Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on Ash Wednesday, 2/26/2020. The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for Ash Wednesday, click here.
It was Ash Wednesday, 2004 when I was aboard USS Shreveport en route to Afghanistan. As I recall, the demands of that day precluded me from attending a Service, but I still got marked… very much like all of you today..
It was one of the first things that happened as we got underway and out to sea. We formed a line to receive that thing nobody wanted, but everyone knew we needed. The Doc yelled out down the passageway outside the sick bay: “Smallpox on the left arm, anthrax on the right; hold still, and whatever you do, don’t pick at it.”
As often happens with inoculations, some of us got sick. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as bad as if we actually had smallpox, but it wasn’t fun either. That mark, and its effects on us, reminded us how vulnerable we were. It reminded us that we were mortal; a good thing to bear in mind when you are going to war.
And lest we forget that, somebody put up a sign in the galley, the place where we all ate, with a gentle reminder that also, on the first day of Lent, goes for all of you: “Welcome to the quarantine.”
That word, “quarantine,” comes from the Venetian-Italian word for 40. And it brings to mind all the 40s of Scripture. 40 days and nights of rain for Noah; 40 days and nights for Moses on Mt. Sinai; 40 years of wandering in the wilderness for Israel; 40 days of fasting and repentance for Nineveh. And then, this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, 40 days of fasting and prayer for Jesus in the wilderness as Satan viciously tests Him.
During our quarantine, our 40 days from now until Easter, with fasting and with prayer, we’re tracing our steps home again to Eden; first through the cross, and then, joyfully, the empty tomb.
But that is how the quarantine ends, and we are just at the beginning. Though we know how the story goes, still, we cannot ignore the facts: ashes are a sign of death. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Those are the very last words I will say to you, as I trace the sign of the cross over your casket, when you are lowered into the ground to rest in peace, and to wait for the resurrection of your body at the last day.
It is for this resurrection hope that ashes are not merely doused on your heads, but applied in the shape of the cross. Because in the end, they are more like soap than they are like grime. Or even better, your ashes are kind of like the scars on my arm.
The scars I bear are reminders of the inoculation I received 16 years ago. Likewise, your ashes are a reminder that while you will die one day, really, it’ll be okay. You are baptized, after all. And so you have already died your big death. All that remains is the little death, as Luther writes.
In the font you were drowned in a flood greater than the one that kept Noah afloat. In the font the curse of the Law given to Moses is lifted. In the font your wandering, like Israel’s, was ended. In the font, the mercy Nineveh so desperately hoped for was washed onto you.
And so this season of Lent is a return to all of that; a return to everything that Jesus has done for you and to you, beautifully bundled up in the cross that is pressed onto your forehead.
At various times in our history, Lutherans have bucked against the ashes, with the idea that they seemed to run contrary to the words of Jesus in our Gospel:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 6:1
And so, it is helpful to bear in mind that, like those shots in my arms, the ashes you receive aren’t for anyone else. They are for you. They are your reminder. And if someone else happens to see you and is reminded by them, then so be it.
But the ashes are a reminder that you aren’t practicing your own righteousness. You can’t. All you’ve got is sin and unrighteousness.
I don’t have a natural immunity to anthrax or smallpox, and you don’t have a righteousness of your own. The ashes are a reminder of Christ’s righteousness, given to you as a gift. They are a reminder of Jesus’ perfect righteousness, applied to you. That righteousness you can practice. And really, as a Christian, you will.
Jesus gives no instructions about how to give to the needy if you choose to do so. He doesn’t advise you how to pray if you ever want to pray. Jesus doesn’t tell you how to fast if you feel like fasting.
No, Jesus says: When you give to the needy, don’t go out of your way to make sure everyone knows. When you pray, don’t put on a big production. When you fast, perk up. You don’t live on bread alone, after all.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
And rend your hearts and not your garments.”
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.
So, here we go. It’s time now. A Word for your ears; a Litany for your lips; and ash for your foreheads. Hold still, and please don’t pick at it.
Welcome to the quarantine.