Ashes are what is left after all that is useful is burned away. After the fire has consumed all that was worth consuming, it leaves the ashes. Ashes are the useless byproduct of disaster. Even the fire refuses these.
To our Ash Wednesday service I brought some ashes that I collected from our fireplace in our home. After the fire has gone out, there are the ashes that remain. These hold no value for me. No matter how many of these ashes that I collect, I could never heat our home with them. They are worthless to me.
Today we as a church are observing Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lent season in the church calendar. The Lent season is the time during the year that commemorates the forty days of fasting in the wilderness that Jesus accomplished before he endured the temptation of Satan.
The commemoration of Ash Wednesday and even the commemoration of Lent is not something that God has instructed us to do, but is purely a church tradition. Thus, like all human traditions, we need to be a little careful what meaning we put into it. If we are holding this service and observing Ash Wednesday out of some sense of duty or to fulfill a requirement, or simply because we have always done it, we are missing the point.
However, if we use these moments together to truly reflect on our relationship with God and with our fellow man, then our observance of Ash Wednesday and of the entire Lent season will be very meaningful.
I would like to give you two things pertaining to the image of the ashes to think about during this season of Lent.
Ashes Can Symbolize Humility
First of all, ashes should remind us of our own humble composition. The Old Testament patriarch Abraham, confessed that he was merely “dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). Also the man Job, the man of ancient days, although he was one who esteemed God highly and was himself very wealthy, was also one whom God allowed to become extremely low in life so that Job would realize that his life was actually one of dust and ashes (Job 30:19). Indeed, Job was brought so low in life that at one point he was reduced to sitting in an ash heap, and with a piece of broken pottery, scraping the boils that covered his body.
Job was learning a lesson that we all must learn. God caused the case of Job to be so severe and also preserved the story of Job in order that it would be instructive to all of us throughout history. The lesson in this is the truth that despite all of the outward glitz and glitter of the riches of this world, in the end all of these are but dust and ashes.
It is what the Apostle John also teaches us when he says,
“Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions.
These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.” (1 John 2:15-17 NLT)
This also became the confession of Job when he said to God,
“I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted… Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6 NAS).
The Old Testament prophet Daniel had similar words when considered the sins of his people. He writes the following:
So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed and said, “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances… Righteousness belongs to You, O Lord, but to us open shame.” (Daniel 9:3-7a)
These examples serve as the first aspect of ashes that I am asking you to think about on this Ash Wednesday. Ashes remind us both of the shallow and the passing value of the things of the world. Whatever the riches that we achieve, all of the great life works and the goals that we reach in our lives – all of these amount to nothing more than a pile of ashes.
That is what these men demonstrated to us when they sat in their piles of ashes and pleaded with the Lord. The realized that they themselves were but dust and ashes. These are the first things that we also must realize.
The Ashes Can Symbolize Redemption
But there is something else about ashes that I would ask you to think about as you come forward to receive our communion and have the ashes placed on your forehead in the sign of a cross. This second aspect is something that was expressed by one of our Old Testament matriarchs – the woman Hannah.
Hannah was a woman brought so low by the circumstances of her life, that in her great distress, she wept with such great sorrow as she prayed to the Lord, and with such agony, that the priest who saw her thought that she must be drunk with wine. He reprimanded her for this.
But Hannah answered him, “No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the Lord. Do not consider your maidservant as a worthless woman, for I have spoken until now out of my great concern and provocation” (I Samuel 2:15-16 NAS).
Without going into the details of Hannah’s story and how the Lord answered her plea to him and lifted her out of her despair, in the end Hannah chose to express her gratitude in the form of a song of thanksgiving to God for all that he did for her. Part of the song reads much like Job’s own confession after the Lord restored him from out of his own lowly situation.
Hannah sang this:
My heart exults in the Lord; My horn is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation.
“There is no one holy like the Lord. Indeed, there is no one besides You.
Nor is there any rock like our God.
“Boast no more so very proudly. Do not let arrogance come out of your mouth; For the Lord is a God of knowledge, and with Him actions are weighed.
The Lord makes poor and rich. He brings low, He also exalts.
“He raises the poor from the dust.
He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with nobles, and inherit a seat of honor;
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and He set the world on them. (1 Samuel 2:1-3; 7-8 NAS)
So powerful was the example of Hannah and what she sang, that the song writer in the book of Psalms makes reference to her experience and repeats her words. He writes:
Who is like the Lord our God who is enthroned on high?
Who humbles Himself to behold the things that are in heaven and in the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes, with the princes of His people.
He makes the barren woman abide in the house as a joyful mother of children.
Praise the LORD! (Psalm 113:5-9 NAS)
On this Ash Wednesday, remember these two things:
The first is that you are but dust and you are but ashes. Despite the positive image of yourself that you wish to present to others and even despite what you tell yourself, you bring nothing that is of eternal value to your relationship to God. All of us are but ashes. We are dust and we are ashes.
That was the first thing. Here again is the second:
God is able to lift you up out of the ash heap. If you come to him in all humility and without any false pride, he will lift you up and make you to sit in seats of honor. The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord, and you will be seated among them.
The confession of Job can also be your confession. In the words of Job:
The Lord knows the way I take, and when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.
My foot has held fast to his path, I have kept His way and not turned aside.
I have not departed from the command of His lips.
I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food. (Job 23:10-12 NAS)