Let us pray.
Lord, our adversary prowls like a lion.
But you are a God who steps into the arena.
Who does not leave us on our own.
Thanks be to God.
On Ash Wednesday, we gathered to mark our heads
With ashes and with dust.
We remembered that we are going to die.
It’s a weird thing to do
With one’s Wednesday night, isn’t it?
“What’d you do last night?”
“Oh, nothing special.
Just put dirt on my head
And remembered I’m going to die one day, you?”
There’s something powerful about it as a ritual, though.
It’s so compelling that strangers at bus stations and on thoroughfares
Find themselves drawn to participate,
Even when they don’t know exactly what it means
Or why they’re doing it.
You can feel the dirt spreading on your forehead
As surely as dirt will be dropped on your casket one day.
We don’t talk like that very often,
Perhaps because we’d rather not imagine that unthinkable future.
That, as Sarah Condon writes,
Devastating impossibility that always happens.
Death gets shoved aside, often.
We are asked to die neatly in special hospice centres
Set aside for the purpose
And within 6 months our family members will be told,
“Oh gosh, surely you’ve moved on by now, right?”
When I served in the Peace Corps in a small village in northwestern Ukraine
Just 30 kilometers from the Polish border,
Death was right in the middle of things.
A whacking great war memorial made up most of the town centre
And everybody knew somebody who’d died in the war
If not in the military
Than in the famine
In the Holocaust
In the aftermath.
When my Ukrainian tutor’s husband was tragically killed,
His funeral wasn’t just open casket
It was open bier.
We set him on a platform
And after the funeral
We loaded him up on a flatbed truck
And processed behind it to the cemetery
Where he was buried
Among rainbow coloured streamers.
The Orthodox have a hymn they sing on such occasions
“Receive, O earth,
The body formed of you
By the hand of God
And again returning to you as its mother.”
Ashes to ashes.
Dust to dust.
Earth to earth.
Death seems close to Jesus in this story of the temptation in the wilderness.
He’s out in the wilderness
Away from the crowds that surrounded John
Baptizing in the Jordan River.
His humanness feels especially apparent.
He’s hungry, Luke tells us.
He’s dirty, no doubt.
He’s got sand clinging to him everywhere
As he waits for whatever insight
The Holy Spirit is trying to show him
Out there in the wilderness.
And then the devil turns up.
Isn’t that just always the way?
Always kicking you when you’re down.
And he tests Jesus
With three temptations:
First, with material comfort.
An end to his very human pains.
Second, with glory and authority,
The ability to do whatever he wants.
Third, with proof of his status
As the Son of God.
That always strikes me, every year,
That the devil begins his taunts with this insidious word “IF.”
“IF you are the Son of God.”
Which implies that maybe even Jesus
Isn’t entirely sure yet
Of who he is
And who God is calling him to be.
Down here in this very human muck
Feeling these very human feelings
It would be easy to doubt
Even if he did remember
The glory he’d set aside.
That’s the really extraordinary thing about Jesus, I think.
That, though he was in the form of God,
He did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped
Taken advantage of,
But emptied himself
To come and join us down here on the earth.
With dirt on his forehead.
And even when the devil
Made him question
If he even really was the Son of God anymore
He didn’t take the bait.
He didn’t abandon us in the dirt.
We worship a God
Who gets down in the muck where we live
Even when it’s awful
Even when it’s dirty and gross and visceral and physical and tragic and heartbreaking
And who stands in the brink
When the devil comes to call
And says “Yes, I am the Son of God.
Not in spite of this but because of this.
Because I am down in the dirt with my people.”
God does not run away from us in the difficult times.
God does not ask us to suffer neatly
Far from Him
So that nobody has to think about how the changes and chances of this life
Are too often a devastating impossibility
That always happens.
God joins us in the dirt.
He hungers and he thirsts.
And ultimately the earth He created
Receives his body
As a mother.
This Lent, as Jan Richardson writes,
“Let us be marked
Not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
Not for shame.
Let us be marked
Not for false humility
Or for thinking
We are less
Than we are
But for claiming
What God can do
Within the dust
Within the dirt,
Within the stuff
Of which the world
Our God makes beautiful things out of dust.
Our God chose to become dust
And held to it even when the devil tormented him for it.
Because he loves we who are his image