Joel 02:12-19 / Ash Wednesday 2011 / 09 March 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Joel 2:13
Today is Ash Wednesday. So where are the ashes? Why is our Ash Wednesday ashless?
The reason is NOT that we are not Roman Catholic. That’s never a good reason. The reason is you are not ashes but dust. Dirt. Dust you are and to the dust you will return. The wages of Sin is death. Dirt is what Adam was made of; dirt is where Adam returns. Poor dusty Adam, poor dusty you.
Ashes were a symbol of mourning in the OT. You put them on yourself, heaped on your head like Job. You didn’t have others put them on you. That was none of anyone else’s business. And it wasn’t a little dab but a pile. You also wore sackcloth. Scratchy, itchy burlap. “Sackcloth and ashes.” There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for sackcloth these days. Just a respectible little dab of greasy ash from last year’s palm Sunday fronds.
Rend your hearts, not your garments. Torn garments were another sign of mourning. Costly to the wardrobe too. But God desires neither torn clothing or soiled foreheads. What He desires is crushed and broken hearts. Hearts that have felt the hammer of the Law. Hearts that have been plowed under. Hearts that recognize there is nothing whatsoever in us that should obligate God to us. Empty, broken, crushed hearts are what the Lord seeks, not self-imposed ceremonially sooty foreheads.
Jesus does not impose ashes on you. Nor will I, His servant in Office. I love ritual, and I love ceremony. But they must teach accurately. Christ does not soil you with sin. You do that to yourselves. Christ does not pronounce a death sentence over your head. He saves you from death. He marks you with His cross. He baptizes you. He washes away the dust of Adam and makes you a new person in Him. He raises you up out of the dust and forgives you all of your Sin. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus does not put ashes on you. He doesn’t make you dirty; He makes you clean. Perhaps a more fitting Ash Wednesday symbol would be for each of use to soil our own faces with ashes and dirt and then come up to the font and I would wash them clean and have all the dirt stay in the font and you leave here with your faces scrubbed. That would work. But then we’d be inventing some new little ritual, and we already have plenty of those. We don’t need a new ritual, we need renewed repentance. Rende your hearts, not your garments.
Adam sinned. He disobeyed the Word of God. He refused the gift of God in the tree of life, and so he forfeited his life. “Dust you are and to the dust you will return.” His food would be hard-earned bread. His life one of sorrow and sweat. His wife would suffer in childbirth. His marriage would be a struggle of who’s in charge. Tears and sweat until the man of dust returns to the dust.
Yet in the midst of it all, a Promise. “I will make enmity between you, the serpent, and the woman. Between your seed and her Seed. You will wound him. You will crush his heel. And he will destroy you. He will crush your head.”
We cannot save ourselves. The disease of Sin runs too deep. Adam cannot cure himself. He is but dust. It takes a second Adam. Not from the dust, but from heaven. Born of a woman, born under the Law, yet above the Law and outside the Law. Sinless, unblemished Lamb of God. Where Adam sinned, Christ obeyed. Where Adam brought death, Christ brings life. Where Adam brought condemnation to all, Christ brings acquittal to all. Where Adam brought death, Christ brings resurrection from the dead.
You are baptized. Your sooty, soiled foreheads have been washed clean and marked by the Lord. You are one of His. We trace that mark of ownership whenever we make the sign of the cross. But why would we want to soil it with Adam’s dust? In Baptism, your sins, though scarlet, have been washed white as the snow. In Baptism, the soiled soot of Sin has been washed away in the cleansing flood of Jesus’ death.
This calls for repentance. Not one Wednesday out of the year, but every day the Lord gives you. Daily dying, daily rising. Adam must die, Christ must rise. Return to the Lord your God. He has come to you. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He will not pronounce a death sentence over your head, deserved though it would be. That Jesus has heard and taken upon Himself. You have a life sentence pronounced over you. Forgiven, washed, justified, sanctified, holy. What Adam has done, Christ has undone and more.
Do you want a sign for mourning over your sin? Then look not to your foreheads but to the cross of Jesus. There you will see the grief and suffering your Sin caused the Son of God. Never such grief was there than this. Our tears can only dimly approximate the tears of our Lord shed over us.
Do you want a sign of your life and forgiveness? Trace the sign of that cross, upon your forehead and upon your heart, where God Himself marked you in Baptism as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.
Return to the Lord, your God. Return to the font of your Baptism, to the altar of His Body and Blood give and shed for you. Return with broken hearts. And He will raise and restore you, as He always does and always will, in Jesus.
Why no ashes on this Ash Wednesday? Answer: You are baptized. It is finished.
In the name of Jesus,