Ashes To Life

Phil 3:17-4:1 Luke 13:31-35  Lent 2C

Well, believe it or not, it is already the second Sunday of Lent. This season has crept up on me this year and I think I am not alone in that. It has come quite early, since it is set by the date of Easter and that date changes every year. I have always thought that Lent was kind of odd. I grew up in a church that had little to no observation of it and did not think of it as an important thing until I was an adult. It is, in a way, kind of like Spring. Full of contradictions. One week we have temperatures in the 60’s and daffodils peeking up, the next we have snow and wintry mix threatening to freeze any budding leaves on the trees. Lent also has its share of uncomfortable places.

The 40 days of Lent are symbolic. There were 40 days and nights of rain for Noah and his family in the floating zoo, 40 years wandering in the wilderness for the children of Israel before they make it to milk and honey land, 40 days in the desert for Jesus culminating in the Devil vs. Savior temptation showdown, just to name a few examples. Symbolically, 40 is a number that means ‘as long as it takes’. It is kind of like when we say “that’ll take all day!” or “this just never ends!” Well, it might actually take all day, or whatever it is might never end, but ultimately it is a metaphor for “as much time as is needed” and it seems like a long time. So in truth we walk our Lenten journey of preparation not merely for 40 weekdays but rather for as long as it takes.

It all begins with Ash Wednesday. The ashes come from the palm fronds from Palm Sunday the year before. There is a great beauty to the ash crosses. Looking around and seeing the visible cross with which we were marked at baptism is beautiful and moving and knowing they came from last year’s palms reminds us that there is a Palm Sunday and a Resurrection day on the other side of this journey. And yet their gritty blackness are vivid reminders of sin, death, brokenness, destruction and the ultimate annihilation that the world would gleefully pronounce over us.

One of my favorite poems by T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, ends with these lines:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.

This melancholy poem written in 1925, speaks of a man’s helpless and hopeless view of the world after WWI, when humanity saw up close for the first time the human capacity for massive destruction and death. It is as if everything, the whole world, is marked with ash; as if war and evil have the last word. The ashes of war’s aftermath seem to speak the final pronouncement upon all creation: life obliterated.

One of my most vivid memories of Ash Wednesday is from a few years ago. I clearly remember marking the forehead of a little girl. Her face was so beautiful, like a picture of innocence from a movie, and she smiled up at me as I marked her with the ash. I spilled a little bit on her nose. She giggled. The deep, uncomfortableness of Lent filled my heart. As soon as she turned and sort of skip-walked back down the aisle, I wanted to pull her back, wipe away that black stuff and tell her I was wrong in what I said. I wanted to tell her it was just pretend. She wasn’t dust.

But I wasn’t wrong. We are all dust and to dust we will return. This is a reminder of our inescapable humanness. This is the way the world ends.

Or is it?

Those ashes speak to us of our destruction, but is that really the last word? In some ways, it would seem so. Death appears to have triumphed over life. And yet in that Lenten ash there is a tiny glimpse of something else. The ashes are made of death but we wear them in the shape of hope. This dark symbol of mortality is marked upon us in the shape of the cross, the very instrument by which we are freed from death’s seemingly unbreakable hold over us.

In our second lesson today we heard the words of Paul: “Jesus will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” The power of the ashes is transformed by the cross. Our brokenness and the broken world is transformed by Christ to glory; to life!

In our gospel lesson we can see both signs of our brokenness and hints of a future of hope. First on the scene in today’s story are those Pharisees. They have come to warn Jesus that Herod is out to kill him and that he should get out of town. How nice of these Pharisees to help Jesus out! What good Samaritans they are! Isn’t it thoughtful of them to warn Jesus that mean ole Herod is preparing to kill him?

Hmmmm. I think we should be a bit suspicious of these Pharisees! Since when have they been concerned for Jesus’ welfare? Their interaction with him has been, and will continue to be for some time, constant opposition. They try to trip him up with tricky legal puzzles, to question his healing on the Sabbath, and occasionally to accuse him of blasphemy. And, although we certainly shouldn’t assume Herod wouldn’t do some kind of harm to Jesus, so far in Luke’s gospel his only words about Jesus were about his desire to see him. This may be another plot to trick Jesus, to get him to make a mistake or perhaps to frighten him.

So does Jesus fall for it? No. Instead, he remains focused on his work; his purpose. Tell that sly fox, he says, today and tomorrow I am working. Casting out demons and healing the sick. And then, on the third day, my work is complete. Yep, I am on my way to Jerusalem because it unthinkable that a prophet would be killed, by Herod or anyone else, outside of that city. And then Jesus turns his attention to Jerusalem and he laments for those who live there. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” he says. “How I want to draw you to myself!” He uses such warm and nurturing words. “How often I have yearned to gather your children together around me as a hen gathers her young under her wings! But you wouldn’t have it that way.” And yet, Jesus still heads to Jerusalem; the place he knows he will be rejected. The place he knows he will be killed.

So who are the people of Jerusalem? Who are these little ones that Jesus so longs to care for, nurture and protect under his wings? Who are the citizens of this city that will stone and kill prophets sent to them?

In just a little bit we will sing a beautiful hymn about Jerusalem. ‘Jerusalem my happy home, would God I were in thee.’ This hymn calls to mind the heavenly city; a city of perfection where God will dwell among God’s people and his peace will fill everything. When we sing this hymn, we are reminded that, ultimately, we are the people of Jerusalem. It is our home because just as Paul says in our second lesson today our citizenship is in heaven. But it is not only this heavenly city to which we belong. We also belong to the here and now and this city, this Jerusalem of our Gospel. We are, in a manner of speaking, the people of Jerusalem who will kill Jesus. We are the people who reject him. And still, in spite of that, we are also the little ones that Jesus wants to draw to himself.

The Jerusalem of today is torn apart. It is perhaps the most contested and fought over piece of land in the world. There are constantly news reports of terrorism, murder, confusion and fear in this city whose very name contains the word for peace. Like so much of our world, it is filled with violence, division, anger, revenge and loss. Jerusalem is not the only place filled with such things. It is in our own lives, too. There is violence present even in this small city between strangers and even between family members. We need only to look to see divisions in our relationships, anger and the glorification of revenge that permeates our lives from entertainment to the news to our own back yard. There is loss, too; the loss of those we love, loss of health and memory, the loss of relationships or futures we thought we’d have. Jerusalem and our lives are filled with places that seem to have only ashes of loss. There are times when, along with T.S. Elliot, we all may feel like this is the way the world ends.

And yet it is to Jerusalem, it is to us and to our world that Jesus cries out. O how I long to draw you all to myself, he says. To cover you over and protect you as a mother hen protects her little ones. He calls to us in spite of all that brokenness and all that rejection that he will receive in Jerusalem, the rejection he receives today from the world. He knows our rejection and yet, he comes anyway. He knows how hopeless it looks, and he comes anyway. He knows that he journeys to certain death in Jerusalem but he comes anyway because he brings us certain hope.

Jesus says “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work.” This is a shortened version of Jesus’ itinerary on his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the tomb, and to death. He is casting out demons, defeating the evils of our world, and performing cures, healing the world. And on the third day his work is complete, literally meaning made perfect. It is on the third day that he transforms those ashes of the defeated world into the glory of resurrection, the glory of the empty cross and the empty tomb. It is on the third day that he transforms our humiliation, our loss, our sin, our death into hope and life.

The world gives us a crown of ashes and seeks continually to have us believe that is all there is. Yet through Jesus’ death and resurrection, a crown of ash becomes a cross of life. Through our being conformed to his crucified life in our baptism we are being transformed, our whole lives and through them the whole world, into this new resurrected life.

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