If Jesus Paid It All, What’s With All the Ashes?

On Unnatural Death and Suffering the Last Flickers of Sin

This year’s Ash Wednesday sermon comes to us from Jason Micheli:

Whenever I do a wedding rehearsal, I like to quash the unhelpful romanticism of the moment by pointing out to the bridal party that the ancient Church stole the outline of the marriage service from the Roman ceremony for the transferal of property.

Who gives this bride away in marriage?

There’s a context and a background for everything.

For example, our liturgy tonight derives from a medieval worship service for the reconciliation of grave sinners, like torturers, rapists, and conquistadors. After the Church sent Christians to the Holy Land to sin, murder, and pillage, the Church used a liturgy just like this one to restore those sinners to full communion.

That’s the context and the background to what we do today, putting on the outside the truth that is inside and marking our foreheads with the wages of Sin.

“From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” the clergy will say, which is not a line from the Lion King song, “Circle of Life.” It’s not an observation about your mortality. It’s a recitation of God’s curse. In response to the Old Adam’s originating Sin in the Garden, God declares, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. You are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

There was no circle of life in God’s creative plans. Death is not natural. Death is a consequence.

But why do we persist in doing this year after year, marking one another with oil and ash, and intoning solemnly, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” when we believe the wages of Sin — all our sins — have been paid?

By virtue of your baptism, not one of you — no matter what you’ve done or left undone — is stuck holding onto an IOU.

As the theologian Gerhard Forde says, from the point of view of the Gospel, there really is not much wrong with you. When you think about what we mean by the Gospel, you’re not all that bad nor that bad off. Think about it. No matter how you measure up against the Commandments of Almighty God, Jesus Christ, by His own faithful life, has met the Law’s demands for you. By His death, He’s taken away the handwriting on the wall against you, as St. Paul says. And by His resurrection, He’s gifted to you His own permanent, perfect record.

And He has not only already dealt with you, dear sinner, but in Jesus Christ, God has defeated the Power of Sin, Death, and the Devil. Pharaoh no longer has any claim over you. Nothing — not hardship, not distress, not persecution, not famine or nakedness or peril or violence — can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. For you who are baptized into His suffering, death, and resurrection, there is now no more condemnation. When Christ comes again in His glory, He will return having already born your every sin in His body on the tree, for by the betrothal that is your baptism, everything that belonged to you (your sin) became His and everything that belonged to Him (his righteousness) became yours.

So, what’s with the sackcloth and ashes?

During his one and only lecture tour in the United States, a lay woman in the audience asked the theologian Karl Barth, “Professor Barth, will we see our loved ones in heaven?” And Barth flashed her his trademark, irascible smile and said, “Ja, not only your loved ones.”

That’s just it — by faith in the Son, all of us who fail in the Christian life will be welcomed into the Father’s arms. And it isn’t just that failures and sinners get in; it’s that by grace we get in just like that, as failures and sinners.

But if that’s the Gospel truth, exactly what are we doing here today? If the wages of sin have been paid, once for everybody, then why do we scratch them out on your forehead with a soot-colored cross?

Fleming Rutledge relates an interesting story in this vein about the author of The Lord of the Rings: “In Tolkien’s private letters, he explains that, to the end, Frodo was profoundly affected by the allure of the Ring. Long after the victory over the demonic power of Sauron, Frodo continued to suffer from ‘a last flicker of pride.’”

We’re all hobbits here today.

Though the Power of Sin has been defeated, once for all, we continue to suffer the last flickers of sin. And though our sin cannot determine God’s perception of us in Christ, our sin does determine our perception of God.

Just take the parable: The prodigal son goes off to a distant country, far off from his father, and goes on a binge. Only after he’s penniless and debauched does the prodigal son see himself for what he is, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

Hang on, where did the son get the idea that his father would ever treat his children like hired hands? For that matter, where did he ever get the idea that his father gave his children what they deserved?

Notice how the prodigal son’s sin alters his whole relationship with his father. His sin alters how he sees his father, and it alters how he imagines his father sees him.

Instead of seeing himself as his father’s beloved son, as one for whom his father has already symbolically died and would do so again and again and again, because of his sin the prodigal son sees himself as one who will get the wages he’s earned.

Instead of seeing his father as someone who loves without condition, he now sees his father as someone who surely will dole out to his children what they deserve.

Notice, and this is everything today, seeing his father as someone who doles out what his children deserve — that isn’t who his father is. The son’s sin has shaped his perception of the father.

Seeing his relationship with his father this way is what his sin has done, and just so you see it too, Luke repeats it twice. The prodigal son’s sin — it’s something that changes God into a wage master, into a judge, into a father who doles out what his children deserve.

You see, Sin turns our Father into a kind of Auditor in Heaven. Sin turns the gracious God into a kind of Satan, an accuser, weighing your sin to dole out the wages you deserve.

Your sin does not change God’s attitude about you — no, your sin has already been bought and paid for. What sin does is change your attitude about God. Sin blinds us, distorts our vision, gives us a hell’s eye view of God as a punitive paymaster, an angry judge, a kind of Satan.

God’s not angry at you because of your sin. Rather, because of your sin you see God as angry.

God does not and will not mete out what you deserve. Rather, because merit and demerit is the currency with which you pay others, you see God as a sin-auditing wage master.

There’s nothing you can do to make the Father love you more and there’s nothing you have done to make the Father love you less. Your sin doesn’t do anything to God, but it can distort how you see yourself. Like the prodigal son, your sin can so distort your vision that you don’t even recognize your own Father anymore.

That’s why we’re here today.

We begin the journey to the cross with the wages of our sin as a glad reminder that, at the end of the journey, the handwriting on the wall that rightfully condemned us has been blotted out once for all.

We who still suffer the last flickers of the Power of Sin, we need this reminder.

We need to rub the ash and the oil on our heads so that we who became blind can see once again that the God of Jesus Christ is just a Dad on a porch waiting for you to come home, no different now than when you left Him.

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2 responses to “If Jesus Paid It All, What’s With All the Ashes?”

  1. Joni says:

    I love this reminder so much. Thank you Jason for showing me the cross once again.

  2. Bill says:

    Loved this! Thank you!

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