Today, friends, we ponder our death, we ponder our mortality, we ponder our sin.
Perhaps some of you want to jump right to forgiveness, thinking that pondering our sin is legalistic, that thinking about death is depressing, that confessing our sin is hardly necessary.
I implore you, this morning, to consider that just as Christ was in the tomb for three days and was not resurrected instantly, and those who loved him wept for him, so also we take time to ponder our mortality, and don’t run to life instantly, we weep for it; we take time to ponder our sin, and don’t run to forgiveness instantly, we weep for it.
Most of us take the shortness of our life far too lightly. We seldom weep for the lost days we have wasted. Yesterday never comes again. And today will soon be gone.
Most of us take our sin far too lightly. We seldom weep for the losses we experience and inflict on others through our sin. Today’s the day that we weep for it.
For those who receive ashes today, the words spoken are, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a reminder of our mortality.
Throughout Scripture, we are reminded that our life is brief, a breath, a mist, a piece of grass. Something that’s here today, gone tomorrow. Do you think about that? Do you think about the short, short time you’ve been given here on this earth? Do you consider how you spend those days? Do you weep for the days you have lost or wasted?
The ashes themselves are a reminder of the shortness of the praise we offer to God. Palm Sunday commemorates a day of joyful praise, but that praise was short-lived because the same people shouted “Crucify him” just a few days later. It was those palms, that short praise that were burned to form the ashes that are on some of your heads. Do you think about how short your praise is to God? How quickly you turn to other things? Do you weep for it?
For many of us, we are reminded of our sin, yet so often, we turn away from pondering it. It is unpleasant to think about how what we did or what we chose not to do hurt ourselves and has lingering consequences in our lives. It is unpleasant to think of how what we did or what we chose not to do hurt someone we love, and has lingering consequences in our relationships.
Joel 2, one of the traditional readings for Ash Wednesday begins this way,
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand-a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come.
The Prophet Joel pictures the Day of the Lord coming, and rather than a day when all would feel good and Israel would be vindicated, it is a day to be feared. The coming of the Day of the Lord brings terror to the people because of their sin. How do they react? God calls them to return, which means to repent, and to weep for it.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing—grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the temple porch and the altar.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ “
When the Israelites saw the Day of the Lord coming, they returned to the Lord, repenting, calling a sacred assembly, returning in fasting, weeping, and mourning.
They chose to rend their hearts – to break their hearts, to weep between the temple porch and the altar. So also we do the today, Ash Wednesday, with many others in church around the world. We call a fast, we weep, we mourn, we rend our hearts, we break our hearts for our mortality and the wasters we have been, for our sin, and the sinners we have been. We weep for it.
In Charles Dickens’ classic, Tale of Two Cities Monsieur Manette has, in many ways, lost his life. He was arrested in the prime of his life, taken away from his wife and unborn child, and locked in the North Tower for almost twenty years.
White-haired, emaciated, and with blank eyes, he is released from his physical prison, but he is changed, having forgotten who he was. When asked his name, he slowly replies, “One hundred and five, north tower.” He sits on a shoemaker’s bench, working in the only way he knew to stay alive through those 20 prison years.
His daughter, having been told he was dead, has just learned that he is alive and free, “recalled to life,” but he is not alive, does not feel, and cannot respond. In their first meeting, his daughter’s hair, voice, and presence reminds him of his wife, who was alive when he was arrested, and it’s actually his daughter who recalls him to real life in her words,
“If you hear in my voice… if you hear in my voice any resemblance to the voice that once was sweet music in your ears, weep for it, weep for it!
If you touch, in touching my hair, anything that recalls a beloved head that lay on your breast when you were young and free, weep for it, weep for it!
If, when I hint to you of a Home that is before us. . . I bring the remembrance of a Home long desolate, while your poor heart pined away, weep for it, weep for it!
If, when I tell you, dearest dear, that your agony is over, and that I have come here to take you from it, and we go to England to be at peace and at rest, I cause you to think of your useful life laid waste, and of our native France so wicked to you, weep for it, weep for it!
And if when I shall tell you of my name, and of my father who is living, and of my mother who is dead. . . weep for it, weep for it! Weep for her, then, and for me!”
His daughter holds him and feels his great tears as he breaks down, and for the reader, it is clear that there is hope for this man, for he is weeping for his losses in those years.
You see, friends, only grief permits newness. You need newness.
Only tears bring us to redemption. You need redemption.
Today, as we ponder our mortality, our sin, my friends I implore you: weep for it!