Video of Ash Wednesday Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 40:30 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We begin the season of Lent with ashes. Ashes are left over from burning, from destruction. Ash Wednesday ashes are left over from the burning of Palm Sunday palms. It is not too far from the ashes which people put on their heads in repentance to the rite for the burial of the dead, where it says, “We now commit the body of our brother or sister to the ground or its resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” At this point we come just up to the edge of the real meaning of what we are doing here today. Because while we might be able to come up with various meanings for the symbolism of ashes, what is said is most important: Remember that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
The readings we are using for our midweek Vespers during Lent are some of the readings assigned for the Vigil of Easter. Those readings tell us the history of God’s salvation from the very beginning of all created things. So we start tonight with the beginning of beginnings, the account of creation from Genesis 1 and 2. And here we have no ashes, no repentance, no death. Here there is dust, but instead of it being the dissolution of our bodies in the grave, God takes this dust and creates the man, and then from the man the woman. This is, in many ways, the opposite of creation as we currently experience it. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a creation where people and animals and trees do not die, do not decay, do not return to dust. It is hard to imagine a creation where the fruitful plants and trees grow more abundantly than weeds. We only know an earth where unwanted weeds grow without any help from us, but we have to actively work to make good conditions for the plants we want.
Here in the beginning, besides the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which we know too well, there is the Tree of Life. Here there is a river flowing out of Eden to water the Garden in which God had put the man and the woman. Here everything is ordered perfectly: God makes the beginning of all things, and then perfectly orders its nothingness and emptiness, its tohu v’bohu in Hebrew. From nothing, everything, and then everything ordered according to God’s good words: spaces of light and darkness, water and land, sky and earth, ordered into a place for life: trees with seeds, pointing to continued and fruitful life. Animals in sky, sea, earth, blessed to be fruitful and multiply. Humanity ordered into male and female, the only creatures in all creation made in the Image of God, blessed in their maleness and femaleness together to be fruitful and multiply. A Garden and a world overflowing with life from God’s own word and God’s own breath.
It was all very good—until we burned it down. Instead of receiving everything from God’s own hand and mouth, gift and word, we listen to other words, the lies of the devil and our own desires elevated over God’s explicit word. Instead of being satisfied with the good gifts of God, we become dissatisfied and take for ourselves what was never given to us. Because we are made originally of the dust of the earth, we are tied to the rest of creation. What we do is tied together with what happens in the rest of God’s creation. The ground becomes harder, the weeds and thorns and thistles constantly threaten to overwhelm the fruitful goodness of God’s creation, and we toil and labor and work for what seems like nothing. And we’ve managed to domesticate some of the animals of this creation, but every time we see videos on the internet of some person getting too close to animals in zoos, or to animals in national parks, and being injured or killed, we are made to realize again that God’s good creation and order has been turned wild and against us, who were made to exercise lordship of the creation in the stead of the Creator.
And of course, that is not to mention how often we choose death over God’s gift of life: acting as if the blessing of life in the womb is a curse to be avoided or discarded; acting as if there is any other life-giving relationship than that of a man and a woman together in the one-flesh union of marriage; acting as if we were both the authors of our own lives as well as the ones who can decide when we’ve had enough. All of that is death-dealing, destructive, burning God’s good creation in the fires of our sin and rebellion. And whether we choose to have ashes on our heads or not, we will not avoid the end of all sinners, the wages paid out to those who have chosen the knowledge of good and evil over the fruit of the tree of life. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, every one of our bodies will be committed to some resting place. No one is exempt. No one is good. No one is righteous.
But God is not content with letting His good creation be turned to ash and us returned to dust. That river that flowed from Eden was sometimes a flood and sometimes a trickle, but it is going to extinguish all the fires we’ve started. God gave Ezekiel the vision of the trickle of water from the temple, first ankle-deep, then knee-deep, then waist-deep, then so deep Ezekiel could not cross it. This river had trees on either side, and “everything will live where the river goes” (Ezekiel 47:9). So Jesus stands in the temple and cries out: If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me believing. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of His heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-39). He said this about the Spirit, John says. I will pour water on the thirsty land, God says through Isaiah, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour My Spirit on your offspring (Isaiah 44:3). But first the fire and the death and the destruction catch up with Jesus: It is finished, He says, as He thirsts, as He is consumed, as He pours out the Spirit; He is pierced and living water flows from His heart.
He is pierced, and extinguishes the fires of our sin. He is pierced, and living water flows; the Spirit is given. That river is what catches you up in Baptism, as you are born from above by water and the Spirit. And that river is what washes you clean by His living word, as your old fiery nature continues to be burned to ash, and the new, living, watery nature—the Christian, Spiritual nature—is renewed daily. Look at Jesus, buried in a garden, to remake the Eden from which the river of life flows and in which the tree of life is found. There it is, John says, awaiting us in the New Jerusalem, where the river flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. But we are being carried there, even now, in the ark of Christ’s holy Church.
So wash the ashes off tonight as a reminder that the fire of your sin will not have the last word in death; instead the water from Jesus’ side, by His death and resurrection, will continue to cleanse and carry you into the new creation that Jesus has prepared for you in His resurrection. We walk for now in a land of ash and dust, but the Day of the Lord is coming, when the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, when the lame will leap like a deer and the mute will sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. And the ransomed of Yahweh will return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon your heads; you shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35:5-7, 10). He has appeared to comfort all who mourn; to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:2-3). You will be committed to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but whenever that happens, it will be “in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/21/23