Do you know where we got our ashes for this evening’s service? We did purchase some of them, but a good share of them came from the traditional place where Christians have gotten them for many centuries – from the Palm Sunday branches that our children laid down before the altar last spring at the beginning of Holy Week. Those palm branches from Palm Sunday were reduced to ashes so we could commemorate what makes Ash Wednesday such a day of reflection – both the fact that someday you and I will be reduced to ashes when we die and also the faith that God has given us that there truly is something beyond that ash heap of death. That’s why it is important to remember – and why it is such a joy to remember — that because of what we are commemorating today on this Ash Wednesday we can say of every single day that we live that it is Ash This Day – that every day is another day to think about why something being reduced to ashes is the most important thing to think about that day – because that day, like every day, is Ash This Day for a child of God.
I realize that may sound kind of strange or confusing at first – “Ash This Day” — but the way – and the only way — to even begin to know what that means is to know what happened when the Son of God went forth to war, which is the theme of our midweek Lenten season worship, and which is introduced for us so powerfully in this evening’s theme verse from Isaiah 42:13: “The Lord will march out like a mighty man, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies.” Brothers and sisters in the battle, that’s what makes every day Ash This Day, so on this Ash Wednesday day let’s see why that it is so.
Who should be reduced to ashes? Unless you don’t believe you are a very bad sinner, that is a simple question for a believer to answer. I deserve to be reduced to ashes. It is, however, often a battle to admit that, isn’t it? So often we can seek to excuse what we do – or to defend what we do – or to deny what we do – or to compare what we do to what someone else has done, so that we can justify saying to ourselves and to God, “That is someone who should be reduced to ashes.” But what you and I have to personally and individually say in our prayers every day is this: “Lord, because of what I constantly do that is wrong, I deserve to die – and to die forever.” That is one thing, of course, that makes this Ash Wednesday such a powerful day. I join my fellow believers from decades ago and centuries ago and thousands of years ago in saying that very same thing: “Lord God, Holy Father, I fall before you in sackcloth and ashes. I am sorry for all I have done that is wrong and for all that I have not done that would have been right. God, have mercy on me a sinner.” All that is because we are the ones who should be reduced to ashes. We are the ones who make every day Ash This Day.
But who was reduced to ashes? Who was the one who licked the dust of death in a way that looked like he had lost the war to the burdens of life? The one who looked like he had lost is the one whom the prophet Isaiah said in our theme verse would march out on this earth like a mighty warrior and who would triumph over his enemies. You know the things we will see and say of our Savior during these Lenten worship services. Does he look like the winner, or does he look like the one licking the dust in defeat? Does Jesus look like a winner when we see him dragged off from the garden where he was praying? Does Jesus look like a winner when we see him answering not a word in a court room where people kept yelling at him? Does Jesus look like a winner when we see him beaten by soldiers who quite likely didn’t even know why they were beating him? Does Jesus look like a winner when we see him attached to a cross and finally giving up his last breath? Does Jesus look like a winner when we see him placed into the tomb of his death? Thankfully we know the rest of the story, but the rest of the story is not nearly as meaningful if we don’t remember that the one being reduced to ashes in this way was being reduced to ashes in that way in the place of the very people who should be reduced to ashes that way every day, making every day Ash This Day, as we confess to God what we earlier sang to God, “O Savior, when we loved you not, You loved and saved us all; O great good shepherd of mankind, Oh, hear us when we call.”
However, when Jesus called out to his Father, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” those last words of the Christ that ushered in his death were words of victory that give us life. They were the words of a winner in war, a conqueror in battle, the champion of the fight. They were words which help us know why these words from one of the Psalms are so beautiful and so comforting, “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap” (Psalm 113:7). They are words which we grab onto when our own lives don’t feel like the lives of winners, conquerors or champions. They are words which we crave when we show in our lives how true it is that we are anything but winners, conquerors or champions in the kingdom of God.
That is why you and I always need to remember that the words of Isaiah are the words of a promise, “He will triumph over his enemies,” because the enemies of Jesus are the enemies of you and me – and the Christian fight of everyday life can only be fought by one who has Jesus on his side, which we do, because Jesus is at our side. And the one at our side speaks as a conqueror, yes, but as a comforting conqueror. And it is that comfort that we need this day and every day in order to be able enjoy our life day by day, no matter what is going on around us.
I realize this may not be true for all of you, though I hope it would be, but is there someone or are there some people that you can go to for comfort or guidance when your life is going crazy or when you think you are? If you are blessed to have such a friend or loved one, that really is a gift from God. But no matter how comforting that dear confidant might be, that comforter can never be a comforting conqueror in the same way that Jesus is. They cannot always make everything better. That is why Jesus is the ultimate comforter, because he has conquered those ashes by reducing to ashes all those things – all those “enemies” – that try to get us to think God must not love us, or that he cannot love us.
When, for example, the devil keeps putting in your mind that thing you once did or those things you keep on doing, even though you don’t want to keep on doing them, remember that the Son of God went forth to war to reduce your sins to ashes. He throws those ashes into the wind so that they fly away. They are gone. When the devil tries to get you to think that God must not care for you if he has let those certain things come into your life, then remember that the Son of God went forth to war to reduce any thoughts like that to ashes. Look at Jesus struggle under the burden of things he should not have had to endure – people hating him, people mocking him, people killing him – and all that for you. If anyone cares for you, it is not the devil. It is Jesus. And if the devil tries to get you to not think about death because it is too hard to think about death, or if he tries to get you to be scared about what will happen afterwards, then remember that Son of God went forth to war to reduce to ashes the ash heap of death. Jesus knows what it is like to have to deal with death, and Jesus knows what it’s like for us when we cry or are lonely or are sad because of the death of someone else. It will be okay, even though words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” might understandably seem so hard to want to think about. That’s why our Savior keeps reminding us in his Word that because he did not see decay in the grave, but rose three days later, our decay in the grave will be short-lived. We too will rise from the grave and from that day forward never have to worry about anything like that again.
What all is this is saying is that those Palm Sunday branches from Holy Week last spring that the children laid beneath the cross really are a very fitting place to get our ashes for Ash Wednesday. On that day Jesus marched into Jerusalem, going forth to a war that during those next few days it looked like he had lost, until one week later when he was in the grave no more. Jesus reduced to ashes anything and everything that could ever cause us to question his power or to doubt his love. We commemorate that on Ash Wednesday. We live that on every day. That is why because of Jesus every day is Ash This Day. Amen.