Isaiah 58:1-12; Ps. 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6,16-21
If someone were to ask me what day this is I’d have two answers.
One answer I could give is the reason we’re here this evening: Ash Wednesday. The other answer I might give: It’s my wife’s birthday!
Trick question: If I were to ask you how old she is, what would you say? If you were here on Sunday you’d probably know to say “50.” And that’s true. But it’s not the whole truth. I’ll say more about that in a minute.
Last Sunday you heard Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday described as “bookends.” They’re two look-alike Sundays, one at the beginning and one at the ending of the forty days of Lent. Transfiguration Sunday offers hints of God’s glory and deeper insight into Jesus’ true nature. Easter Sunday has all that—and much more. Rather than just a “glimpse” of God’s glory, Easter offers us something enduring, in this life and beyond. Easter is about hope for transformation. The hope…of resurrection.
But we’re a long way from that tonight. Here we gather to mark the beginning of the journey. On Ash Wednesday we hear less about God’s glory and more about ordinary, down-to-earth facts of life—facts we may not like to think about. Tonight we hear the words, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” It’s about life…and death.
But listen carefully and you will see that although the themes of Transfiguration and Ash Wednesday are different, the pattern is the same. From dust you came, and to dust you will return. It’s “bookends” again! One bookend is birth. The other is death. The season of Lent invites us to think more deeply about the lives we lead between those bookends.
A few minutes ago I asked what I call a trick question. How old is my wife? The easy answer is 50. But there’s more to it than that. Lots of people say she doesn’t look 50; she looks younger. But you know what? I’ll tell you a secret: She’s actually much older than that. In fact, she’s actually fourteen billon years old!
You know what else? You are, too! Did you ever think of that? These amazing bodies that we’re born into are made of stuff that’s been around since the beginning of the universe, 14 billion years ago! Who knows what journey the atoms that make up this body have travelled?
Living things come into the world and eventually die—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—but in our short journey on earth we draw in nutrients from plants and animals, who in turn were made from the bodies of plants and animals and the soil—and, scientists tell us, star dust. The stuff that makes up our bodies might have started out billions of light-years away. Over billions of years it found its way to earth and over the past 4.5 billion years of the earth’s history carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, minerals from the earth, all have come to rest right here. Who knows where the atoms that make up this body have been?
So you see, it’s true—my wife’s life on earth is fifty years old. But her presence in the universe, as well as yours and mine, is billions of years old!
I find comfort and inspiration in knowing that my body in some form has always been part of the universe and always will be, for as long as the universe exists. The beginning of my life on earth wasn’t really the beginning of my story. And my ending on earth isn’t the end of my story, either. After I die my body will return to the earth, and, we believe, our spirits likewise will continue infinitely into the future.
These are big ideas. And, although our faith welcomes such ideas, the meaning of Ash Wednesday is really much simpler and down-to-earth. From dust you came and to dust you will return. The question for us tonight, through Lent, and beyond, is: between the bookends of birth and death—how will we live? Our faith offers answers to such questions:
God speaks through the words of the prophet Isaiah that you just heard read: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
There is a promise of freedom in these words. We don’t have to solve the great mysteries of the universe. We don’t have to understand what happens between its beginning and end. We need only know that we are in the hands of a gracious God. And on our short earthly journey, between the bookends of life and death, God has given each of us good and important work to do. This is the work of building God’s kingdom on earth: of offering our world the gifts of hope and healing, acceptance and love, dignity and justice, food and freedom.
Between the bookends of Lent may each of us, and all of us together, discern how God is changing us from within, for the sake of the world God loves!