Isaiah Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Preached by Anna C. Haugen
Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
My grandparents often listen to old Andrews Sisters music. Since I spent a lot of time at their house as a child, I know many of those old songs by heart. One of them, sung with Bing Crosby, is called “Accentuate the Positive.” I’m sure many of you have heard the chorus: “You’ve got to Accentuate the Positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-Between.” It’s a good anthem for the power of positive thinking. And in many cases, it’s good advice. But it also has a downside: you can’t always eliminate the negative, and when you can’t, too many people try to ignore it. We try to shove the unpleasant parts of life under the rug, so they don’t bother us. We try to bury the ways in which our pleasures—the things that we want, the things that seem good—are connected to injustice or selfishness or other sins. But you can’t ignore the negative forever.
The positive is fun—people usually don’t need any extra encouragement to go to a party, for example. Facing up to unpleasant realities is a whole different kettle of fish. It’s a lot harder, and in the short run at least, less pleasant. How many people around the world and in our own congregation went to Mardi Gras parties last night, who didn’t come to Ash Wednesday services today? Who can blame people for preferring pancakes, sausages, and doughnuts to ashes, and the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return?
And yet, the truth is that we were created out of the dust of the earth, and to that dust we will all return some day. We were sinners from our mothers womb, and we cannot free ourselves from the sin and evil and brokenness which holds us captive. A lot of the time, we can’t even see the bonds that hold us and keep us from reaching our full potential as God’s beloved children. Sometimes, we can’t see them because we don’t want to—all we want to see is the good stuff, the fun stuff, the stuff we like. We don’t want to admit that the things and activities we like may not always be good for us, for our fellow humans, or for the world God has entrusted to us. But the problem is, until we are willing to see that we are held captive by sin and brokenness, we can never be free of them.
We come here on Ash Wednesday, knowing that no matter how hard we try to follow God’s commands, we fall short. We come here knowing that there is nothing we can do to free ourselves from sin. And yet we also come here knowing that God loves us, that our savior Jesus Christ came into this world to set us free from the chains that bind us. We return to the Lord our God, knowing that he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, knowing that if we turn to him and acknowledge our brokenness, he will create clean hearts in us, and put his Spirit within us.
Yes, we are sinners, and we will inevitably return to the dust. And yet, our God is with us, and our God calls us back to him, to redeem us and set us free. It is only through Jesus Christ that we may be washed from our sins, renewed and set free to be truly ourselves, healed and whole. In Christ, we are reconciled to God, and that grace gives us a peace and joy that goes beyond any human understanding. Instead of burying our heads in the sand and pretending that everything is fine, we are given the strength and support we need to face reality, sure in the knowledge that we are loved and redeemed, and that our sin and brokenness don’t have the final word. Through Christ, we are given the freedom and power to work for God’s good creation.
We are dust, and to dust we shall return. But our God is the one who created us out of that dust, who brings healing and renewal to all who come to him. He loves us so much that he was willing to die for our sake. We are tied to our Lord’s death and resurrection, and the ashes we wear tonight, real though they are, only tell part of the story. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but we are also beloved children of God, in whom we are washed and set free.