Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on Ash Wednesday, 3/2/2022. The service was broadcast live on the FLC youtube channel at 7pm. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Ash Wednesday Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for Ash Wednesday, click here.
It has been a long time now since I’ve been surprised by the criticisms of Ash Wednesday that I might hear in church or out on the street. Most people, sometimes for good reasons, assume that this is something that we have unnaturally held over from Roman Catholicism.
But the more I thought about it and got beyond the simple reactions about what the Lutheran church is and its catholic heritage and so on, the more I realized, and I must come out in preaching, that Ash Wednesday really is the application of Law and Gospel.
It is the day that we have to get God’s Word right, lest we be utterly crushed. Lest we be left in despair. Lest we be reckoned among the people who see the smudge on the head and have no hope. It is a reaction I can understand.
The smudge, the dust, the ash, all of it is so negative. And it is a reminder of something that we would rather not be reminded of. Don’t we have enough reminders already? Haven’t we had two years of a pandemic? Haven’t we had the invasion of a sovereign nation? Haven’t we had blood in the streets, theirs and ours? Haven’t we lost our friends? Haven’t we gotten sick? Do we need yet another reminder that we are dust and unto dust we shall return?
I can understand how such a proclamation seems not only offensive, but utterly superfluous and unnecessary, and to some degree it is. Because simply to say you are dust and to dust you shall return with no context whatsoever, this is nothing other than a proclamation of the law.
The law, which Paul writes to the church in Rome, is already written on your hearts. You already know this. Everybody out there already knows this. Everybody watching the news and going to the doctor already knows this.
To say you are dust and to dust you will return, is nothing but a reminder of death, and decay, and the reckoning of one as useless, and even of no value. So is it any wonder, that when all the reminders of dust and death surround us and inundate us, that people go into despair? That people lose their lust and their zeal for life? That they become depressed and anxious?
Dust then becomes something to fight and rage against, even though it is completely useless, even though resistance is futile. Nevertheless, dust becomes something to fight against, rather than pass away into meaningless memory. To reckon dust as nothing but retribution, makes dust an inescapable fate that means nothing because it is nothing.
This causes people to strive to be glorified, to strive to be loved and adored, even now in these fleeting seconds. Even though they know it won’t last; even though they know it won’t matter. Nevertheless they strive and they do things that are reckless and foolish and harmful, so they would be glorified, so they would be remembered.
Think of the damage this has done to humanity. Think of the damage this has done to you.
Ashes are not only repentance for things that we have done. Ashes are also repentance for things that have been done to us. Yes, it is true, and there are many reminders on Ash Wednesday, and I will give you more, that you are sinners who deserve death and condemnation, and who have been saved by Christ. But that is not the reason Tamar covers herself in ashes.
Tamar is ashamed and broken because she’s been violated. Because sin has been thrust upon her. Because she’s been victimized and attacked.
This is another dimension of the church’s repentance, that we beg and yearn to be cleaned, and freed, and made new, and healed. But that is the gospel. That is something that those who only regard your smudge as dirt and death and decay and a lack of value, who see you as just internalizing some sort of a toxic guilt that is really just oppressing you and trapping you, that gospel that Tamar knows, the hope that she has, this is unknown to them.
So what more does the dust mean? Because it does mean the first thing, too. It does mean that you will die. This is recalled to us in our Old Testament text today. But it is more. For the Christian it is abundantly more. We are not left wallowing with the Law. Even as we reckon it and acknowledge it, it has been fulfilled for us.
We know who we are. We know where we came from. And so the dust also means creatureliness. The dust that was on the ground in Eden did not come from… Well, it did come from nowhere. I caught myself! God created that dust, too.
It is creaturely, even though it has no animus or activity outside of God’s initiative. Being dust means being dependent. It means being vulnerable. It means being creaturely, and all of these things ought to forge in us a character of humility, of knowing our limits, of knowing that we depend utterly on God.
This is one of the effects of fasting. When you think you’re doing okay so far, you haven’t thought about food for three and a half minutes, and you drive by one of the trucks conveniently parked, and they have bulgogi burritos. And who knew you could even do that, and it must be an extra special sin on Ash Wednesday…
People who know that they are dependent and creaturely, and who by this knowledge are humbled, these people who know that they are dust in this way, they don’t attack innocent victims in foreign lands. If Vladimir Putin could hear from his priest that he is dust and to dust he will return – and not hear it as something to despair and feel from it the need to go and make a memory that will not be turned into dust – if he could hear it with hope that he is dependent and needy, would this not utterly change his character?
By God’s grace such a thing is possible. It is possible for him and it is possible for you, that you would receive your smudge with hope. People who know that they are dust in this way, they receive grace gladly, and they give it to others gladly. They do not worry and toil night after night, trying to be something other than dust. Rather they regard the dust as something that is even useful.
Just as the dust in the garden of Eden was useful. Aside from making Adam, the dust in Eden was tilled. It’s dirt by the way, it’s soil. It was tilled and scraped and sown and planted and it was meant to grow a harvest. It was watered; it flowed between two rivers after all; it was not free of the bounds of creation.
People who know that they are dust in this way see themselves as fertile soil, meant to be shaped, tilled, and sown, planted by the Word of God and grown into a harvest to feed the poor. Meant to give alms, to show mercy, and to have no anxiety. Dust after all has nothing to lose.
Those who know that they are dust in this way, and who have heard the gospel proclaimed to them, they also know that they are in the best company. Those who know that they are dust and to dust they will return are in the good company of Adam.
Adam who was formed and scraped together from the dust of the earth. Adam who was breathed into with the life and Spirit of God and became a living creature. That Adam who lived by grace despite his fall. That Adam who returned to the ground and will be returned again from the ground on the last day, for the sake of our other good company. The best company.
Christians who know that they are dust and that they will return to dust, stand in the company of Jesus the Christ. The man of dust, whose life, death, and resurrection for you has atoned you. Has rescued you from sin and death. Who has reckoned your dust as something to be formed, something that when joined with the waters of holy baptism is so moldable and rich and nutritious, something that he will bring forth from the ground on the last day.
In Baptism, you have been reforged and remade and reshaped into the image of God. In Holy Baptism the righteousness of Christ was applied to you. As long as you live as a Christian in the Lutheran church, Law and Gospel will be beaten into your head through your ears, but on Ash Wednesday it is just pressed into your forehead.
Your ashes are in the sign of a cross, not because we needed some pretty way to clean it up, but because you are crucified. This Lent you are conformed again to the image of Christ and that will be painful. There is one cross and we are pressed all together into it.
But God will pull us through. As He pulled Adam from the dust of the earth, so He will also pull you forward from your grave to meet Him in His glorious resurrection. When all of the smudges, and all the dirt, and all the tears, and all the injustice, and all the pain, and all the violence – which Christ still managed to use in this world to conform you to His image – that will all finally have realized its glorious purpose, as you look your Savior in the face, not with pride, but with confidence.
Not because you made something of yourself other than dust, but because as dust you received daily and freely from God every good thing, and now dwell with Him forever. To Christ be all the glory now and forever into the ages of ages. Amen.