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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Ash Wednesday 02/10/2016

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s the Ash Wednesday refrain that is repeated as a cross of ashes is traced on foreheads today. The phrase is from the Bible although it’s not from any of the lessons assigned for Ash Wednesday. It’s actually from Genesis, following the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. At the end of that story the Lord explains the consequences of what they have done ending with, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you will return.”

This story is said to be about the first sin, but then the question always comes up, “What exactly was the sin that was committed?” We tend to think of sin as being the bad things that we do, things that run contrary to God’s will for us so in this case it would be the man and the woman disobeying God’s caution not to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden. It’s more than that though; it’s more than disobedience. Eating the fruit from the tree is the action that reveals the sin, but there’s more that underlies that action. Among the commentators, the consensus answer concerning that underlying sin is that it was the couple wanting to be more than they were. They were tempted by the serpent’s promise that they would be like God. Giving in to the temptation implies not just disobedience but also that they were not satisfied with their God given creaturely status.

On Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust” is an opportunity to consider our status as human beings and, in the context of the Genesis story, the underlying assumption of our human status is that human beings are created to be in relationship with God; that’s a given. Without that relationship human beings are not fully what they are intended to be. The flip side of that is that without the relationship God is not fully who God is intended to be either which also has interesting theological implications.

From the human side though, within that relationship, according to the story, there was responsibility. If you remember how it goes, the man and the woman were given the work of taking care of the garden, to till it and keep it. There was responsibility, but there was also a prohibition: they were not to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of good and evil and prior to the introduction of the serpent, the human couple accepted this prohibition without question; it was just part of the God given order of things. So there’s responsibility and there is prohibition but there was also permission, vast permission to share in the goodness of God’s creation: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden.” Despite the prohibition, the permission assured that the man and the woman would have all they needed. God would provide for them abundantly. Life would be good.

Humanity defined by responsibility, prohibition and permission still represents the basis of the human side of the divine/human relationship, the basis of biblical anthropology, but then there’s theology and who God is in this relationship. For that we could go to many places in the Bible but today we go to Psalm 51 which is the psalm that always begins the Ash Wednesday service.

Psalm 51 is understood as one of the seven classic “penitential psalms” in fact it is the best known and most used of the seven. The opening verses of this psalm are a confession of sin, which is also part of the human equation, sin being an indication of failure in regard to the responsibility, prohibition and permission of the Genesis story. The psalm is prayed by one person, the tradition says it’s David, but if we ask, “Whose psalm is this?” any of us could answer, “It’s mine.” Any of us can say, “I know my offenses, and my sin is ever before me.” That’s why we use Psalm 51 at the beginning of this service.

Sin is recognized as part of the divine/human relationship and for the psalmist, one word isn’t enough to identify the sin. In the version we used you get the words offenses, wickedness and sin. Other versions have transgressions and iniquity along with sin. Either way, there are three different words that recur to define the separation that has happened within this relationship. One word isn’t enough to get at how broken things have become.

This is all still anthropology though; it’s about the human condition which includes sin. But there are other words that are used in this psalm, words that are repeated over and over again in other psalms and in other parts of the Bible. Those words are mercy, steadfast love and compassion. It’s those words that bring us around to theology and talk about God.

Mercy, steadfast love and compassion are the defining features of the God of the Bible, the God we as Christians find revealed in Jesus. They’re not the only words used to describe God, but they’re the ones that the biblical writers always come back to. In Psalm 51 it is the hope, it is the belief of the psalmist that those divine characteristics will override all offenses, wickedness and sin not because the sinner deserves it, but because that’s who God is. In Lutheran theology it’s what we call grace and with grace, deserve’s got nothing to do with it. If we got what we deserved we’d all be in trouble. Whether we call it grace or if we call it mercy, steadfast love and compassion, it’s at the center of our theology, the center of what we believe about God.

That is a huge theological statement. It’s what we preach and proclaim all year long, but it’s especially important to hear as we begin this season of Lent. It’s important because it says that as we recognize our humanity and how much sin has become part of who we are, (and that is a big part of what we do on Ash Wednesday) as we do so, we can count on God to respond to our confession of sin not with wrath and judgment, but with mercy, steadfast love and compassion. With confidence, we can pray with the psalmist and say, “Have mercy on me O God, according to your steadfast love.”

Lutheran theology says that recognition of sin should lead us not to despair, but to the truth of grace and hope, the truth of forgiveness. That is true, even on Ash Wednesday. With that also comes the recognition that by the grace of God, confession leads to new life. Maybe the best known verse in Psalm 51 is “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” It’s a verse that is even more powerful than you might first realize because in Hebrew the verb that is translated here as “create” can only have God as a subject; only God can create. What the psalmist is saying is, “I can’t do this. Try as I might, I was born steeped in wickedness; it’s just who I am. I can’t change who I am, but you can, so create in me a clean heart O God.”

“Create in me a clean heart” is another refrain that we’ll hear throughout Lent, but tonight the refrain is “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The cross of ashes and the words that accompany it remind us of our status as human creatures, status that includes responsibility, prohibition and permission, but also sin, our failure to always accept and live out that status. But with that stark reminder, even on Ash Wednesday, even in a deeply penitential psalm, the reality of who God is, is still right there, the reality of God’s mercy, compassion and steadfast love are still there, even on Ash Wednesday.

Pastor Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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