Christians deal in what's real. Real dirt. A real death. Real rot and decay. There's nothing anyone can do about that. Medicine can’t save us. Good works can’t save us. Nothing and no one can save us from God's furious anger and judgment of sin. As the Lord says, "You are dust, and to the dust you shall return,“ or, more literally translated, "You're dirt, and you're going back to the dirt” (Gen. 3:19).
All the proof we need is looking back at us from the mirror. See the creases. See the lines. See the gray hair. See death at work in each of us. This is what it means to look into the mirror of the Law. We not only see our physical reflection, we see the false god who wears our face. We see the murderous thoughts between our ears. We see the lies that crouch on our tongue. We see the hatred that smolders in our eyes. We can see all this reflected at us in the mirror of God's Law. And nothing we do to tear ourselves away from that reflected truth helps. That's why God says, "Tear apart your heart, not your clothes" (Joel 2:13).
What sin does to us does tear us apart. Sin tears us away from God. Sin tears us away from each other. Sin destroys our home, relationships, and life. Sin turns us inward on ourselves. Sin isolates us in our self-centeredness. It cages us in a self-built prison of false belief and anger and lies. Sin grinds us down and tortures us to death.
We face death all day long. We know it. We feel it. We almost don’t need to be told it. That's why, the last thing we need is more reminders that "You're dirt, and you're going back to the dirt.”
But that doesn’t mean we give up and quit living. We don’t let our life go to hell. The Christian life is a disciplined life. That’s why Christians observe Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is a time of self-discipline. But, before we get too excited about that, Jesus had a few things to say about public displays of self-discipline, or "piety" as it's often called – prayer, giving money to the poor, and fasting. You've read and heard His words: “Don't do these things to be seen by men. Instead, do them in secret before your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:16-21)
When we pray, Jesus says, don’t babble like those who don't know God as Father. We're instructed not to parade our piety like the religious leaders who love to be seen being religious. Instead, we're told to go to our room and pray in secret to our heavenly Father. When we give money to the poor, don’t make a big show of it. We're not supposed to trumpet our generosity all over the neighborhood. We're not even supposed to let our left hand keep a record of what our right hand is doing.
When we fast, Jesus says, we are to wash our face. Comb our hair. Don’t let anyone know what we are doing. This is between each person and their heavenly Father. Most important though, all this disciplined living is to be done in freedom. We don't do these things because they're forced on us or we're commanded to do them to get right with God. As a friend once said to me, the way of Christian discipline is the way of children who play at their Father's feet.
All this disciplined living is to be done in freedom.
Then, when anyone asks, "Why do you do these things," we can say, “Because I'm free. I’ve been washed by the blood and water of Jesus’ death for me. I'm a baptized child of God. I may be dirt, and I know I'm going back to being dirt, but dirt that's embraced in the death and power of Jesus' resurrection!”
That’s what Ash Wednesday is about. That's what Lent is about. Jesus does what is impossible for us to get done. He goes to die our death in our place on our cross. And for all that, we get baptized in His Name. We get repented by His Word. We get watered by His Spirit and Word. We get faithed by His Gospel. We get forgiven in His Name.
That’s what Ash Wednesday is about. That’s what Lent is about. Jesus does what is impossible for us to get done.
We get real, God-spoken forgiveness. We receive real life in the power of Jesus' resurrection. We're gifted with concrete, real hope of eternal salvation. This is the reality of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the whole of the Christian life.