On ashes, prophets, and the coming of Christ: A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Advent II, Year A

Isaiah 40:1-11; St. Mark 1:1-8

December 10, 2017

On ashes, prophets, and the coming of Christ

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Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.[1]

 

I remember my first Ash Wednesday as a priest.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience—but not for the reason you might think.  I told the staff at St. Benedict’s, my former parish, that I would take care of the ashes rather than ordering them from the Cathedral Bookstore.  I wanted to really “get into” Lent, get my hands dirty, literally.  Ah, beware of over-zealous clergy!

So, I went home and took my little Weber grill and filled it with the palm fronds from Palm Sunday that I had dutifully kept from the previous year.  I lit them on fire and poked them with a stick until all the ashes fell down to the bottom and cooled.

Next, I took those ashes, put them in a bowl and mixed in olive oil, thinking that this would be a marvelous step in the process.  I wonder why no one else does this?  It will start a trend.  The crosses will be so bold!

We were meeting for the Sunday Eucharist in a gymnasium, so I offered services in our office building for those who wanted to begin Lent with the imposition of Ashes on that Wednesday.  I was shocked when forty people showed up for the noon service and packed into the conference room.

I stood there as each person came forward for their cross of ash.  I dipped my finger in my beautiful bowl of ashes and made large, bold crosses on each person’s forehead, saying, with sincerity of heart, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  They looked spectacular!

Then, we went on with the service, sharing Holy Communion together before being dismissed into the world to begin the Lenten season.

I first noticed the smell soon after we all began sharing Communion.  It was pork.  Definitely pork.  See, I had forgotten to clean the grill first, and the pork fat from the tenderloin I had cooked a couple days before had mixed with the ashes.  I grimaced when I thought, well, that’s unfortunate.  They’ll smell like bacon all day.

After the service, I noticed the first person who took a tissue to wipe off the ashes.  She had a strange look on her face when nothing came off on the tissue.  Strange, I thought.

And it only spread from there.  It was honestly a feeling of panic.  Folks tried to help each other, over a dozen of them squeezing in and around the one small bathroom in the office, taking wet paper towels and soap to each other’s foreheads.

See, I had inadvertently made an oil-based paint that had dried permanent during the Eucharistic Prayer.

By the time that folks left, nearly every single person walked out with red foreheads rubbed raw from those awful brown, scratchy bathroom towels.  And, they smelled like pork. They had worked at it to scrape off any trace of the ash crosses before they headed back to work.

I own my part in placing large, black crosses of pork-scented oil paint on forty foreheads, but what hooks me is the image of all those folks standing around working in a panic to remove this visible symbol of our faith and our mortality before they went back out into corporate America to do their jobs.

All people are grass,

their constancy is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;

surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades;

but the word of our God will stand for ever.

 Perhaps you think it’s a bit odd that I allude to Ash Wednesday or that we hear the Prophet Isaiah offering images of withering grass when the rest of the world around us is singing “Joy to the World.”  As I keep saying, we Christians are a quirky bunch—or at least we should be.

Today’s readings on the Second Sunday of Advent call us to listen to the message of the prophets, a strange group of people like St. John the Baptizer, who have the audacity to call us to a new orientation of life—who tell us over and over that the way to salvation is through conversion, a change of heart, a change of being, that recognizes both our frail humanity and God’s dynamic grace.  Our dustiness and God’s gracefulness…

St. John the Baptizer was a conspicuous person, dressed in camel skin, “crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

The thing about John the Baptizer that is important to recognize is that he was sufficiently removed from the customs and assumptions of life that he could see the way we forget who we truly are.  He had that prophetic perspective that is essential—and so threatening.

We so easily slide into believing that we are the ones in control, that our agenda is the one that matters, and that we can accomplish what we want to—and should accomplish what we can.  While our ego is essential for us to have a basic executive function in life, when we begin to live by and through our ego mentality, we forget ourselves.  We forget who we are, or, we prefer to wipe away any reminder of who we truly are.  And, we need to be reminded that

All people are grass,

their constancy is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades;

but the word of our God will stand for ever.

We say this not to be pessimistic, not to beat ourselves up; rather, we say this to understand that we are dependent on God’s grace.

In this day and age, we need to “test the Spirits” as St. Paul describes, when we hear anyone claim a position based on Christian values—or when we dare to make that claim ourselves.  Christian values are grounded in the hope of God in Christ, and that hope is grounded in a proper understanding of what it means to be human.

Authentic hope is grounded in an awareness of our dependence on God, a yielding to God’s direction—not our own willfulness.

Authentic hope is anchored in a posture of humility—our honest human-ness—and must always resist the spirit of hubris that seeks to control, the spirit of pride that seeks to assert over and against another, and the spirit of arrogance that seeks to take advantage.

When I encounter a claim that is soaked in hubris, pride, and arrogance—whether in another or in my own heart—I know that such a claim is not of Christ.

In a day and age when some seem so determined to be the biggest and most spectacular, we are called to listen to the voice of eccentric prophets in camel hair who dare to claim—not their own pride of place—but that “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.”  Just let that phrase sink in for one moment, that someone in a position of power would dare to say that “someone more powerful than I” even exists!

The prophets teach us that, in order to watch for the coming of God in our world, to be able to catch a glimpse of grace, we must pay attention to our posture.  We must be mindful of our own dependence on God—and reject that impulse toward hubris, pride, and arrogance.  This posture “prepares the way of the Lord.”

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

All people are grass…

We start here.  Then, we arrive at a space of authentic hope, as we see in the psalm:

Mercy and truth have met together;

Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring up from the earth,

And righteousness shall look down from heaven.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, The Liturgy for Ash Wedneday, pg. 265.

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