Ash Wednesday – 2021 LSB #’s 419, 544, 616
Text – Genesis 2:7
Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground & breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…
HIGH LOVE, DOWN IN THE DUST
In the name of Jesus, who with a love as high as the heavens, reaches down to find us, even in the dust. Amen.
Dust & ashes. Ash Wednesday is that day in the church year when many Christians around the world are marked with ashes on their foreheads, “You are dust, & to dust you shall return.” Dust & ashes. This night we begin the church’s holy season of Lent – a time for reflecting on our own brokenness.
Lent is a time for repenting of our sin against others & against God. It is a time for meditating on the suffering & death of Jesus Christ, & for beholding in Jesus, just how much God loves us. These sermons will be exploring the theme of God’s enormous love – the hugeness of His mercy & compassion.
In the OT, when God personally passed before Moses on the mountain, He proclaimed His divine name: “Yahweh, Yahweh, a compassionate & gracious God, slow to anger & abounding in merciful love” (Exodus 34:6).
In the Psalms, the OT worshippers exulted: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love for those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:11). In the NT, the Apostle Paul marvels that although we & all mankind were “dead in trespasses & sins,” there is hope, because, Paul writes, God is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4-5 ).
The enormity of God’s love & mercy drove Paul to his knees in prayer, fervently asking that others, too, “might have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth & length & height & depth, & to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…” (Ephesians 3:18–19) That is also my prayer for us, & that will be the focus of our Lenten sermons. We will examine from several angles just how rich, how huge, how deep, how broad, how high, God’s love is, for us, in Christ Jesus.
It has become a cliché, perhaps, an empty-sounding, bumper-sticker slogan. God loves you. Jesus loves you. Yet, there is nothing empty or clichéd about the living God, & the ways in which He has loved us, continues to love us, & will love us forevermore.
Tonight we reflect on God’s high love that reaches down into the dust, literally, to help us. The Scripture text for this Ash Wednesday sermon is from the account of the creation & fall of our 1st parents in the Garden of Eden. Let me read the key sections from Genesis 2 & 3:
“Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground & breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, & the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, & there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight & good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, & the tree of the knowledge of good & evil.”
But after Adam & Eve sin against God by disobeying His commands, their Creator pronounces punishment upon the serpent & the woman. Then, He turns to the man:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife & have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns & thistles it shall bring forth for you; & you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, & to dust you shall return.”
“The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
And the Lord God made for Adam & for his wife garments of skins & clothed them. Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good & evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand & take also of the tree of life & eat, & live forever – ’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, & at the east of the Garden of Eden He placed the cherubim & a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”
So, from handfuls of dust & dirt, God made a living human being, created in the image of God. He took dust, & he breathed into it the breath of life, & that dust became a human, blinking his eyes & opening his mouth in wonder & praise. Due to human rebellion & sin, because of the disobedience of Adam & Eve, you & me, God’s decree is that Adam & every other human must return to the dust & the dirt from which God formed us.
Every one of us will die, must die, unless Jesus returns first. Every one of us will return to dust, or ashes for those who are cremated. Every one of us must return to the ground. It is a vital truth, a central truth of our world & our human race. It’s uncontroversial. It’s pretty self-evident, yet how rare it is to be directly told, “You are dust, & to dust you will return.”
Ash Wednesday is sobering. It’s sobering for parents to see the ashes traced on the foreheads of their children, & to hear those words addressed to them, individually: “Remember you are dust, & to dust you shall return.” However, it is true, & should be sobering for every one of us. Still, this dose of reality summons us to repentance & to joy.
I summons us to joy, because as a Christian, I know Jesus Christ, the mighty Savior who has won for me resurrection & eternal life. Yet those blunt words & these ashes also summon me to repentance. My sin grieves the Holy Trinity. My sin has brought wretchedness & death into God’s once perfect creation, into my own life, & into the lives of others.
Dust & ashes – throughout the Bible, dust & ashes are associated with repentance. Job repented in dust & ashes. The straggling remnant left after Jerusalem was destroyed, sat down on the ground & poured dust on their heads. After listening to Jonah, the king of Nineveh sat down in a pile of ashes. Dust & ashes convey repentance, humility & mourning over sin.
Why dust? Why ashes? Dust & ashes are the stuff of utter destruction, nothingness, & worthlessness. All that stood, all that was built up, all that was seemingly strong & secure or even magnificent, is torn down, burned down, destroyed – undone. Think of the mushrooming cloud of dust & ash from an atomic bomb. Whatever was in its path is now dust & ash. Think of the billowing waves of dust & ash from the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Consider the dusty rubble & ashes of Jerusalem’s charred ruins, when God sent the armies of Babylon against it. That’s what comes of cities, buildings & homes – sooner or later.
And what of the millions of human beings who have preceded us in this world? Where are they now; what has become of them? Kings & queens, butlers & beggars – all of them are dust & ashes. In light of this, in the OT, God called cities & nations to repent, & return to the Lord for mercy. His prophets, such as Isaiah, warned them:
“The high fortifications of …walls [God] will bring down, lay low, & cast to the ground, to the dust” (Isaiah 25:12).
Four chapters later he writes: “You will be brought low; from the dust of the earth you shall speak, & from the dust your speech will be bowed down; your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost, & from the dust your speech shall whisper” (Isaiah 29:4).
Men had defied God, turned away from their Creator, oppressed others, & exalted themselves. They refused to acknowledge their sin, to humble themselves, or to seek God’s mercy & help. God warned & threatened them to no avail. So, He declared their end – dust & ashes, much like the sentence pronounced on Adam: “You are dust, & to dust you will return.”
This is God’s sober sentence pronounced on us, today: “You are dust, & to dust you will return.” But notice this also, dear friends in Christ. The sober reminder quoted to you on Ash Wednesday is not the full verse from Genesis. Recall what God said to Adam just before this:
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, & to dust you shall return.” It is true that because of sin, you & I must return to dust, but Yahweh is a God who reaches down into dust & gives life to men. Behold the high, high love of God, reaching down in the dirt on the 6th day of the creation. Behold God’s heart, beating with excitement & joy, as He formed our 1st father. Adam had nothing, was nothing, deserved nothing – he was just dirt. Yet God’s love made him, breathed into him, raised him up from the dust to live under God, to know God, to enjoy God, just as God enjoyed Adam & Eve. And He gave them every good thing, & everything for their good.
Brothers & sisters in Christ, you are dust, & you will return to the dust. But remember that long ago, at the beginning, God took us from the ground & raised us up from the dust. He enlivened us with His divine breath & love. He is still this God for you. He helps His people in any low & desperate situation.
He is the God who heard Hannah’s prayer for a child, & she rejoiced:
“There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you…” (1 Samuel 2:2) “He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap...” (1 Samuel 2:8)
You are dust, & you will return to dust, but God’s high love will preserve you forever. One day God will again reach down into the dust, into your grave, & He will raise up your body. In love, the Lord will give shape to your dust. In love, He will breathe into your lifeless corpse the breath of life. He’ll reach down & draw you up to share in the joy of Jesus’ resurrection.
We who are dust will share in Jesus’ glory & life, because Jesus set aside His glory & laid down His life, to share in our dust & in our death. The One who, in love, created us from the dust, was Himself crucified & buried because of hate. The One who created us from the dust in love, staggered & fell into the dust, pressed down under the weight of the cross He carried.
The one who created us from the dust in love, hung on that cross in pain & shame & nakedness, covered only in dust & blood. The one who created us from the dust in love, poured out His blood for those who would not know Him. His blood ran down His face, His arms, His sides, His legs, & dripped into the dust below. And from that dust, His blood cries out & speaks out in love, “Father, forgive them, pardon them, restore them, resurrect them, for I have shed my blood for the forgiveness of their sins.” Dear friends, God loves you. His love for you is so high that He reaches down into the dust to save you.
Back in the 1st week of the world, when God scooped up that dirt, He looked ahead to the resurrection. As God scooped up that dirt to form Adam, He knew the day would come when He would do this for Adam again, for all His children – for you. As God scooped up that dirt to form Adam, He also knew what it would cost – the lifeblood of the divine Son.
Behold His great love for you, even then. And so the Father bent down, the Son at His side, creating with Him, reaching into the dirt so that He might have you, that He might help you, that He might love you.
May He grant to you true repentance & full joy in His love, during this season of Lent. May He give you confidence, come what may, that His high love will lift up from the ash heap, & one day raise you again from that dust.
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him... As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. ” (Psalm 103:11, 13-14) Amen.
He sent no angel to our race, of higher or of lower place, but wore the robe of human frame, & to this world Himself He came. For us by wickedness betrayed, for us, in crown of thorns arrayed, He bore the shameful cross & death; for us He gave His dying breath. For us He rose from death again; for us He went on high to reign; for us He sent His Spirit here to guide, to strengthen & to cheer. All glory to our Lord & God for love so deep, so high, so broad; the Trinity whom we adore forever & forevermore. Amen. LSB 544:2, 5-7.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet