Sermon: From Ashes to Absolution

Confessional Address for Ash Wednesday
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The use of ashes has a long, long history in the Bible. Job, after suffering tremendous loss, sat down in ashes (Job 2:8). Jonah walked into Nineveh and proclaimed, “Yet forty days and and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 2:4). When the king of Nineveh heard this, he did not merely “smear” a little bit of ashes on his forehead; he did more. “He laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth,” and actually “sat in ashes.” And then, “he proclaimed a fast…saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: but let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and beast, and let them cry mightily unto God.” (Jonah 3:5-9). How did God react? “God saw their works, that they turned from then evil way; and God repented of the evil, which he said he would do unto them” (Jonah 3:10). After seventy years of exile, the prophet Daniel set his “face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). When Mordecai learned of the plot against the Jews by Haman, he “put on sailcloth and ashes” and many Jews joined him (Esther 4:1, 3). Jesus said that if Tyre and Sidon had seen his mighty works they would have repented “in sackcloth and ashes” (Luke 10:13). 

From the earliest days of the Church, Christians have also used ashes. Ashes and fasting have been part of the Christian preparation for Easter almost since the beginning. That’s why we begin this season of Lent with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of Ashes. But, our service tonight though does not end with ashes. No, it only begins with ashes. It ends with Absolution. So, let’s briefly consider what the ashes mean, and why they’re accompanied by Holy Absolution.


Ashes: Memory, Mortality, and Mourning

The first thing ashes do is jog our memories. It’s so easy to forget things. We’re good at forgetting things, aren’t we. Sometimes, we don’t just forget things, but intentionally put them out of our minds. If something is particularly unpleasant, we try not to think about it. We don’t want to remember it. There are things we like to avoid because we don’t want to deal with them. And then, along comes something which reminds us of that very thing we were trying to forget. That’s what the ashes are for. They are a sign and signs point to somethings. The ashes are a sign to us, and to those who see them upon us. The ashes speak a message, and it happens to be an unpleasant message which many of us try not to think about. 

Ashes jog our memory with a reminder of our morality. “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Gen. 3:19). Remember.  And while the ashes are being poured upon the coffin, we hear the words:  “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  Remember.  Those words are a word of warning, of condemnation. Those words come from the mouth of God himself, spoken to rebellious man. You are going to die. Death is simply the fact of our existence. We can try to ignore, hide from, and play games with it – but in the end, it’s no game and there’s no hiding.  Death tracks you down and squeezes the last bit of life from you.  And then your breathless clay returns to dust and ashes. We don’t like thinking about our own mortality. Frankly, it scares us. So, we place ashes upon ourselves to remind us, lest we forget or ignore it. And yes, you can certainly remember without the the mark of ashes on the forehead. But ashes, as the Church has known for a very long time, make the point rather more directly: they are the very dust toward which you shall return. There’s a very literal and physical connection made here. 

Ashes also serve to confess our mourning. Ashes are a sign of death; a sign of our own mortality. That mortality is your fault. If you sin, you die. That’s the law. And everyone here will die because we all have sinned. We are so consumed with our own sin, we are not even aware of how heinous it is. But, there are times when we catch a glimpse of what terrible things we’ve done. Sometimes, we begin to feel the deep pain our sin has caused. Regret, guilt, sorrow, remorse, contrition: those are the feelings that will well up when we begin to realise the depth of our own wickedness. So, we place ashes upon ourselves as a sign of our remorse, regret, and sorrow over our sins. 

Absolution: Confession, Christ, and New Creation

But ashes also serve as a confession. The ash on the forehead is a confession that the person is worth only ashes. The ashes confess that we have no righteousness. The ashes confess that no one is better than another. The ashes confess that we all need God’s grace if there is to be any hope us. And so, with the outward sign, we put it into words. We confess to God verbally that we have sinned against him. We deserve his just punishment. God’s law says, “You’re a miserable sinner who deserves nothing but death and hell.” And when we confess our sins we are agreeing. “Yeah, that’s me.” 

But didn’t Jesus tell us not to put on a show while fasting? What Christ condemned in our Gospel reading is thinking that we can show others how good, how sincere, how devout, and what kind of a Christian we are with these outward symbols. If Lent becomes about externals – about the ashes and the going without food – while you continue to cheerfully love your sin, then it’s a waste of your time. Remember, Jesus said the same thing about prayer and giving charitable gifts. His point is that these things should not be done as a show of righteousness. He’s not saying we cannot pray in public or as a group in worship. If we follow his example we will pray in public. He did not forbid giving something publicly or to a group. And he did not forbid using outward symbols of repentance like ashes. The use of ashes in the Christian faith as a sign of repentance is as old as Job, and probably older. It certainly is the outward act chosen by believers throughout thousands of years, from the earliest times as outward sign to confess unworthiness and sin. But don’t stop at the externals sign, but along with the externals, repent from your heart.

Even on Ash Wednesday, there is hope. Those ashes are put upon you in the shape of a cross to remind you of something far greater than your death and far greater than your mortality. They are to remind you of the Cross of your Lord Jesus Christ and his completely immeasurable and incompressible love for you. The Creator God himself, the Only Begotten Son of the Father, became man. He became dust for you, so that he could deal with your sin. He chose to carry it Himself.  All of it.  Every last bit of it.  Upon the Cross of Calvary he paid for your sins. Think of it!  You are free because HE paid for your idolatry, your cursing. He paid for your disregard of God’s word, and the dishonour you’ve shown to your parents and other authorities. He made restitutuion for every hateful word and deed you’ve ever done. All your discontentment, your sexual sins, your laziness and stealing, your hatered and lying words have been taken care of.  HE paid it all. And that forgiveness which was won upon the Cross is given to his ministers to proclaim and deliver to you. When a minister proclaims forgiveness, he does so because he has been commanded to do so by Christ himself. In his stead, by his command. “whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven to them” (John 20:23).

In a few moments you’ll come forward and receive the absolution. Those sins which burden you, will be forgiven. You’ll be free. And since you’re about to be pardoned; since you’re about to be acquitted of your crimes, the sentence of death will be commuted. Even thought the grave close over your head and your body lies in dust and ashes, eternal life is promised to you.  Death has no more dominion over you since Jesus paid it all.  So, let us “return to the Lord with all our hearts, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Let us return to the Lord, our God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.” 

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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