Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2024

Posted on February 15, 2024, Pastor: Pastor Lara Forbes

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February 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday

Mark 9:30-37

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Sermon Text:

Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Although Ash Wednesday isn’t a holy day that’s commanded by the Bible, it has been honored by Christians for more than ten centuries. In the earliest centuries, Christians who’d been stuck in persistent sin – I’m not sure how that was defined – had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of repentance. But beginning in about the tenth century, all believers began to show their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross.

As these ashes make visible the sign of the cross we received in our baptism, they’re a clear reminder of our life with God, and that we’re connected to one another. They remind us of how fragile each of our lives are, and also how precious and loved by God we each are.

Jesus gets to the heart of that in our reading for today.

After the Transfiguration, and after casting out another demon, Jesus is again teaching the disciples about his own suffering and death. And the disciples, again, aren’t getting it. Only this time, they’re too afraid to ask him about it.

So, they continue on their journey to Capernaum. And on their way, the disciples argue about who’s the greatest – not just who’s the greatest among themselves, but in their society. And it’s a silly argument, but it also reflects the culture around them. So, there’s tension between what they’re talking about and what Jesus had been teaching them.

And the question of who’s the greatest is one that we ask a lot, too. Coming off the Super Bowl – who’s the MVP? Who’s the GOAT? And OMG – Taylor Swift! But the question of who’s the greatest is one that we ask particularly when we’re more aware of death – either our own mortality or because of the death of a loved one. When our awareness of death is heightened, life can feel scary.

And in our fear, we want to know that we have a place in a structured world and that our life has some purpose. It helps us feel safe and protected. So, it’s completely understandable that that’s what the disciples talked about instead of asking Jesus why he was telling them again about his own suffering and death.

And so, what Jesus does is use the language of structure and hierarchy because it’s something they could understand. He met them where they were and said, “Okay – if that’s what you want, this is how you do it.”

And as he did that, Jesus also talked about what he was doing. That he was the servant of everyone. That that’s how he leads. And for Jesus, serving means teaching, healing, and ministering – and also suffering and dying.

Ultimately, he ends up flipping the hierarchy and gives the disciples a concrete idea to work with. When Jesus puts the child among them, he effectively says, “To become great, this is what you do right now.” And it’s an action of embrace.

In modern U.S. culture, we tend to glorify childhood and talk about how wonderful it is to be a kid. But the reality of childhood in the ancient world was that many children died. So, the full acceptance of a child into the family came when they’d survived to near adulthood.

And with that in mind, to say that greatness is embodied in the fragility of a child is a profound illustration of the teaching that Jesus had just offered. To say that the greatness of the Son of Humanity is in his death and in his laying his life down in a society that is so tenuous – it’s something that we might miss when we think about what it means to be a child in a healthy environment today.

But that fragility, that tenuousness, is what Jesus asks us to embrace. He asks us to serve and welcome others who aren’t able to help us or repay us in some way, and to not worry about what it means for our own status in the world – but instead for who we are in relation to Jesus.

That is how we respond to death and mortality. And we’re able to respond in this way because we know that, in Jesus, death doesn’t have the final word.

We don’t often face the reality of death in the way that was done in the ancient world. The way our culture is set up, we’re able to distance ourselves from it and, to a certain degree, even ignore it. So, we often don’t sufficiently acknowledge it. But on this day, we’re reminded of our own mortality and the mortality of those we love.

The church, especially on Ash Wednesday, is one of the few places we can acknowledge the reality of death in our world. It’s the place where we can acknowledge that we are all dust, and hold that together with knowing we also all have value because we are God’s beloved.

It doesn’t matter what our status is in the world. What matters is how we embrace the fragility of life, and how we serve others within that embrace. It’s through those actions that we deny the reality of the hierarchy our society has created, and instead create a community where everyone is together on the same level.

And there’s tremendous safety and protection in that.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return. But that’s not the final word. In Jesus, death does not have the final word. Life does. And the life we have in Jesus connects us to one another and assures us of our place with God. It’s a place of love, and it’s a place that’s secure.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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