Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Yes, for those of you who were wondering, the title of this sermon is a shameless rip off of the title of the song by the music group Kansas. And actually, in a way, so is some of the content of what I’m going to say here. That song is about looking at this life and realizing that we are “just a drop of water in an endless sea.”
And I start with that because I believe the psalmist had that same thought centuries before. “Look at this life.” he said. “The years of our life are threescore and ten, or if by reason of strength, four score, but they are soon gone.” He’s comparing that brevity of life with his earlier statement, where he said that, for God, “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”
There’s a great old comic strip called “Frank and Earnest.” Maybe it’s still around, I don’t know. But I remember one comic where Frank is talking to God. And he says, “God, is it true that a thousand years is like a second to you?” God says, “Yes.” And Frank says, “And is it true that a million dollars is like a penny to you?” God says, “Yes.” So Frank says, “God, can I have a penny?” And God says, “Yes! Just a second!”
As part of Ash Wednesday, it’s important for us to recognize the brevity of life, as contrasted to the infinite nature of God’s kingdom. The writer of Ecclesiastes was considered to be one of the wisest people who ever lived. And this is one of the most important themes in that book. He saw so much of the business of this life, in all it’s brevity, as vanity. He saw it as “striving after the wind.” What a wonderful metaphor that is!
The problem is that we live in a society that doesn’t want to talk about the brevity of life, or even to think about it. Every day we are inundated by advertising. And so much of it has to do with things that make us look younger, and stay more “energetic.” If you’re on social media you see articles about people who are in their 70’s, “Oh, but they look like they’re 30!” And frankly, some of them do! When I turned 60 in January, I was told, “Oh, don’t worry, 60 is the new 40!”
I’ve pretty much blamed my barber for my grey hair. I said to him, “Don! My hair wasn’t gray before I started coming to you! It’s your fault!”
Listen to what our world is saying to us. Take notice of the things people are telling us about the need to stay young, and how they avoid talking about our mortality! Comedian Steven Wright once joked about it. He said, “I plan on living forever. So far, so good!” Groucho Marx is quoted as saying, “I plan to live forever, or die trying!”
I’ve often told people that I get most of my vocabulary from crossword puzzles, most of my knowledge of the world from Jeopardy, and most of my theology from Star Trek!
Well, in the second Star Trek movie, Mr. Spock dies. And Captain Kirk is devastated! And at one point he is confronted by David his son, who said, “You’ve never really faced death.” And Kirk said, “No. Not like this! I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing [of it].” David said, “You knew enough to [say] that how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”
I think that’s a big part of Ash Wednesday. One of the things we do on this day is we consider the important questions of life and death and life eternal. The psalmist asked God to “Teach us to number our days, so that we may have a heart of wisdom.” If we don’t, if we live a Peter Pan “Never grow up” life, then when death does happen, it takes us by surprise. It’s shocking to us. It’s even seen sometimes as a failing of our faith!
Now, I don’t want to sound morbid here. And I’m not belittling the grief we experience when we lose loved ones. In a certain sense, that’s a healthy thing. But, we should heed the words of the psalmist and seek that “heart of wisdom.” We should listen to the conclusion of the writer of Ecclesiastes, who said that we should seek to enjoy the time we are given here in this life, and cherish the people we share it with. And I believe that! Jesus didn’t just come to show us how to get to heaven when we die. He himself said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it more(?) abundantly!”
That doesn’t mean life is trouble free! It doesn’t mean it’s free from heartache and pain! Sometimes those things are seen as a failing in our faith, too! Aren’t they? But we must never lose sight of the fact that we are mortal. We can try to live this life forever, but, I hate to break it to you, we’re all going to die trying!
But, in contrast to that, we need also to know that “the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever!!!” And that’s something we celebrate here. Remember that the upcoming Sundays are not the Sundays of Lent. Because they are not part of Lent. They are the Sundays in Lent. (Check your bulletins this week! See if your pastors get it right!) Lent is the 40 days between now and Easter not including the Sundays. We still celebrate our faith, even in this introspective and solemn time! Before the liturgical year – including Lent – was created, the church celebrated the resurrection every Sunday. That’s why our Sabbath was changed from the last day of the week to the first! So that sense of celebration was preserved even after Lent was established.
So, we do celebrate! God’s love is steadfast. And it’s visible! It is action! God did something because he loves us. He did send his son. And because of that we have been “set free from the law of sin and death,” as Paul put it. And so we will “impose ashes” this evening. They do remind us of our mortality, and our frailty, and our sin. We will say, “Remember, O child, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But we will also wipe them away, as Christ has wiped away our sin and made us whole. We will also say, “But the steadfast love of God endures forever!”
So even in this Lenten season, even in this time of introspection, of contrition, of penitence, we can celebrate what has been done for us through the steadfast love of God – love which indeed endures forever!
Eternal God, we stand in awe of your amazing Grace. We know that we are mortal, and that our lives are in you. Help us as we seek the heart of wisdom. Help us to know the wonder of your eternal nature and your steadfast love for us. For this we pray in our Savior’s name!