It was January, 1985. I was among a group of seminary students who were farther along in their studies than me. I was able to take this little “January-Course” (or “J Course” as it was called) because, unlike other first-year students, I had already studied Greek. This J-Term class was about “religion and drama.” We studied secular plays that had religious meanings during the day, while at night we were practicing and later putting on the play “The Sign of Jonah,” written by the German Pastor Gunter Rutenborn. The director for our play was a local judge from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where our seminary was located.
Before that judge showed up, we students shared our thoughts of the play, now that we had read it. It was about German sailor named Jonah, who, like the Jonah in the Bible, had soured on the ways of God. He told everyone that, here in 1960, the whole German people were depressed over what had happened in World War Two. What was God’s role in allowing Nazism and those horrible things that happened during and right after the war? Then in the play a trial occurs, with a judge character. Eventually the characters in the play all turn on this judge character who, as it turns out, is God. At the end of a lot of arguing, the judge comes down from his bench, takes off his robe and allows himself to be sentenced to punishment for all that happened. The punishment? To spend a lifetime on earth as a man – a man who suffers a lot and later dies alone and rejected. By the end of the play the audience realizes that time has shifted, and God has come to earth to live and die as Jesus.
Before we started rehearsing, a few weeks before the show, the real-life judge, our director, told us he had written a new ending in which God is not found guilty and is not punished by becoming Jesus. We disagreed with him – not because the play was right and the Scriptures were wrong – it was not, indeed, a punishment for God to become Jesus – but because we wanted the FEELING behind the author of this play’s sentiment to flow, just as the author intended. For there ARE times when we humans, in our pain and weakness, cry out to God, “Why did you allow this or that horrible thing to happen?” Or, as Paul once wrote, “Why, O God, have you made me this way?”
Well, one of our seminary professors saw the play and, like our local judge, also disagreed with the author, the Lutheran Pastor Rutenborn. The professor told us, “Yes, the incarnation of Jesus is important. God DID have to come to earth and be a human being; but not to ‘serve time’ in prison, but to save us.” And the professor was correct. Yet the reason why God became Man is not unrelated to the suffering, pain and agony in life; and the message of Ash Wednesday brings us proof of that. Let me explain.What I say to you as your pastor as I put the sign of the cross in ashes on your forehead is: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return; but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” Some have thought that that first part – “to dust you shall return” – means there is no resurrection. But that first part is, rather, a message to our flesh – to the ever-present sinfulness of our flesh – that that flesh is dust and to dust it shall return, by way of death. Nothing that that fleshy, sinful part of us ever tries ever really succeeds – at least in the long run. To paraphrase a poem by Robert Burns, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Adam and Eve’s plans based on eating the forbidden fruit sent them out of Eden; the murder of Abel by Cain eliminated Cain’s competition but also meant Cain was even worse off with God; Lot’s wife desired to look back one last time and was turned into a pillar of salt; Esau gave up his birthright just to eat food he desired in that moment; Solomon sought to build an empire, but succumbed to his concubines and flirted with foreign gods; the great plan in the mind of Judas Iscariot in getting Jesus arrested was probably that Jesus would use His amazing powers to kick out the Romans, and instead Judas put Jesus on a cross. The best laid plans.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” is for all those whose focus is only on empire-building on earth, and not on the welfare of their fellow travelers on earth. In the poem “Ozymandias,” a man describes looking at the bits and pieces of what’s left of an old giant Egyptian statue of the powerful Pharaoh Ozymandias; the narrator reads to us the words on the pedestal, a warning from that Pharaoh: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; look on my works, ye mighty and despair.” The narrator adds, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Yes, whatever is egotistical about our future plans, God says to all us about that, “Look on your works, those who think they are or will be mighty, and despair.” Paul himself thought he was mighty as he jailed and killed Christians – ready to take in another haul of Christian prisoners as he traveled to Damascus.
Paul later wrote that he gladly gave up all his power and personal ambition and high standing: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul on the road to Damascus had faced his “Ash Wednesday” moment; the time when he gave up one life – the self-oriented life of the world – and took on the better life – the life of Christ. Paul explained: “For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…not having a righteousness of my own…but that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God based on faith.”
When Paul talks about “the righteousness of God based on faith,” he means the righteousness of serving, among others, the least of those around him – those hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, those in prison or in the hospital – the very people Christ Himself, God in the flesh, ministered to in His time on earth. It isn’t easy to serve in that way; yet we are called this Ash Wednesday individually and together to be the Body of Christ on earth, come what may to us. There’s two kinds of life, you see – one, a life that seeks to avoid even knowing about let alone dealing with the difficulties and the problems of people in this world; the other, a life that seeks out where the problems are and gives time, treasure and talent to do what we can to heal the evil, to minster to the suffering, and to suffer ourselves as we do that, if need be. That’s why Paul adds suffering to his next statement – “I want to know Christ…and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death.” “Take up your cross and follow Him,” commands Jesus.
The Bible is not a fantasy world – after all, one of its books is called “Lamentations.” Other religions and ideologies may talk of evil and suffering as an illusion; the God of Christianity knows full well that evil and suffering are real. God shows us, in His life in Jesus Christ, just how to approach life and God calls us to a “whole-life” journey with God, not a fantasy-oriented “half-life.” Jesus told a story once about a rich man who ate and drank sumptuously every day and ignored the poor, famished, dying man at his door. Jesus told another story about a landowner being in the right place at the right time and making millions off his good crops and then deciding only to build bigger barns rather than seeking ways, with his newfound bounty, to meet the needs of others. You see, that great landowner was trying to create his own little world where he could just, as he put it, “eat, drink, and be merry,” and leave the rest of the world behind. I say to you joyfully after praying and reading God’s Holy Word: Avoidance of life’s dark side is not an option in the Christian life. God doesn’t avoid the dark side, so let us, God’s children, join God in God’s whole-life journey; let us be willing to encounter both the good AND the bad. But what does that mean?
Well, just as Jesus went through tough times to save humanity, so should we remind ourselves that, as Jesus tells us in our gospel today, “disciples are not above their teacher.” We, too, are called to face the ugly side of life and reach out and minister to it, just as our teacher Jesus did. We are called, first, to see the ugly side of our OWN character so that we may treat others with more compassion; Christ, as He commands us today, wants us to shun self-righteousness and come to know in depth the difficulties of fighting our own sin so that by “taking the log out of our own eye first…we may see clearly the speck in someone else’s eye.”
We are called in all humility to be true servants of God – giving and expecting nothing in return, as Jesus proclaims. Paul once said a true servant of God fights evil not with evil but with good. In the lesson today we see that THAT GOOD involves “great endurance through…inflictions, hardships, calamities…labors and sleepless nights…and the showing of patience, kindness…and genuine love.” Paul tells us to not worry how others view us, for when it gets ugly we must go to help others whether we end up “in honor or dishonor, in ill repute or good repute,” giving so much that it may seem to others that we are “dying, and see,” he says, “we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
In many ways that last phrase is a great description of the Christian life, of taking up our cross and following Jesus: “as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” On this Ash Wednesday, we are confronted with that question: how can we Christians have nothing, yet possess everything?
Well, let me quote the Christian thinker Parker Palmer on that: “To move close to God,” he says, “is to move close to everything that human beings have ever experienced. And that, of course, includes a lot of suffering, as well as a lot of joy.” We cannot gauge our true spiritual worth until we have actually been Christ’s heart, hands and voice; in allowing ourselves to be used by God in places and among people where we are uncomfortable, we as Jesus once put it “lose our lives in order to find it.” As a friend of Parker Palmer said to him, “The closer you get to the light, the closer you also get to the darkness.” The Holy Spirit leads us to darkness, to confront ugly circumstances, and in the process we comprehend more and more of the depth of God’s unconditional love; we see more of the Light. That’s what Paul means by “having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Yes, no doubt our bodies will end up as ashes and dust; there’s no doubt about that. That’s part of the Ash Wednesday truth. But the other part of Ash Wednesday is more important; it’s where I also say to you, “But the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” God’s love is building up our spiritual lives even while our physical lives are being sacrificed for others. “So we do not lose heart,” says Paul. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction,” Paul wrote, “is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”
So, to quote Christ: “Give, and [the fruits of salvation] will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put in your lap. For the measure you give” spiritually speaking, “will be the measure you get back.” Amen.
Go to kogcarmel.org and find King of Glory’s Sunday worship services as well – live at 10 am every Sunday. Archived worship services and boosts may be found at the bottom of King of Glory’s home page.