2 Cor. 4.16-17 | by Steve Pressley
Aren’t you glad to be part of a colorful church? As we have all learned to appreciate, colors are significant throughout the Church Year. They speak of our reasons for celebrating the various events and seasons.
Tonight your ministers are wearing black. Come Sunday morning we will be wearing purple, the color that marks the season called Lent. Looking back upon that season that came just before Christmas—the season of Advent—you recall that we were wearing the color blue.
While blue is certainly different from black, it occurs to me that the moods that are suggested by the two seasons—Advent and Lent—are actually similar.
Last autumn we observed All Saints Day, with our regular parade of the names of those who had died during the year. Then a month later we entered a season described as “waiting in the darkness for light to appear.”
And that was Advent. Winter was approaching, and we were coming upon the shortest day of the year, which also meant the “longest night.” On that longest night we continued to experience the dim light of grief, and we thought about the way things and people go away from us in a world where there is sin.
All during Advent we were also looking for the hope and relief that would soon come in those familiar Bible words we read at Christmas, “Arise, shine, for your light has come.”
Tonight is not so different from All Saints Day, or that long night back in December. Then we had observed what we call the mortality of others, particularly of those members with whom we once walked in this church. They were persons whose passing had made difference among us. (If, as our Pastor says when someone joins our church, “we are more than we were,” then it must also be true that, when someone goes away from us, “we are less than we were.”)
What we declare this evening, by the receiving of the ashes upon our foreheads, is that someday this church will likewise be made less by our own passing. All Saints Day won’t always point only to some older, sicker, or more unfortunate others. That occasion will also—one day—refer to ourselves. And that is why tonight a minister will say to us, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
That is not happy news, is it? But it is the word that came to Adam and Eve, the first persons to live on the earth. Because they, in a single moment of disobedience in the Garden of Eden, were transported from their happy, carefree lives, to a hard life that would end in death.
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, said the Lord, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die. And die they did. And so have others who have followed. And so shall we.
Last autumn I was impressed, as always, by the reality that the holy city of Jerusalem is a sort of cemetery. All cities have their cemeteries, but most hide them away, in gardens and parks, and behind trees and shrubbery and decorative walls. And in those places, life goes on, while dying is largely ignored.
But not in Jerusalem. There it’s hard to look in any direction and not see an ancient cemetery, or a cliff-face dimpled with caves that are, or have been, used as tombs. Standing deep down in the Kidron Valley, where Jesus prayed that the Father might deliver him from the cup of suffering and death, one can gaze up the slope of the Mount of Olives and see a gigantic Jewish cemetery. Or turn the other way and behold the steep hill going up to the Golden Gate of the Temple Mount, on which lies a gigantic Muslim cemetery.
Over centuries and millennia, a host of people—all kinds of people—have lived in that ancient city. Yet ultimately all have died, as the many burial caves and cemeteries demonstrate. All have died, and for every practical purpose are gone, gone for good, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
All except One, that is. Tonight we will receive upon our foreheads not only some ashes, but also a sign. It will be the sign of the cross, which reminds us of the fact that the Lord Jesus actually died.
But there is another fact, and this one is confirmed by hundreds of people who saw him later on. That is the fact of something called resurrection. It is the miracle whereby the same Father who allowed his only begotten Son to suffer and die, would not allow him to stay dead; but would instead raise him on the third day.
(That sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Later on, in a city called Caesarea, the Apostle Paul would ask King Agrippa “Why is it thought incredible by any of you, that God raises the dead?”)
In rising from the dead, Jesus would begin a new chapter in the human story. It would be a happy ending to the unhappy story of our sinning and dying. In words from the New Testament, But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.
So once again tonight—much like last December—we find ourselves waiting. We wait in the darkness, as we admit that we are sinners—and that one day we shall die. Such waiting is helpful, for it gives us the chance to look inside our hearts, and take note of those wicked ways that are in us. And then to ask forgiveness, and to turn away from our sin.
But the really good news is that such waiting is only for a season. There comes that happy ending to our sad story. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son; that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
That is what you and I shall witness in these weeks ahead, these weeks called Lent. That is what we shall act out in our services and celebrations. And that is what it is that will complete the sequel—tell “the rest of the story”—for any who are willing to believe it, and receive it, and confess that it is right for us to take our place within that story.