Text: Genesis 3:19
Date: Ash Wednesday + 2/25/09

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words summon us to the holy season of Lent. These forty days are to be marked by “remembering.” Specifically, we are to remember two things. First, our mortality and sin—both our solidarity with the whole human race all the way back to Adam, and our personal participation in the death march called sin as it continues to work itself out in our lives. Dust recalls God’s ownership of our very lives, and it also recalls the price of our sin and separation from God—the dust of death. But if that were all we are to remember, what point would there be in it? This season is for Christians, and for those preparing to enter the Holy Christian Church through Holy Baptism. Therefore, having remembered our need—our need for the forgiveness of sin, life and salvation—we are to remember all the more the history of what God has done for us and for the whole world in the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Remember that this past Sunday was the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. But the day not only marked the end of a season, but actually propels us into that to which the Transfiguration points—the deliverance that is in Christ’s death and resurrection. Remember, there, the sight of Jesus in holy conversation with Moses and Elijah. And they were talking about Jesus’ “departure.” As when God sent Moses to lead his people on the way out of slavery in Egypt, so Jesus is the new deliverer, sent to lead all people on the way out of the slavery of sin and death. Remember that just before the Transfiguration, Jesus began to tell his disciples how he “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Remember Peter’s initial rejection of that whole scenario. So the inner circle of the apostles was given a glimpse of Jesus’ heavenly glory. For all that was about to transpire, the victory is assured! Remember how Peter wanted to stay surrounded by that glory. But as soon as he asked to stay, it was gone. Visions are not for now. They are for propelling us on the way.

Remember that way. It is a road that leads, initially, to a seeming “triumphant” entry on Palm Sunday. But the triumph, as we would want it, is short lived. The triumph, for now, is hidden. For this road, this way out, leads from the Mount of Transfiguration to Mount Calvary. There, Peter will not want to stay, but will run away in sorrow, grief and fear with all the others. For there, Jesus is no longer flanked by the glorious figures of Moses and Elijah, but by two criminals, all three on bloody crosses. There—at the end of this “way out”—the former glory of Jesus’ transfigured face is transferred to be the glory of a cross. There the Voice from heaven will be drowned out by the mocking voices of a hostile crowd. There the dazzling, bright cloud will be forgotten behind a deep and dreadful darkness. Remember that the first Exodus began with the slaying of the first-born of the Egyptians. This Exodus, this “way out,” will begin with the slaying of the only begotten “bar abbas,” the Son of the Father.

Today we are invited and compelled to follow and walk this road, this exodus, this way out. Ash Wednesday is all about confession and forgiveness. Ashes applied to the forehead in the sign of a cross is not required for salvation, but faith in the One who died on that cross is! The ashes, symbolizing mortality, are applied in the same place the sign was made with a wet thumb at our baptism. We are baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Today we are marked with the words “Remember.” “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” As those words are repeated over and over again upon each person, it is as if we are in a great funeral procession. And we are! Death is the great equalizer. What is said over you tonight is true of all: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Most people would rather stay away, postpone our appointment with death as long as possible. But as this road, this way out, meant for our Lord glory only through the suffering of the cross, so it is with all who would follow him. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” [Luke 9:23-24].

This year, in our midweek Lenten services of Evening Prayer, we will be guided on that way out by God’s holy Word, specifically those foundational words of the catechism. Through it all, true repentance bids us to some introspection, looking at and taking inventory of our lives. But be careful. For, remember, when you stare into a garbage can, all you see is garbage. We must remember that our Lenten discipline is not as much about our doing as it is about God’s doing in compassion what we cannot do. Contrition or sorrow without faith in God’s promise is no repentance. True repentance begins with contrition, but is completed by faith: faith in God’s promised deliverance.

Remember that the Ten Commands tell us not only what we are not to do, but also lead us to the great Good News or Gospel of the God who so loved the world that he “went out of his way” to call us, join us and bring us back. That “way” is through his only begotten Son. So complete are the Ten Commandments that Martin Luther said of them, “This much is certain: those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures.” Admittedly, Luther concedes that “the longer we work with the catechism, the less we know of it, and the more we have to learn.” But that simply means that, as long as we are on this road, this way out, this valley of the shadow of death, under the shadow of the cross, so long are we called to struggle, to repent and believe, to follow Jesus.

The life of sanctification, of growing in God’s Word and holy living, is to progress throughout our lives. That progress, however, will be marked by failings and fallings, reverses and even rebellions because sin continues to cling so closely. That progress will never be perfect. So remember the apostle Peter—who knew a thing or two about bold confession of faith and it’s denial, too—when he wrote: “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him” [2 Pet. 3:13-14].

When we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, faith, then, turns us also to remember God’s promised deliverance and prays, in the words of the repentant thief on the cross, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And we have his promise. For, in him, God remembers not the sins of our youth. In Christ, we have his promise that, “as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” [Psalm 103:11-14].

Because God remembered us, he sent his Son. By his body and blood given and shed for us on the cross our sins are forgiven and we are given life and salvation. As he leads us on the way out of the darkness of sin and death, all along the way he feeds and strengthens us with that same body and blood in the sacrament, saying, “do this in remembrance of me.” Strengthened by this food we are kept alive and enabled to follow him through the cross to the glory.