thoughts on Ashes

This sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The Gospel text was Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18.

Let’s start by naming the obvious issue here: irony. Irony, as a college English professor defined it, is when we expect one thing, but the opposite happens, usually in a strange or funny manner.

For example, it seems ironic for a preacher to read Jesus’ words: “Beware of practicing your piety before others… whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you… whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door… whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites… your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” and then invite the gathered congregation to come forward to publicly and clearly mark them with a smudged black cross on their foreheads.

In other words: it sounds like Jesus says not to put on showy, public displays of piety, and then we go right ahead and have one anyway.

So why do we wear the ashes?

Hopefully, it’s not in order to “be like the hypocrites.” Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly who they are, but it sure sounds like the disciples know.

These are the people who are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing by serving and worshiping God, but they’re acting like it’s a truly impressive sacrifice that everyone should see. These are the people who have a dozen bumper stickers on their camel or their Camry, identifying them as the ones who REALLY follow God.

These people care more about their public displays of faith than about what they do in private. Their private faith doesn’t match their public faith. In Jesus’ context, there was a major problem with flashy displays of piety. But, in our modern culture, is that our problem?

I think our problem might be the opposite, actually. Instead of flashy, public displays of piety, we keep our beliefs private. I have heard it said that “religion is like underwear. It’s great if you have some and like it, but no one else should have to see it.” Like the people Jesus is talking about, our public faith doesn’t always match up with our private faith.

Now, please don’t hear me wrong. I am not saying that you should all go home, find a soapbox and a megaphone, and spend your free time on busy street corners preaching repentance.

I am suggesting, however, that when we focus too much on our personal beliefs without thinking about how they impact our lives—and without making it clear that the impact is because of our faith—we take the easy way out.

It’s not that God is impressed by our piety one way or another, because that isn’t what Lent is about. When Jesus talks about these practices, he doesn’t say “if you pray, if you give alms, if you fast,” but rather “when you pray, when you give alms, when you fast.” God expects that we will pray, give to the poor, and abstain from excessive indulgence. Lent is a season the church has dedicated to paying special attention to prayer, sharing with those in need, and avoiding those things that keep us from God.

So why do we wear the ashes?

In part, we wear them as a way of publicly reflecting our private faith. We are proclaiming that what we believe matters enough to let other people know we believe it.

It’s more than just that, though. Because if it were just that, we wouldn’t say something as morbid as “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

There is no sugar-coating here. You are made from the stuff of earth, and you will be returned to the earth. Young or old, the promise is the same: you are dust.

But this is not the final word.

We don’t just haphazardly apply ashes to your foreheads. We leave you with a big black cross.

A cross, which, by all accounts, is an even uglier reminder of mortality. Not just our own, but especially of the mortality of the one who came to save us from our sin, Jesus Christ. His death on the cross was not the last word, either. Three days later, new life came.

So why do we wear the ashes?

Because that new life is ours, too.

The first time I was marked with a cross on my forehead was at my Baptism. And, in that sacrament, the pastor said to me, “Elizabeth Michelle, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

The ashy smudges remind me of my death, yes, but they remind me also of the new life that has been promised to me in my Baptism. The ashes will be wiped off before I go to bed tonight, but the cross that marked me at Baptism will never smudge or wipe away.

In my Baptism, Christ claimed me as his own. In your Baptisms, you, too, were claimed by Christ as his very own. In the ashes, hear the reminder of death, but feel also the reminder of your eternal life in Christ:

You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

So why do we wear the ashes?

Not to display our piety to the world.
Not to shame our neighbors who couldn’t make it to worship tonight.
Not to impress God with our acts of faithfulness.

So why do we wear the ashes?

To publicly reflect our private faith, yes,
But more than that:

To remind us of our own mortality, yes,
But more than that:

To be marked, once more, with the cross of Christ that joins us to his death and resurrection.

Children of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

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2 Responses to thoughts on Ashes

  1. Pingback: It Could Be-Forward | Quality of Life Ministries

  2. Pingback: 000-It Could Be-Forward | Quality of Life Ministries

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