, no need for public humiliation. For then our light will rise in the darkness, and our night will become like noonday. And we will be known as Children of God. We ourselves will be living crosses of earth and ash, living signs of the hope and the forgiveness, and the love of God.