Wednesday, 5 March 2014
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ."
The season which we start today is book-ended by two utterly and totally contrasting events. In churches across the country tonight those who wish to will come forward and receive ash on their foreheads in the sign of the cross. With the ashing they also hear the words, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.
Remember you are dust.
Yet at the other end of the season comes a quite remarkable change, when the One who came from heaven to join us in the dust is resurrected into something far more profound, more solid, more everlasting than we can begin to comprehend, with the promise that he is the first fruit of a resurrection that will include not just us but the whole created order.
Remember you are dust, and the resurrection. These could not be more contrasting. So what links them? What is it that translates us from dust to resurrection? That’s what I’m writing about here.
But first the dust. The above Old Testament reading comes from one of the two creation stories, the story of how God formed Adam from the dust of the earth. Like many of the stories of the Bible, the power in the story is in the truth it tells rather than as a record of historical fact. What I mean by that is that whilst different people may dispute whether or not it took place like this, what we can all take from it is the truth it tells us about humanity, that we are dust. The name Adam means man of dust, or simply ‘dirt-man’. It conveys a sense of oneness with all creation that we miss. You and I are made of the same matter as the trees, the animals, the insects and the rocks. We are all made of dust forged in the hearts of stars, from inanimate elements created by fusion fires. We exist and are living only because God’s Spirit permeates all things, bringing awareness and consciousness to some.
If God were to remove God’s self from creation, then we would cease to exist. But for now we have life because the Spirit is in all things bringing life. But this life is for just a brief moment. Those of us who have been alongside death, and those of us who deliver the rites of passage from this life into the next, are reminded constantly of the transience and fragility of this life. Once we reach middle age we begin to feel it in our bones, in the ways we no longer bound out of bed in the morning, if we ever did. So what do we do about it? Some ignore it, anaesthetised by television, computers and possessions. Others fight hard against it, spending time and money on trying their hardest to hold on to a youth that has passed.
The Independent last week carried a report from the organisation called DrugScope who found that “significant numbers of older people are using substances to self-medicate physical and psychological problems associated with getting older”.
But others, exhibiting a greater wisdom, seem able to embrace aging with acceptance. And it is only with this acceptance that the road to peace of mind can be found. Growing older is not a choice. But where once old age was seen as a gift of grace, now we want to pretend it can’t happen to us. And into the midst of this comes the words that mark the opening of Lent:
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
This is how we begin Lent, by looking at where we are as human beings, that we are mortal with a limited lifespan. Lent starts with a healthy dose of realism and honesty. Yet at the other end of Lent we come to the death and resurrection of Jesus with the promise that he is the first fruit of a resurrection that includes all of creation; this is not just about humans. Let us be in no doubt about what this means. Christian belief is not about some kind of living a good life and when you die you get to go and live with Jesus in heaven. Christianity is not, and never has been, about the caricature of, ‘Pie in the sky when you die.’ No, Christianity is far more solid and real than that. Jesus didn’t just die and then his spirit went to heaven. Jesus, who was both son of Adam and son of God, uniquely human and divine, died properly, just like each of us is going to die. But he didn’t stay dead. He was raised with a new body that was more real and more solid than this one. He was raised with an immortal physicality. His body was no longer dust. His body was never going to have to return to the earth from which it was made. Instead it was transformed, becoming something that was beyond growing old. And the promise that we find throughout the rest of the New Testament is that this promise of resurrection is offered not just to all people but to the whole created order.
God promises a resurrection to an everlasting existence, growing and becoming more all that we can be, being able to put the dust behind us finally and forever. There is, however, a linking statement, something that brings dust and resurrection together, and it’s the second half of the statement that we make when we put ash on each other. ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.
The resurrection is through Christ. His resurrection was a promise to the rest of us of what could follow if we enter death through the gateway of his death and resurrection. The pathway to resurrection is by turning away from all that mars us and creation and being faithful to Christ. But what does that mean? What does it mean to be faithful to Christ? If this is what links us from being dust to being everlasting, we ought to know.
I think it is about putting him first and his desires for us. I think it is about listening in prayer for what we should be doing with our lives and then getting on and doing it. Too often we live lives that are about, ‘What do I want?’. Too often we choose our churches based on ‘What do I want?’ Now don’t get me wrong on this. I’m having to learn for myself that doing the will of Christ doesn’t mean working myself into an early grave. But it does mean listening. It means praying. It means allowing other people who know you and love you to advise you on what God may want you to do. And then it means getting on and doing it and being faithful to Christ. In some ways it’s like a marriage. Once you’ve made that commitment you don’t have a night with someone else just because they’re all interesting or beautiful. We remain faithful. So it is with Christ, because the church is called his bride, and so we are called to be faithful to him.
So what do we want? Dust or eternity? One life our way that ends by being returned to the dust, or an eternity earthed in resurrection? Lent is all about starting from the dust and looking forward to the resurrection whilst asking ourselves whether we are remaining faithful. May we have the courage to spend the next few weeks wisely and honestly. Amen.