Today is the day when Christians will approach someone who will smear ashes on their forehead and look them in the eyes and tell them that from dust they were taken and to dust they will return.
Today we are all remembering that we will die.
Over the past few years, I have come to greatly appreciate the liturgical calendar. I grew up in a tradition that never talked about Advent or Lent (or Easter or Christmas), and 6 years ago I began to preach at a church that did. This meant that the first time I ever experienced an Ash Wednesday service I also had to preach at it. Today now I can’t imagine life without the cadence that the church calendar provides, but 6 years ago I just didn’t get it.
I remember staring at a blank word document and a Wikipedia page trying to learn why so many Christians did this seemingly bleak ritual, and wondering what I was supposed to say about it?
It turns out that Ash Wednesday has its roots in both the Creation and Fall stories. Our pronouncement of “From Dust to Dust” is a reminder of God’s tender care and intimate participation in our creation, and a pronouncement by God on our prideful rebellion.
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It is a word of both grace and judgment.
It is soon after this in Genesis that these made-from-dust humans begin to build a tower to defy their nature and be like the God whose breath they held in their lungs, and God thwarts their pride.
A few chapters later Abraham is negotiating with God on behalf of the city of Sodom. He is asking God for mercy for the people who are there, and Abraham prefaces it with an interesting statement:
Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
Though I am nothing but dust and ashes.
I know that there are a few ways to read this story. One can see it as a Zeus-like God reveling in His immortality in the face of those who will die. If you view God that way, you will probably read the story as if Abraham is groveling and manipulating God with a false humility.
But I read that story a different way, I see Abraham as a person of great joy. I think he knows the secret to great life is being very aware of his death.
The word humility is related to humus, the word for earth …or dirt. Humility is to recognize that we are mortal and to live our life accordingly. It is a different way of approaching God, other people, and the world.
When I was growing up, my best friend’s dad once told me something that I never forgot. He said “Jonathan, whenever you can apologize you become a better man. Because the thing that keeps you from apologizing is pride. It won’t let you apologize, and in life either you kill pride, or pride kills you”
Up until that point I hadn’t really thought about my pride, but I was a teenager, and I had plenty of it.
Because I respected him, I took Mr. Al’s advice, and started trying to apologize more, in order to be a better person, and the strangest thing began to happen. I began to recognize that sense of dread, that ache that comes in the pit of your stomach when you are about to apologize.And then I started to notice that I had that feeling often, it was the same feeling I got whenever a girl rejected me, or when our team lost a game, or when I was around people who were smarter than me or better dressed than me, I started to notice it when I was around religious people who were better at being religious than me (they prayed more breathy prayers and squinted when they talked).
I started to notice what kind of stuff I was doing when I felt that. I would lie, I would make up stories or at least exaggerate them. I would quote verses, and put on a religious show, subtly talking about what all I knew about God. I would talk bad about other people behind their back, all in service to that feeling, to get that feeling to stop.
And I started to realize that was all the same thing – pride. And pride was either going to kill me, or I was going to have to work to kill it.
I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. In the Christian life, this is the whole ball of wax.
So in our house, with our kids, we have for years taught them to recognize pride, and we tell them this all the time. We cheer them on when they apologize and when we see glimpses of true humility and interest in others.
This is so important for what kind of person you are, and what kind of heart you have, and what kind of life you will live.
You have to kill pride, because pride is lying to you.
I once heard Andy Stanley say to a room full of people who thought they were more important and indispensable than they actually were, that they needed to develop a new spiritual discipline.
In those times when you are sitting at the end of the table and you are the most important person in the room, he told them to remember this one thing.
Whenever you can call a meeting and everyone will come, or when you drive up and look at your beautiful house, or whenever you get that invitation to that thing that only big-deal people get invited to, or whenever you get that raise or promotion, or you get that award, or you are recognized for what you have done.
Remember, in that exact moment, that you are going to die.
For some of us, pride rises up when you see someone with less than you, when you are with people who are less sophisticated, less educated, and you start on the inside to start thinking subtle things about how they don’t know what you know, or haven’t traveled where you have been, and you begin to think more highly of yourself. Remember in that moment that there are plenty of people who are more sophisticated than you, or that you don’t know what they know, and you haven’t traveled as much as they have.
In those very moments, when you start to feel pride over what you have done, “Well it’s about time someone noticed what I’ve been doing.” In those moments, when pride is about to gain another inch of territory in your heart, just remember this:
You didn’t make yourself. Your personality and your talents are all gifts, you had no control over when you were born and you have no control over when your life will end.
God has given us all of it
All of life is a gift, and all of our pride is a lie.
You have what you have as a gift, and it is temporary, and it was given and it can be taken away.
The great irony of Ash Wednesday is that this is the beginning of Lent, the journey toward the Cross, the ultimate revelation of what God is like.
And Ash Wednesday is the most humbling spiritual discipline that we can begin with. Because we spend our lives in revolt to God, steeped in rebellion and pride, we want to be like God, but it is here we remember that God is not like that.
Who can be proud when Heaven is humble? Who can stand straight when Love Himself stoops? God dies. So will we. Take heart. Have joy. Find humility.
For from dust you came and to dust you will return.