While it does not seem that there could be much worth liking about Ash Wednesday, it is one of my favorite times of worship. In ancient Israel, the symbolism of ashes was understood to be a forceful reminder of the reality we so often like to evade — the reality of our mortality, and therefore of our sin. And while that might seem an odd thing to enjoy, the truth of the matter is that life is better when we do not slip from that reality. Paul nails it in his rather self-pitying list of realities: we suffer these things indignities, and to one way of looking we are imposters, we are unknown, we are dying, we are sorrowful, we are poor. But as servants of God, we are, in our honesty about these things, true, known, alive, always rejoicing and not only rich, but making others rich.
Paul’s point, if I read him correctly, is simply that God is the one through whom and by whom we are able to turn from these indignities and find the life that really is life. The message is simple — we are human, we try to avoid them and pretend we can overcome them with wealth, or with business, or with prestige — and we can, for a while . . .
Or by God’s grace we can live with them. The irony though is that in one case — they will catch up with us and leave us defeated. In the other case, they have caught up with us and have not defeated us, we are sick but not down and out, we are as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
That is my assumption as I take a quick look at a line from Isaiah that happens to be one of my favorite single verses in the bible. The last verse from the Isaiah reading “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” It is for this verse that I did not read from the Pew Bible (Good News). It translates it “You will be known as the people who rebuilt the walls, who restored the ruined houses.” There is nothing wrong with that, in fact it dawns on me that it would be a good verse to ponder as we head to Mississippi to help rebuild, or as we send wave after wave of people to Haiti to help rebuild the walls that came tumbling down last month. But for today, it’s allusion to one of the other great scenes is the Bible, of Moses up on the mountain, while his people are down below making idols, so frustrated are they with the tortuous journey they’ve been on, and all apparently under God’s leadership.
God is fed up with them, and tells Moses that he’s just going to finish them all off and be done with them, and Moses pleads their case and changes God’s mind. Psalm 106: 23 tells about this event: “Therefore he said he would destroy them— had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” Moses standing in the breach — is an image of the power that we humans are granted to deal honestly with our fate, to deal honestly with our sin — that is, in a nutshell, to deal honestly with our mortality.
The ashes are an ominous sign, yet hopeful, they are coarse, yet comforting, they are black, yet full of light, they are death, yet they show us alive.
I have been talking really, about human nature and human life — but never far from the conversation, is God and the nature of God. In fact, the point is that a truthful picture of what it means to be human, helps us paint a picture of what it means to call upon God.
I want to close with a light hearted story about God. It’s about the nature of God, which is revealed through a conversation Alvin has with God.
Alvin is working in his store when he hears a booming voice from above that says, “Alvin, sell your business!” He ignores it. The voice goes on for days saying, “Alvin, sell your business for three million dollars!” After weeks of this he relents and sells his store.
The voice says, “Alvin, go to Las Vegas!”
Alvin asks why.
“Alvin, just take the three million dollars and go to Las Vegas.”
Alvin obeys, goes to Las Vegas and visits a casino.
The voice says, “Alvin, go to the blackjack table and put it all down in one hand!”
Alvin hesitates, but gives in. He’s dealt an eighteen. The dealer has a six showing.
“Alvin, take a card!”
“What? The dealer has . . . ”
“Take a card!”
Alvin tells the dealer to hit him, and gets an ace. Nineteen.
He breathes easy.
“Alvin, take another card.”
“TAKE ANOTHER CARD!”
Alvin asks for another card. It’s another ace. He has twenty.
“Alvin take another card!” the voice commands.
“I have twenty!” Alvin shouts.
“TAKE ANOTHER CARD!” booms the voice.
“Hit me!” Alvin says. He get’s another ace. Twenty-one!
And the booming voice says “Unnn-believable!”
As Isaiah says, the fasting that you do, the ashes we put on our heads, is not the end game — the end game is, indeed, with God, in God’s care and by God’s wisdom, to be responsible in our dealings with one another, in our care of one another, and the earth, and in our repairing the breach and restoring the broken walls.