The Answer to Ashes
Why did anyone think putting ashes on their head was a fitting expression of repentance, humiliation, and death? The first time the word "ashes" is used in Scripture is Genesis 18:27. There, Abraham is interceding before God for Sodom and says to the Lord, "I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes." Job says, "I repent in dust and ashes." Daniel says in 9:3 that he sought the Lord by prayer "with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes." The Church of the New Testament following that of the Old has always used ashes to symbolize repentance, humiliation, and death. In 1091 Pope Urban II made it mandatory in the Roman Catholic Church for the faithful to receive ashes at the beginning of Lent, so today became known as Ash Wednesday.
So here we sit in Church with ashes on our faces. What's the answer to these ashes? Certainly not just water can remove them. Oh water can remove ordinary ashes, but these ashes aren't ordinary. These ashes symbolize our sins, and before you go racing to those ones that are easy to confess because "we all do them" or to those ones that are hard to confess because you're ashamed of them, go to the sin that everyone who commits it considers it a virtue. Go to pride.
Jesus very solemnly tells the disciples that one of them will betray Him, but each one is sure it's not him. "Surely not I, Lord," they all said. How proud they were to say that. Pride is Judas' sin as well. He is sure he's right to be doing what he's doing. He's sure that it's no big deal to turn over his one time friend. Even when Jesus says it would be better for the betrayer not to have been born, that doesn't phase Judas. Later on the disciples, the holy apostles, get in a fight over which of them was considered to be greatest. This they did after Jesus spoke of being betrayed, going away, and giving His Body for them and pouring out His Blood for the forgiveness of sins. They are like children in a serious situation who are so focused on themselves that the gravity of the situation is lost on them.
Pride is the sin which these ashes stand for. The pride that won't back down when in a fight with your spouse. The pride that believes God asks you to bear too much. The pride that thinks God can't be working anything more in a situation than what you think is possible. The pride that says God could have given you a better spouse, house, kids, or jobs and so you feel so right in lusting after things more, better, different than what God has given.
Those ashes on your forehead stand for pride and scrub as you will, use soap as you might, plead you'll do better, promise you'll be less prideful and you'll not lighten that ugly black wound even a little. Doomed you are all your days to carry round this black mark as Hester bore her scarlet letter, and damned you are to stand before the judgment throne of God one day to try and explain it. But that's not all your ashes symbolize. They symbolize not just your sinful pride but your certain death.
In the original "Star Trek" TV series, they came across a being that could remove all the water from the human body. All that was left behind was a lump of dust. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. As a 70's song has it, "All we are is dust in the wind." As Abraham first said 10,000 years ago we are "but dust and ashes." These once proud, vibrant bodies will return to nothing more substantial than dust and ashes. Ever see cremated human remains? All that is left of the person you knew, loved, laughed, and held is ashes that are lighter than air. We mark ourselves with ashes today to remind ourselves of this sobering fact. This is where all pride ends. Boast all you want, take care of yourself as well as you might, all you will be is dust and ashes in the end whether you die at 90 or 19.
Certainly not just water can be the answer to these ashes, but the Word of God can be. The Word of God first took dust and made it into us. Ashes are no problem for the Lord. If He by His Word can make dust into men, then I'm quite sure He can cleanse men of their dusty ashes.
Look in our text. At the end, after all their disgusting pride is evident, what does Jesus say? "You are those who have stood by Me in My trials." Is Jesus lying? Is Jesus crazy? You and I know exactly what is going to happen a few hours from now in Gethsemane. All of these proud men are going to turn tail and run like frighten school children. How can Jesus say they have stood by Him in His trails? Weren't they always trying to correct Him because they thought themselves right and Him wrong? Was that standing by Him? Didn't they blow it off when Jesus told them He was going to suffer and die? Was that standing by Him? Didn't they just get done arguing about which of them was greatest right after Jesus talked about giving up His body and shedding His blood? Was that standing by Him?
How in the world can Jesus say that His disciples had stood by Him? In the same way a father on his deathbed can look around at his children and say, "You've been good children. You have always been there when I needed you." No they haven't, but the father speaks out of a heart of love, and love covers, forgets, and sends away a multitude of sins. If an imperfect father can do this, how much more the perfect Jesus? He, the Word, came in the flesh just so that our pride, our sins, our ashes and death could be loaded on Him. He bore them on His shoulders so that we wouldn't have to bear them on ours. He carried them all the way to the cross to be punished for them just so He could look at you and say, "You've never let Me down. I don't see any of your sins or shortcomings."
Nevertheless, even though we are forgiven, we are going to die and return to dust and ashes. What about that? The Word of God is not only able to make men and to forgive them, it's able to remake them. The same Word of God that called us into being in our mother's womb will call our dust and ashes back together. As the Phoenix of legend rises from it's ashes to fly once more, the Word of God will raise us from our dusty death to laugh, love, breath and live again.
The answer to ashes is the mighty Word of God. This all Christians believe, but Protestant Christianity stops here. The Word, the Word, the Word they trumpet, but they don't look where the Word of God points them. The Word of God not only says that it can create, forgive and raise from the dead, it says the Word of God in and with the waters of Baptism does these things. That's why we Lutherans say in our Catechism, that "faith trusts this Word of God in the water." In our Large Catechism we say Baptism is "nothing else than God's water."
Lutherans as opposed to the other Protestants see the power of the Word in the waters of Baptism. Luther in the Large Catechism several times warns us about being turned from this truth. Here's one, "These fanatics are so blinded that they do not see God's Word and commandment, and they regard Baptism as nothing but water in the creek or pot...Here lies a sneaky and seditious devil...Therefore, we must be alert and well armed and not allow ourselves to be turned aside from the Word by regarding Baptism merely as an empty sign as the fanatics dream."
Dear friends, we are being turned aside. How many times have you gone to a Lutheran Church and been pointed in sermon, hymns, and liturgy to your believing, your feeling or just to God's Word? Why aren't you being pointed to your Baptism? Because the Protestant view that Baptism is just an outward, external thing is carrying the day. You aren't being pointed to it because Baptism is not regarded as a "life giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit."
Water from a tap or even from your eyes cannot remove ashes that stand for your sin and your death, but God's Water called Baptism can, did, and does. Think of what it means to confess that Baptism is a "life giving water;" that it is "rich in grace;" that it is "a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit. What radical, wonderful things to say about something that looks so plain, so ordinary. How can we say that this water does these things? We can say such incredible things because the Word of God does.
Take our confession that Baptism is "rich in grace." We say this because St. Paul says in Titus chapter 3 that in Baptism through Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us generously, and so we've been justified by God's grace. Jesus came into this world, the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth. All of God's wrath was poured out on Him, winning for Jesus the right to pour out on us the grace of God that He deserved. Is there any sin that God's grace in Christ cannot wash away? Is there any sin that God's grace in Christ just simply runs over without removing? You could only find one if Jesus somehow hadn't suffered, paid and died for it.
We confess that our Baptism is "a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit." We know we have the Holy Spirit because we've been Baptized. O sometimes it seems that other spirits have a hold of us: the spirit of pride, of lust, of greed, of worry. Sometimes it seems these spirits will carry us away. We foolishly try to set our determination, our faith, our prayers, our efforts against such spirits, but they just laugh. Anything that comes from us is no stronger than we are. But Baptism comes from God. It's His Water used according to His command and promise. God's Word says Baptism is a "washing of the rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit in our Baptisms continually calls us to Christ, gathers us to the Church, enlightens us by the truths of God's Word, and makes us holy. Let the other spirits that afflict us rage, and accuse, and stomp their feet insisting we belong to them. The Holy Spirit speaks louder and longer in our Baptisms.
Our Baptism gives us life. It's a life giving water. God's Word says by Baptism we've been saved. We have been born again making us heirs of eternal life. Sin dries up the life in us; we wither and die. We return to the dust from which God first called us. But just like in "Star Trek" when bodies were reduced to dust because all the water was taken out of them, all we need is water to be reconstituted. We are withered bodies fast returning to dust, but in Baptism the Lord gives us the water of life. This guarantees us that even after we've returned to dust, God is still able to reconstitute us. Even now when feelings of death and decay attack, we can go to our Baptisms. We can add God's Water remembering what God has promised and in faith we see ourselves reborn, renewed, reconstituted.
What's the answer to the ashes that streak our faces? Baptism through which God's Word of promise has been applied to our sinful, dusty bodies. I've often thought that it would be fitting if the Ash Wednesday service ended with the congregation filing by the Baptismal font and washing their ashes off there. But I don't wish to introduce new ceremonies in the Church, so why not when you do wash them off you remember that this is what Baptism does. In fact, what a joy it would be to remember this every time we wash our faces. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (3-5-03), Baptism III