The sermon for Ash Wednesday comes from 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. In this sermon I tackle the subject of death, a common theme on Ash Wednesday.
You can listen to the sermon here.
You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here. As usual, disregard the indications to pause and the odd punctuation.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…Amen.
Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return. We are all familiar with these words aren’t we? We hear them at least once a year on Ash Wednesday and as expected…we’ll each hear those same words spoken directly to us as individuals in a few minutes.
Have you ever wondered exactly where that phrase came from? I’ve heard various people try to explain it over the years, each focusing on the same central theme. God made Adam from the dust of the earth, forming him into a human being and then breathed life into him. Okay…fair enough I suppose.
But for a long time, that basic explanation just didn’t quite sit right with me. But then, in my early seminary days, I made a bit of an astonishing connection in one of my classes. It happened about week or so into my study of the Hebrew language. No admittedly, I don’t remember a lot of Hebrew. I’ve kidded around with the confirmation students as well as the high school students that Hebrew pretty much looks like chicken scratches and sounds like you are clearing your throat and that’s about all I recall from it…but in truth I do remember a few words and one of them stems from this realization that I had a few years back.
One of the vocabulary terms from that first week was the word ah-dam. Sounds familiar right? As well it should. Ah-dam is the Hebrew pronunciation of Adam. But the important thing to note here is the root of the word. Ah-dam is taken from the Hebrew word ah-da-mah. Any idea what the translation of that word is? (pause…) That’s right. It means ground or land.
YES!!! Humanity was literally formed from the dust of the ground. So much that God named the first man…“Ground.” Certainly this was a light bulb moment for me. So students, remember that if you are ever grumbling about homework. It does pay off.
So, now we know where the first part of the phrase comes from. “Remember that you are dust…” What about the second part? “And to dust you shall return.” I would think that it is quite obvious. If the first part of the statement refers our origin or birth if you prefer…then clearly the second part must refer to death.
Now is it just me, or is death a bit of a taboo subject? Something that people shy away from talking about? I know I’ve had times in my life when I shied away from the conversation. But I wonder why we avoid it. I’ve known people that don’t even like to say the word, preferring to say that a loved one is “gone” or has “passed away.” Maybe we’re hesitant to talk about it, because in the end, we are all afraid of it. Have you noticed that often in life, people will hesitate to talk about those things that scare them? They’d rather keep the conversation away from the scary stuff…because that way they don’t have to really think about it.
Tonight, I’m going to invite you to think about it. I’m going to invite you to come face to face with it. I’m going to ask you to close your eyes, and I’m going to tell you a story. I want you to picture this in your mind.
Imagine that it is a bright sunny day, 85 degrees and wonderful. You are standing on the shoreline of a lake. It’s the 4th of July. As you look around, what do you see? Boats everywhere, people everywhere. There is a family playing in the water. One of many groups of people on this beach. They are having a good time. As you watch this family, you notice one of the men looking out from the shoreline, out into the lake. He is looking out to the buoys floating a hundred yards off shore, boats floating nearby. That’s not so far out right? It wasn’t so long ago that he would could swim out and back twice over…no problem. Or so he thinks. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the man dives into the water and starts swimming out towards one of the buoys. He didn’t notice from the shoreline, but with all the boat traffic on the water, it’s choppy. He’s fighting the waves as he’s swimming. He’s doing okay, but is starting to strain much sooner than he expected. By the time he makes it to out the buoy, he is exhausted. Treading water isn’t an option…he grabs a hold of the buoy, pulls it down, drapes over it and floats there…thinking that he’ll rest for a bit before swimming back into shore.
The water has a different idea.
A big wave knocks him off the buoy after a few seconds…far too short of a time for him to get the rest that he needs, but he begins swimming back towards shore…he’s moving slowly, fighting the waves. He rolls over on his back, trying to float and rest his arms and legs, but the waves keep rolling over him. He’s fighting to stay on top of the water…just barely succeeding…he can’t swim anymore…panic sets in…he looks to the shore, but it seems to be miles away…he looks around at the boats moored nearby…he starts crying for help, but the people on the boats can’t hear him…panic is really setting in now…he’s totally exhausted. The man see’s death staring him in the face…and he is terrified. (pause)
I’m going to stop at that point. Go ahead and open your eyes.
Death has entered this story hasn’t it? That word that scares us so much. That word that we are often too scared to say out load. Well I’m going to say it again.
It’s real isn’t it?
Yes my friends, death is a reality that we must all face. At one time or another. From the moment that we enter this life as a baby, kicking and screaming we owe the universe 1 death. It’s unavoidable. Death and taxes…the only two things that are sure in this world. My grandfather was fond of saying that very thing before his own death a few years ago.
So if it is a reality for each and every person…WHY ARE WE ALL SO AFRAID OF IT?
A few years ago, Max Lucado published a book called “Fearless.” In the book he shares a few quotations aimed at this very question. I’d like to share a few of them with you…Aristotle called death the thing to be feared most because it appears to be the end of everything. Jean-Paul Sartre asserted that death removes all meaning from life. Robert Green Ingersoll, an outspoken agnostic said life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities.
Certainly this paints a very bleak picture of the end of life doesn’t it. Unfortunately, in our scripture lesson for tonight the Apostle Paul doesn’t exactly paint an optimistic picture of life either. He discusses his life serving God as filled with afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, and hunger.
However, Paul goes on. He doesn’t stop there. Listen to these words. We are treated as imposters…AND YET ARE TRUE. As unknown…AND YET ARE WELL KNOWN. As dying…AND SEE WE ARE ALIVE. As punished…AND YET NOT KILLED. As poor…YET MAKING MANY RICH. As having nothing…AND YET…POCESSESING EVERYTHING.
Yes, Paul speaks of hardships in life. He is even known to speak of death within the many books of the Bible that he is responsible for writing. But the difference between Paul and the “scholars” that Lucado quoted in his book is the eternal. Those men, each considered to be brilliant thinkers, failed to wrap their heads around one simple fact about death.
IT ISN’T THE END!
This life is not the only thing that is in store for you. Death…is not the stopping point of your existence. Paul knew it. He not only knew it he believed in it with every atom of his being…and he preached it everywhere he went. He said “Because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.”
Jesus was born…just like us…Jesus died…just as each and every one of us will one day do. BUT JESUS…CAME…BACK.
Where oh death, is your victory…Where, oh death, is your sting?
These are famous words, also written by Paul, highlight a crucial fact. Death is real…he doesn’t deny it. But he does tell us that we have nothing to fear in it.
When Jesus defeated death, He created the bridge for us. Jesus reaches across the void which we cannot cross, takes us by the hand, and brings us into eternity.
When we realize that Jesus lived and died for this purpose, we begin to understand the journey of Lent that we embark on tonight. Lent is a season of preparation. Preparation for the death of Jesus. 40 days from now, it happens. But three days later…HE COMES BACK. Jesus…comes…back…for…us.
I’d like to return to the story that I began a few minutes ago. There was another character that I didn’t mention before. A second man swam out to the buoy as well. He was in better shape and had no trouble swimming out. When the wave knocked them both off the bouy, he swam back towards the shoreline unhindered. But when the first man began to flounder, he was still nearby.
If you’re wondering, this actually happened. I was the first man…the man that was floundering. But my brother in law was there too. When I was in trouble, I cried out, and he was there. He came back for me. He took me by the hand and brought me where I could not go alone…He brought me back to the shoreline and I was still alive.
I cannot think of this story without thinking of the story of Peter walking on the water. Do you remember that story. Everything was going fine for awhile, but then Peter started sinking. In his fear…in his panic…he did the only thing he could think to do. He cried out “LORD SAVE ME.” And at that moment, Jesus reached down, took him by the hand, and raised him up where he could not go alone.
It is true, that Peter was afraid. I was afraid too. In the Fearless book Lucado talks about accepting death without fear. He says that we can do so because we are assured in our salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. He knows that Jesus comes back for us.
As we travel through this season of Lent, remember that you are all swimming in the lake of sinfulness. At some point, the waves are going to start crashing over you and your arms and legs will be too tired to keep your head above water. You can cry out to Jesus. “Lord save me…save me from sin and eternal death.” This is the simple act of repentance. Crying out “I can’t do this on my own…Lord I need you to save me.”
Then know this…Jesus will take you by the hand, raise you up, and will bring you where you cannot go.
Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return…but remember…Jesus…comes…back…for you. Amen.