Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing. (Read the whole passage)
Tonight we stand at the bottom of the mountain, down in the valley and our perspective has changed. Just a few days ago on top of the Mountain of Transfiguration, Jesus stood between Moses and Elijah as Peter, James and John looked on. And there, Peter wanted to set up shop up on the mountain. You see, the perspective from the mountain top makes everything look great. The world below looks idyllic, like a perfect paradise in every direction. Yet, the story ends as Jesus sets off down the mountain with his disciples in tow.
And now that we are down from the mountain, and the idyllic view of the world is no more. Up close, down in the valley things are less paradise and more real, more authentic. There is no veneer, there is no benefit of distance, there are no flaws that can be glossed over. In the valley, there is brutal honesty.
Jesus didn’t take us up the mountain to be dazzled and amazed. Jesus took us up so that we can witness the prophet of the most high named by God and then sent to God’s people. Sent down to the valley of humanity and death. Down to us.
And down in the valley, down with humanity, the truth is revealed. We are revealed for what we are.
And down in the valley, our worst fears are confirmed. All that we thought about ourselves, all that we thought we could accomplish, all that we thought had meaning, all that we thought was significant is not what we thought at all.
Down in the valley of Ashes, we aren’t just sinners needing forgiveness.
We aren’t just the suffering needing consolation
We aren’t just dying needing good news.
We aren’t just the dead needing new life.
Down in the valley of Ashes, we are nothing. Just like the ash that will mark our brows
We are nothing.
Sin and death turns our lives, our beings, our selves into nothing.
All our living and our doing and our being will mean nothing once we are dead and gone.
This is what this valley of Ashes reveals:
A process that we have no control over, no power to stop.
And so just as the prophet Joel tells us how the people of Israel faced destruction and desolation, faced being blotted out from the earth by conquering armies… they gathered together in worship, gathered around the only real and honest thing they knew.
We too gather around the ashes, gather around prayer and the Word of God.
We gather before the One who brought us down from the mountain.
Before the One who stands beside us in the valley of Ash.
Before the One whose cross gives shape to the nothingness that will mark us.
And we confess and repent and pray and hope that this One will do the thing that we cannot do.
That this holy One of God, this prophet of the most high, this Messiah sent to save…
We hope that this One will turn our nothing into something.
And just as the prophet Joel tells us how the people of Israel faced destruction…
They were met by the One who is gracious and merciful,
The One who is slow to Anger.
The One who is abounding in steadfast love.
And this One did what they could not.
This One turned their nothingness into something. Their ash into a cross. Their death into life.
And this One who met the people of Israel comes also to meet us.
This Christ comes down the mountain and finds us in our valley of Ashes,
and reminds us that this cross stamped on our forehead was first stamped in baptism.
This Christ comes down the mountain and gathers here with us, here in this moment of brutal honesty, this moment of our final hope in the face of destruction.
And this Christ declares that our nothingness is not the end.
The Christ declares that our death is not the end.
This Christ declares that our sin is not the end.
This Christ declares that our suffering is not the end.
This Christ declares that we are not the end.
This Christ declares that God IS our end
And our life
And our hope
And our meaning
And that this Ash that marks our brows, that the flaws and imperfections and humanity that mark our being… they are no longer signs of our ending, but signs that we are not alone, signs that we are loved, that we are beloved of God.
This Christ reminds us that our creation began in the very dust and ash we are smeared with. And that out of the dust and ash, out of the mud and the dirt God formed and shaped nothing into something, God formed and shaped the Adam, the dirt creature, the muddling, the first of creation. And then God reformed the Christ out of the dust and dirt of grave, into a new creation.
And that Remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return is not just to reminder that in our humanity we shall all die and turn to nothing…
but that returning to dust we will return to the God of life.