These words are not easy to say, nor are they easy to hear: Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes… If those words, for example, take you back to the loss of a loved one in death, they can cause some honest pain, can’t they? At the time of death we confess what the Bible tells us, that our bodies which came from the dust of the earth when Adam was created will return to dust and ashes when we are buried in the earth after we die. But even as those words might make us gulp a bit and maybe even cause us to feel a tear forming in our eyes, why is it that in the midst of those present tears and in the midst of thinking about our own future ashes, we can lift up our heads and still live with joy – and still worship with joy — even during this somber season of the year – and, in particular, on this somber day? The reason is because there are no ashes for Jesus.
The death of Jesus Christ was not earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, because the death of Jesus Christ was not the result of needing to repent of any sin in sackcloth and ashes. You and I are right now covered with ashes because of our sin, and we someday will turn to ashes because of our death, but Jesus came to do what we could not do in living a life that was without sin so that we could be looked upon as having no sin, and Jesus came to do what we could not do in bringing our bodies and souls back together so that we will not stay in decay, but we will live with him with perfectly restored and glorious bodies in heaven. One part of the Bible which shows how Jesus did that is from Matthew 4 – Jesus defeating the temptation of the devil – the words of our lesson.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Have you ever tempted Jesus like the devil tempted Jesus? Have you and I acted just like Satan acted when talking to Jesus? Have we ever said to Jesus, “Jesus, if you are the Son of God…?” “God, if you really are in control, why are you letting this happen to me? God, if you really love me, how come I keep having the same hassles what seems like every single day of my life? God, if you really are so wise, then why do I think what is going on is so dumb?” We are told that Jesus was filled with earthly hunger, but you and I can fill in the blank with any earthly problem that’s bothering us – and we can end up saying, “Jesus, if you really are the Son of God, fill me with more happiness. Jesus, if you really are the Son of God, fill me with more money. Jesus, if you really are the Son of God, fill me with more reasons in my day by day life to think that you are… Jesus, in my life tell these stones to become bread.” Aren’t those just some of the things that should lead us to cover ourselves with ashes – the kinds of things because of which we confessed together near the beginning of our service: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you in our thoughts, in our words, in our deeds, and in all that we have not done. Forgive us in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The reason we cry because of our sins, but we don’t give up because of our sins, is because our Lord Jesus Christ did not give up in rescuing us from our sins – and he does not give up in taking care of us every day, even when we are tempted to think that he is not doing it as we would like him to. “Man shall not live on bread alone,” Jesus said, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Isn’t it a comfort to know that it’s not the amount of earthly bread, earthly things, earthly happiness that we have that causes us to live, but the word that comes from God’s mouth. We normally think of God’s Word in the Bible, of course, but this word is talking about God’s ability – God’s desire – to take care of us in the way that will keep us closest to him. He knows everything about us. He knows what scares us. He knows what tempts us. He knows our goals, our ambitions. He knows our weaknesses, our strengths. He knows the hard things that are happening in our lives, and he knows the things that make us glad. And – since he is the Son of God – he will keep us alive in good times and bad… until he determines that it is time for us to join him in heaven. We can be sure of that because Jesus did not fall to this temptation to challenge his heavenly Father that we so often fall to – and he did it so that his heavenly Father will look at us and tell us that for Jesus’ sake we have not fallen to it, either. We are holy in God’s sight because of his holy Son.
That is also why we don’t want to test God and act like we don’t believe God’s promises, like Satan tempted Jesus to do by jumping off a high tower to see if God would save him then — and that is also why we don’t want to worship anyone else but God, like Satan tempted Jesus to do by kneeling before him in order to receive all the kingdoms of the world.
What was so absolutely foolish about that temptation to worship Satan and then receive from Satan? The kingdoms of the world don’t belong to Satan. They aren’t his to give. In fact, Jesus already has them. So why was that temptation such a powerful one, do you think? What was Satan basically saying? “Jesus, three years from now you are going to die in one of the worst ways possible – and most people in the history of the world aren’t even going to care about it. And during these next three years, Jesus, even your own family members are going to wonder what’s going on with you, and others will mock you and insult you and look for ways to do away with you. Jesus, no one will blame you if you just want to avoid all that and get all this glory in a much easier way. Jesus, all you have to do is bow the knee and worship me.”
That’s a helpful thing to keep in our minds, isn’t it, when the devil basically hits us with that exact same kind of temptation? “There really is an easier way to have an easier life,” the devil says all the time. “If you want to be happy, use your eyes to look at things some people say you shouldn’t, your bodies to take in things some people say you shouldn’t, your attitudes to be envious and jealous about things some people say you shouldn’t. Why have hassles about how you live your life when there’s no reason to have the hassles? Why not just bow the knee and worship me if you want all the kingdoms of the earth?” Brothers and sisters, what do you and I already have? Jesus says that God has already been pleased to give us the kingdom. We have the King of Creation living in our hearts. We have the kingdom of heaven waiting for us. And until we get there we have opportunity after opportunity to hear and use the same Word of God that Jesus used to defeat the devil so that we can be reassured again and again that what he did, he did for us. That’s why we say, “Thank you Jesus. I will worship the Lord, my God, and serve him only.”
And so we do… Clearly it is not perfectly. That is one of the reasons we observe an Ash Wednesday. We know that we do not deserve Jesus to do what he did for us. But he did do what he did. And what he did, he did do for us. So, while “ashes to ashes” truly are not pleasant words to hear, what gives us joy and comfort and purpose is knowing that even though you and I truly are covered with ashes, by putting our trust in the one who truly is the Son of God, each of us can say, “ Since there are no ashes for Jesus, there really are no ashes for me.” And that’s what makes even Ash Wednesday a joyful day for God’s people. Amen.