“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we say as we bury our dead. Ashes and dust, two powerful Biblical images of our mortality. And now, even as we look forward to Spring when everything comes to life, the church year brings us that same reminder of death– Ash Wednesday. Worshipers go forward on this day to have ashes put onto their forehead as a symbol of our future state. With the ashes we hear these words from the first pages of the Bible, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes on the forehead are a graphic reminder of the most significant and certain fact of life, which is that life will end.
Psalm 90 reminds us of the importance of this remembrance: “Teach us to number our days aright, O Lord, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom. For you turn us men back into dust, Lord, saying ‘return to the dust, oh sons of men.’ And you sweep us away in the sleep of death.” The Bible proclaims good and bad news; and if we don’t remember the bad news, keeping in mind the facts of life, our sin may blind us and convince us that we can manage well enough on our own. We might then convince ourselves of our self-importance and our self-sufficiency; but no matter how high we rise or how well we do or how important we become, our stories will all end in the very same way– with ‘ashes to ashes and dust to dust.’
It is sobering to see someone who was once really something, be reduced to nothing at all. My friend Art was a self-made millionaire. He was born poor but worked hard, made the right moves, had some luck, and made it to the top. And Art was a good man. He never lost the common touch, used his wealth to help many folks get their start, and served his community and church well. Art was respected and well-liked by all, and was an important man for many people. The year before Art was to begin his hard-earned retirement he learned he had cancer, and in less than four months Art was dead. In those four months, I watched this man who was really something, be gradually reduced to nothing– sick, weak, and emaciated. And then Art died and was cremated, and all that was left of Art was an urn full of ashes. It was a sad and sobering time. But Art was able to face the bad news because he knew and believed in the good news of Jesus Christ, and he bore his illness and approaching death with faith, dignity, courage– and with hope. “Teach us to number our days aright, O Lord, and so apply our hearts to wisdom.”
Art could die with hope because he was able to look beyond the ashes of Ash Wednesday to the Easter message of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and His promise that we too, believing in Him, will rise and live for all eternity. Out of the dust and ashes new life will come. But that message comes as good news only to those who are mindful of the bad news. To one who never gives a thought to the end of life, the promise of resurrection will not come as good news.
In Martin Luther’s darkest days it seemed all he had to look forward to was failure, disgrace, capture, and execution. In those dark days he said: “It occurred to me that it has always been God’s way to create something out of nothing. So if before God can do anything through me he has to first bring me down to nothing, well then so be it. I am now reduced to nothing, and so it will now have to be up to God to create something good out of this wretched, good for nothing life of mine.” It is when our own strength and wisdom and resources are brought to nothing that we can really begin to look beyond ourselves to God.
William Willimon is now one of the top preachers in the country. Fifty years ago he was in basic training for the Army ROTC. Here is what he says now about that experience: “They took a group of us college boys over to Fort Bragg for summer camp. The first day, they marched us in and shaved our heads down to the skin. They couldn’t do much worse to a 20 year old in the 1960’s. Then they made us strip down and paraded us around naked for three hours of examinations. It was humiliating and pointless, I first thought. Then I got to know more about the Army. Turns out, they had worked with college boys before. They knew that we were smart, self-confident, arrogant, and independent, and the Army knows that people like that don’t make good soldiers. So what they do is they strip you of your individual pride, wrench from you all that you were holding on to, and then they make you shut-up and fall into line. You find out that you aren’t so self-sufficient, but that you have to cling to your platoon and rely on your buddies to survive. It works.”
Life, says Willimon, is like Army basic training. Life has a way of shaving your head and stripping you naked, so to speak. It has a way of showing you that you need to rely on something greater than yourself. Life has its way of breaking through your pride and your self-sufficiency. Self-reliance is a good thing in life’s secondary concerns. We should want to pay our own bills, for example. But in life’s biggest things, like the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting, self-reliance will get us nowhere because that ‘self’ which we must rely on, will, in just a few years, be dust and ashes. Only the power and the grace of God will be able to bring anything out of that; or, as we Christians say as we bury our dead: “Out of the dust you are taken, unto the dust you shall return, and out of the dust you shall rise again.”
Genesis 3:19 — (The Lord God said), “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Psalm 90:1-6 — Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning— though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
Psalm 90:12 — Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.