There’s an “old story about a people who believed the entire world rested on the back of a turtle. So a little boy asked his mother what the turtle was resting on. “Another turtle,” she replied. “And what about that turtle” the boy pressed on. Finally the mother says, “Honey, it’s just turtles all the way down.”1
We are a people who believe the entire world rests on the very hands of God, our God who created all things, visible and invisible, without whom nothing that was made was made. Moses gives us a glimpse of how we were made, fashioned by those same hands of God from the dust of the earth. Did it all happen exactly the way Moses set it down in Genesis? I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but the way Moses wrote it down is the way God conceived of it happening, and that’s good enough for me.
So Moses tells us that the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground. You might see a theme developing here.
It was just this past Wednesday that many of you were marked with dust, with the burnt remains of what was once a blessed palm, the very symbol of shouting hosannas to our God. Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. Dust , or really ashes, “were used in ancient times to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one’s penitence is found in Job 42:3–6. Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God this way: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes”. Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes”.2
During the time of early Church Father Tertullian (3rd Century), ashes and sackcloths were used as severe penance due to grave sin.”3 700 years later, notorious but penitent sinners would come on the first day of Lent to be imposed with ashes as a sign of their repentance, and because all of us are, in our own way, notorious sinners, it didn’t take long, a few generations, for all Christians to come to church on the first day of Lent to be imposed.
A thousand years later, here we are, our foreheads free of Wednesday’s dust, but still easing into this season of Lent. Just before the imposition of those ashes on Wednesday, I invited you to something, which sounds more exciting perhaps than it was, as I was inviting you all to the observance of a holy Lent. I invited you all to take the next 40 days or so and examine yourselves, to repent of your sins; I invited you to mark this Lenten season with prayer, with fasting, and with self-denial. In other words, I invited you to get your ashes and go to war – not physical war like the Maccabees fought – but spiritual war, war against the devil, war against the things we all do and think that we hope never see the light of day.
The good news here is that it really isn’t just turtles all the way down, nor is it all just dust to dust. The good news is that after God formed us from the dust, He then breathed into us the breath of life, so that our lives would be forever tangled up in the life of God. That same first man screwed it up a bit (didn’t he?!), and so that same life of God visited us in the flesh, becoming the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. You might see a theme developing here: that cross that was smudged on your forehead on Wednesday is the same cross traced on your head in your baptism; it’s the same cross that served as the altar our Lord was sacrificed upon, and it’s the same cross that we proclaim as the means of everlasting life. And so, as a fellow repentant sinner, I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week
2Ash Wednesday, Wikipedia