and The Earth Opens

Ash Wednesday Homily on Numbers 16 and Psalm 88

Psalm 103:1-2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

In the book of Numbers there’s a story about a man named Korah of the tribe of Levi who, with a couple of his Levite friends, gathered about 250 chiefs of the congregation of Israel and rose up against Moses challenging his authority and presence as Israel’s leader. Korah spoke to Moses, “‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num 16:3). The accusation from Korah dropped Moses to his knees, so the story goes. Moses saw the accusation from this son of Levi not as one against him but against God. And so, Moses tells Korah that God will tend to and deal with this situation in the morning. So, morning dawns. Moses instructs the bulk of the congregation of Israel to move away from Korah and his two friends. Once the majority of Israel is safe, Moses says to everyone,

‘This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.’

Numbers 16:28-30

Moses stopped talking. And then:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth will swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.

Numbers 16:31-35

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they returned.

In the Psalter, Psalm 88 picks up this story. Korah is remembered in Israel’s hymns; the psalmist giving voice to the one who dropped to the bottom of the pit when the earth opened up underneath his feet:

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?

Psalm 88:6-14

Psalm 88 has no happy and uplifting ending. The psalmist is not rescued from the pit and darkness is the only thing that accompanies them day and night. God seems absent and distant. And maybe even more than that, God appears to be gone. Not for lack of trying, the one stuck at the bottom of the pit cries out day and night, pleading with an entity that might have left them there to rot. Here enclosed in walls of dirt they suffer, here in the dust they are in agony, and here in the darkness they cry out and….silence.

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they are returned.

These are the mournful, sorrowful, anxious filled, agonizing, words of Ash Wednesday. Today is our reckoning with God—each of us embarks on our own journey into divine encounter. Today we each come into close proximity with the divine and the holy and are exposed as stuck and sick. Today we each recall how fragile our lives are—vulnerable to virus and infection, to breaks and fractures, to mental breakdown and heartbreak. Today we each are reminded of how often we have failed ourselves and others, broken promises, played the charlatan with her act together, opted for self-gain over self-gift. Today we each clearly hear all the voices and see the faces we turned deaf ears and blind eyes toward as they asked for help, for acknowledgment, for dignity. Today we each are brought to our knees in our humanity remembering that our time here is finite. Today we each collide with the ruse of free will and autonomy. Today the ground opens underneath us and swallows each of us. Today we each drop all the way down to the bottom of the pit, landing on hard ground and are consumed by darkness. Today we each echo the psalmist, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (Ps 88:18).

There is no way to bypass Ash Wednesday and proceed straight to Easter. For those of us sitting here in 2021, the new life of Easter is hinged on our encounter with God in the event of faith that is the death of Ash Wednesday. We must each walk this long and arduous path of self-reckoning and self-exposure spanning the time from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. I cannot protect you from it; in fact, I must lead you into it. Today they weight of my stole feels more like the heavy of a millstone than the light of fabric; today I anoint you not with oil but with ashes and dirt.

From dirt you were taken and to dirt you will return.

Don’t lose heart, beloved; hold tight to the mercy of God. There is no end of the earth so far, no pit so deep, no darkness so dark, no dirt and dust so thick where you, the beloved, are out of the reach of the love and mercy of God, from where God cannot call you back unto God. Not even death itself can separate you from love and mercy of God.

He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
He satisfies you with good things,
and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

Psalm 103:3-5

Even From Dust

Ash Wednesday (Sermon)

I have a confession: I don’t like Ash Wednesday. Now, some of you may be shocked to hear this. Some of you may not be shocked. And some of you may even (secretly) agree with me. But, nonetheless, I don’t like Ash Wednesday. So, when I was told I was preaching Ash Wednesday, I smiled and said “yayyy.” But on the inside, I cried just a little bit.

You see, Ash Wednesday puts a hard stop to the festivities that culminated in yesterday and last night (the final night of) Mardi Gras. Ash Wednesday throws open the door to a season of some sort of self-denial and fasting that is the season of Lent. None of us really like days that end our celebration and start us about our task of taking life seriously. Ash Wednesday, in some respect, is the Monday of all Mondays in the liturgical calendar. And who really likes a Monday?

But it’s not only the Monday-esque vibe that Ash Wednesday brings to our liturgical life and calendar that I don’t like. It’s not the inauguration into season of self-denial and fasting of Lent that I don’t like. It’s the part that constitutes and substantiates the inauguration of Lent that I don’t like. And it’s that very part that we love to forget to talk about as we transition from celebration to fasting. Dialogue surrounding Ash Wednesday moves swiftly and deftly from what I did last night and all the fun I had to, “Yes, I’m giving up _____” for Lent. But something else needs to happen before I so smoothly move from Mardi Gras to Lent and that is the form and substance of Ash Wednesday; I must be forced to reckon with myself as I am and not as I portray myself to be.

Ash Wednesday is less like an average Monday and more like that one Monday where it was already bad and then you got pulled over and instead of the Police Officer handing you a ticket, she handed you a stack, a ticket for every infraction you’ve ever committed known and unknown to you.

Ash Wednesday is not a day of celebration; Ash Wednesday is the 4th step of the 12 Step Program for Sinners.[1] It is a day for us to take a fearless and ruthless moral inventory of ourselves that results in our throwing ourselves prostrate on the ground crying out, “Lord, Have Mercy! Have Mercy on us!” And knowing that our lives, our very lives are fully and completely dependent on that divine word of “Mercy.” It’s a day to wake up to the dire reality that apart from God’s mercy, we are only dust.

I don’t like Ash Wednesday because I’m the one that has to bring you to that place with my words. Rather than using my priestly office to bring you hope and comfort and to bless you and bring you life, I have to use it in a way that reminds you of the curse of sin, and that the wage therein is death. I have to anoint you not with oil, but with ash. I have to remind you that you are dust and that, as it stands now, to dust you will return.

We are dust because we have failed. And this failure is nothing to gloss-over as we are wont to do. This failure surely pulverizes us to dust because this failure encompasses our activities and the orientations of our heart and mind. We are fully incriminated: body, mind, and soul. We have not acted the way we ought to act, we have not spoken the way we ought to have spoken, we have not thought the way we ought to have thought, and we have not loved as we ought to have loved. We have failed to uphold God’s good and righteous law. What I mean by failure to uphold God’s law is our failure to live according to this:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

And, failure to uphold this:

“…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:18b)

There’s no escaping what feels like (and is) the crushing weight of condemnation of Ash Wednesday and it’s demand to self-reflection and fearless and ruthless moral inventory. You can’t side-step this event. Today you will be bombarded by the words of the liturgy and of the prayers. Today the voices of the prophets of Israel ring in our ears anew:

“The faithful have disappeared from the land,
and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and they hunt each other with nets.
Their hands are skilled to do evil;
the official and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the powerful dictate what they desire;
thus they pervert justice.” (Micah 7:2-3)

“Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1-2)

“Gather together, gather,
O shameless nation,
before you are driven away
like the drifting chaff,
before there comes upon you
the fierce anger of the Lord,
before there comes upon you
the day of the Lord’s wrath.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you may be hidden
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (Zephaniah 2:1-3)

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

You have failed. You have failed God and you have failed your neighbor; you have failed God because you have failed your neighbor. The homeless go unsheltered. The hungry go unfed. The marginalized and oppressed continue in their bondage and slavery. Let this active word of God spoken through the prophets present itself to you not as mere historical fiction spoken to others of long ago, but as a very present reality in its veracity. Let this word of God touch you: let it break your heart, let it trouble your conscience, let it be the encounter with the divine that strips you of “…all agreeable self-deceptions…” and causes you to face the truth of your failure: you are people of unclean lips in the midst of people of unclean lips (Is. 6ff).[2]

And not only are you incriminated in this verdict of guilty, but I, too, am convicted and condemned. I’ve remained silent when a voice was needed; I’ve intentionally stepped back and hidden from the call to step up and act. I have professed love of God and then turned a blind eye to the turmoil, oppression, and suffering of my neighbor. I have not fed the hungry, housed the homeless, or clothed the naked. For this I am guilty and judgment comes; judgment comes from God and I am guilty. The encounter with God in the words of the prophets burns and I am rent to dust.

From dust we were taken and to dust we shall return.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:8-14).

There is hope yet still and this I must proclaim alongside judgment lest our hearts grow too weary to beat and our mind too burdened to conceive of hope and our bodies too feeble to make it to our feet. “For he knows how we were made,” writes the Psalmist. “[H]e remembers that we are dust.” Our God is a God “whose property is always have mercy,”[3] to have mercy especially when and where all hope seems lost.

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18).

Paul exhorts us in the place of Christ and with an urgent entreaty in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, “…on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” [4] God’s justice is not retributive; it is merciful and reconciliatory and thus restorative. Being rent to dust by the heat of judgment of the divine words of the oracles of the prophets and the law may seem like the final nail in the coffin, but with our God it’s just the beginning.

In the beginning God created out of nothing, and out of nothing God will create a new beginning. There is hope in the creative and long-suffering mercy of God.

We throw ourselves in our manifold convictions and guilt and failure at the feet of a God who is merciful—not “maybe will be,” “might be,” or “could be,” but is merciful. We throw ourselves down at the feet of a God who has reconciled and restored us to himself in his mercy through the sending of his son out of self-sacrificial love for us.[5] This is the God we come into contact with in Christ, the God by whom we are touched in the words of proclamation of Christ and yet we live because of God’s mercy and reconciling us to himself.[6] This is the God we encounter in Ash Wednesday.

We live in this encounter because there’s an exchange[7] occurring between Christ, and us as Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). We live because Christ willingly and voluntarily and lovingly resolves to head to Jerusalem to die and to be raised up (Mark 8:31).[8] We live because God is so merciful that God will bear in God’s own self (freely intervening by his own being from both sides)[9] on the cross our sin and become so indistinguishable from that sin.[10] We live because the sin bearing sinless Christ—who knew no sin in any way, shape, or form–dies and in his death so to goes the death of our death, so to goes the dust of our dust. And from the dust of death: life.[11] Our lives are given back to us because God is merciful to take our affairs in this world so personally that he makes himself responsible and burdens himself with our failure and guilt and evil ways;[12] That is the extent and power of God’s love for us; that is mercy and this is our merciful God: the God who in “[Christ] is the [one] who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.” [13]

Speaking about Isaiah’s encounter with the divine in Isaiah chapter 6, which applies here to our situation in Ash Wednesday, Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

“A miracle happens, the miracle of all miracles, that this impure being, impure in the midst of the pure creation, that this intolerable being is permitted to live. The annihilating encounter with God becomes for him a life-giving encounter. Without his co-operation, entirely on the initiative of this other power that ought to have meant his death, that which must be death for him is turned into new life; the miracle of forgiveness. He who can no longer purify himself is purified…Death is taken away, the death which I bear in myself because of my contradiction, my impurity is covered by the encircling life-giving love to him who was the prey of death.”[14]

From dust we were taken and to dust we should return; but our God is a merciful God and there is life even out of dust and ash.

[1] “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

[2] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981. “The bible in fact believes that things would be just the same with everyone one of us, as it was with this man Isaiah, confronted with the final truth, with the divine life which fills the creation, everyone of us is stripped of and must acknowledge himself as the dark blot in the creation, that must be removed in order for the creation to join with clear and pure voice in the great joyful hymn of praise of the angles. That is for us the intolerable truth, which we try to disguise from ourselves with all kinds of inventions, a truth which we face when the word of God touches us.” 41. (cf Is. 6)

[3] BCP Prayer of Humble Access

[4] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 447. “But here neither verb denotes a dispassionate and detached request but rather an impassioned and urgent entreaty. The second us of υπερ Χριστου links the δεησις with the ambassadorship: whether performing the general role of envoys (πρεσβευομεν) or issuing a specific entreaty (δεομεθα), Paul and his colleagues were acting υπερ Χριστου, “for Christ,” on his behalf and in his stead. Moreover, this repeated prepositional phrase suggest that the principal role of Christ’s ambassadors is issuing the evangelistic treaty to be reconciled to God.”

[5] Ibid, 447. “The aorist imperative passive form καταλλαγητε is unlikely to be a reflexive passive, ‘reconcile yourselves (to God),’ whatever allowance be made for synergism (Cf. 6:1-2), because whenever this verb is applied to the atonement, God, and only God is the reconciler (see above v. 18). While it is possible that this passive is permissive, ‘let yourselves be reconciled (to God),’ it is more probably a true passive, ‘be reconciled,’ or, to bring out the ingressive sense of this aorist, ‘get reconciled,’ with God as the implied agent.”

[6] Ibid, 449. “In the divine economy, the declaration of ‘the message of reconciliation’ (v.19), or, in other words, the preaching of the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:18, 23) with the attendant entreaty to be reconciled to God, is the link between the objective work of reconciliation accomplished by Christ and the subjective appropriation of its benefits by the sinner. Paul saw himself and everyone who proclaimed reconciliation in Christ as trustees of a message (v. 19), ambassadors for Christ, and mouthpieces for God (v.20).”

[7] Karl Barth CD I.2.156. “…in the likeness of flesh (unholy flesh, marked by sin), there happens the unlike, the new and helpful thing, that sin is condemned by not being committed, by being omitted, by full obedience now being found in the very place where otherwise sin necessarily and irresistibly takes place. The meaning of the incarnation is that now in the flesh that is not done which all flesh does…[(5.21)]…does not mean that He made Him a man who also sins again—what could that signify ‘for us’?—but that He put Him in the position of a sinner by way of exchange (καταλλασσων, in the sense of the Old Testament sin-offering).”

[8] Harris, 2 Corinthians, 451. “Although ποιειν can mean ‘make something into something (else),’ the meaning here is not ‘God made the sinless one into sin’ … but ‘God caused the sinless one to be sin,’ where ποιειν denotes causation or appointment and points to the divien intiiative. But we should not forget that matching the Father’s set purpose to deliver Christ up to deal with sin (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:32) was Christ’s own firm reolsition to go to Jerusualem to suffer (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:51). Jesus was not an unwillling or surprised participant in God’s action.»

[9] Karl Barth CD II.1.397. “This sending means a self-offering grounded in the free will of the Father and the Son in fulfillment of the divine love turned towards the cosmos and the world of man. But it is the case that God in this offering or sending of His Son, and the Son Himself in accepting this mission and allowing Himself to be sacrificed, has exposed Himself to an imposition. In His love God has been hard upon Himself, exacting a supreme and final demand…in a self-emptying, in a complete resignation not of the essence but of the form of His Godhead, He took upon Himself our own human form—the form of a servant, in complete likeness to other men…allowing himself to be found in fashion as a man…Like all men He was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). But what does it mean to take the place of man, to be Himself a man, to be born of a woman? It means from Him, too, God’s Son, God Himself, that He came under the Law…that He stepped into the heart of the inevitable conflict between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of man. He took this conflict into is own being. He bore it in Himself to the bitter end. He took part in it from both sides. He endured it from both sides. He was not only the God who is offended by man. He was also the man whom God threatens with death, who falls a victim to death in face of God’s judgment. If he really entered into solidarity with us—and that is just what He did do!—it meant necessarily that He took upon Himself, in likeness to us…the ‘flesh of sin’ (Rom. 8:3). He shared in the status, constitution and situation of man in which man resists God and cannot stand before Him but must die.”

[10] Harris, Second Corinthians, 454. “We conclude that in v.21a Paul is not saying that at the crucifixion the sinless Christ became in some sense a sinner, yet he is affirming more than that Christ became a sin offering or even a sin bearer. In a sense beyond human comprehension, God treated Christ as ‘sin,’ aligning him so totally with sin and its dire consequences that from God’s viewpoint he became indistinguishable from sin itself.”

[11] Ibid, 455. “So γινομαι may be given its most common meaning (‘become,’ ‘be’) and points to the change of status that accrues to believers who are ‘in Christ’ and that is the ground of the ‘new creation’ (v.17). ‘To become the righteousness of God’ is to gain a right standing before God that God himself bestows (cf. Rom. 5:17; Phil. 3:9). It is to be ‘constituted righteous’ in the divine court…As a result of God’s imputing to Christ something that was extrinsic to him, namely sin, believers have something imputed to them that was extrinsic to them, namely righteousness.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “But the great and inconceivable thing is that He acts as Judge in our place by taking upon Himself, by accepting responsibility for that which we do in this place. He ‘who knew no sin’ (2 or. 5:21)…gives Himself…to the fellowship of those who are guilty of all these things, and not only that, but He makes their evil case His own. He is above this fellowship and confronts it and judges it and condemns it in that He takes it upon Himself to be the bearer and Representative, to be responsible for this case, to expose Himself to the accusation and sentence which must inevitably come upon us in this case. He as One can represent all and make Himself responsible for the sis of all because He is very man in our midst, one of us, but as one of us He is also very God and therefore He exercises and reveals amongst us the almighty righteousness of God. He can conduct the case of God against us in such a way that He takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and compromising and burdening Himself with it.”

[13] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “It is no longer our affair to prosecute and represent this case. The right and possibility of doing so has been denied and taken away from us. What He in divine omnipotence did amongst us as one of us prevents us from being our own judges, from even wanting to be, from making that senseless attempt on the divine prerogative, from sinning in that way and making ourselves guilty. TIN that He was and is for us that end is closed, and so is the evil way to that end. He is the man who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.”

[14] Gollwitzer Way to Life 41.