Psalm 63:1-4, Isaiah 35
In the Wilderness
In Jewish and Christian tradition, ashes as a symbol convey two primary meanings. First, they are a sign of repentance. When people realized that they had been turning away from God’s path, that they had been disobeying God, and wanted to recommit to God’s way, God’s path, and ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness, sackcloth – a rough fabric – and ashes were worn as signs of that repentance – turning away from sin and toward God. They’re signs of humility, reminders that God is God and we are not God.
Second, ashes are a sign of our mortality. Although we claim the gift of eternal life with God, in this life, in this world, we live and we die. We are finite. We are not invincible. God creates us from the dust of the earth, and to dust these bodies one day return. This is a message we need to confront regularly. Sometimes we fail to treat our lives as the sacred but finite gifts that they are. We don’t treat others as though their time with us is precious and limited. We build up possessions and wealth in ways that suggest we believe that we will live forever, have our things forever. We spend our time on things that don’t matter to us, and put off doing what God is calling us to do, what we are dreaming of doing. We have a decided lack of urgency when it comes to nurturing our own faith and sharing faith with others. We give the impression that we believe that we have limitless time to get done whatever is on our heart’s to-do list. Ashes are a sign of our mortality, meant to be a wake-up call. We are dust, and to dust we return.
And yet, perhaps you feel a bit like I do this Ash Wednesday. Like I don’t need to be reminded of our finiteness just now. We know it all too well. I have my own personal loss and grief on my heart. And I know we are all processing our grief and sadness over Retha’s death. And it isn’t just Retha. We’ve had a hard season as a congregation. A generation of loved ones, people who have shaped us individually, and shaped our church. Together they represent a season in our church and community heritage that we sometimes long for, a season when, with our somewhat rose-colored glasses, feels like a simpler time. And just today, I was reading news of the school shooting that happened in Florida. It isn’t yet certain how many died there today. My attention was caught by the headline photo – a woman, a mother perhaps, in tears outside the school, with ashes on her forehead. Just this morning, some pastor had reminded her of her mortality. We are plenty aware of our mortality, aren’t we? We’re feeling very finite jus now, I think. Very much like we are dust.
It seems fitting then that our theme for this Lent is “In the Wilderness.” I don’t know what images come to mind when you hear the world wilderness, but I can tell you that until I became a pastor and was preparing sermons, I thought of a wilderness as like a forest-y type place. Indeed, we use the word wilderness in this way. I went to “wilderness” camp at Camp Aldersgate when I was in elementary school, and it meant we were out in the woods in tents instead of in cabins. But in the scripture, when we hear about the wilderness, we’re not talking about the woods. We’re talking about the desert. We’re talking about desolate terrain, rocky, barren places, place with little water or vegetation. We’re talking about terrain that can be dangerous, isolated. It’s a place where you are vulnerable, at risk.
The Bible is full of stories of people who end up in the wilderness, for one reason or another, from Genesis to Revelation, and this Lent, we’ll be reading some wilderness stories, thinking about these figures of faith who spent time in the wilderness, and seeing what we can learn from their journeys there. Jesus spent time in the wilderness too, as we’ll talk about on Sunday, and it is his 40 day time in the wilderness that particularly gives shape to our Lenten season of 40 days. But tonight, we are thinking about our own experiences in the wilderness. When have you felt like you were in a barren land in your life? When have you felt like you were spiritually parched and dry? When have you felt vulnerable and at risk, exposed? When have you felt like you were off the beaten path, lost? Maybe you are even feeling that way right now.
This Lent, we are listening for God’s message to people who in the wilderness. We’re listening for God’s message to people who are well aware that they are dust. We’re listening for God’s message to us when we feel faint with thirst. Our reading from Psalm 63 is a Psalm attributed to King David, said to be written when he was in the wilderness of Judah. David was on the run, being pursued by his own son Absalom who wished to succeed David as King. David was literally and figuratively experiencing a wilderness time, and he knew whether Absalom was successful in taking power from him or not, David was closer to the end of his reign and life than the beginning. From this context, we read, “O God you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
In Lent, we seek to attune our hearts to the reality that we are in wilderness, we’re parched, we’re dust, and we’re longing with a thirst that only drawing close to God can quench. God is the water of life for our souls that have become a desert place, a wilderness place. Thankfully, this very God whom we long for is the one who has the power to bring life to the desert, and bring hope in the wilderness. In our reading from Isaiah 35, we hear these hopeful words: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing … For the waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water … A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” In the desert, life. In the wilderness, a holy highway for God’s people. God brings crocuses to bloom where it seems no life could survive. Where there is only dust, God brings a spring of water.
We are dust, and to dust we return. That is the stark reality that we face on Ash Wednesday. But just as real is God’s promise to bring life from the wilderness. Tonight, as we receive ashes, this sign of repentance, a sign that we are turning our hearts back to God, a sign that we are mortals, dust, we’ll hear a song called Beautiful Things sung by Mark Gungor. Listen to some of the word: “All this pain. I wonder if I’ll ever find my way. I wonder if my life could really change at all. All this earth. Could all that is lost ever be found? Could a garden come up from this ground at all? You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust. All around, Hope is springing up from this old ground. Out of chaos life is being found in You. You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust. You make me new, You are making me new. You make me new, You are making me new.”
Maybe we are in the wilderness. But have you heard about what God can do in wilderness? Maybe we are dust. But have you seen what God can make from dust? This Ash Wednesday, may we be reminded that we are dust. May we turn to God with all our hearts. And may we remember that God promises that in due season the wilderness will be glad and the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Thanks be to God. Amen.