It was my honor to remind several dozen people of this reality yesterday, on Ash Wednesday, just a few hours after a terrible attack in Florida left many dead and wounded. By the time I arrived home from that Ash Wednesday church service, my social media news feeds were full of questions. What’s happened to our world? Why aren’t there more laws that would protect people Can’t we do something about this?
I made only a few, very brief, responses to some of my closest friends and relatives. Mostly, though, I needed to weigh several ideas. These are not the kind of ideas which work wel in our brief and visual world of social media. They need more time. They need space. And they center around one idea. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This message, a simple announcement of a biblical reality, points to the temporary nature of our earthly life. It’s part of God’s curse on sin, recorded in Genesis chapter three. Life in the world as we now have it is full of hard work. It ends eventually in death and decay. The God who made everything will allow it to pass away. In this way we see that our world is broken. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
At the moment, this seems pretty hopeless. If we are to live a life that is temporary, full of hard and painful work, and which ends in death and decay, just how much effort should we put into it? Maybe it is perfectly normal to walk into a situation that is unpleasant, shoot a couple of dozen people, and not worry about the consequences. Should there even be laws against harming ourselves and others? After all, as we keep saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” If you have read this far, I hope you will continue. We’ve only begun to expose the problem so far. It’s a serious problem, worthy of serious care.
The root problem is that we treat ourselvs and others like so much dust. All those people around me annoy me, like blowing dust. We irritate each other. And in our interactions we get dirty, we get smudged. The moving parts in our world get all messed up and worn, like a motor trying to run in a sandstorm. Our desire to deal with the dust sometimes takes over. We try to sweep it away. We think if we can find the right tools, the right tactics, our problems will go away. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” So maybe, just maybe, if I try to blow you away like so much dust, I won’t be bothered by you. After all, you are dust. So we try to make a clean sweep. We try to eliminate those dusty situations from our lives. We act in ways to drive some people away. We turn to alcohol, medications, or special lifestyles in an attempt to swish the dust away, or at least make it less visible. And sometimes, all too often, people will turn to suicide or murder to clear the dust.
Our society reels, but we turn back to the same tactics again and again. The root of the problem has not been addressed. We consider humans as dust to be swept away. We abort the unborn. We teach elderly people that their value comes from usefulness. We teach young people that their value comes from being healthy, intelligent, or good looking. All this is dust. We teach humans, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
What’s been missing this whole time? If this is all I have for you, it is no sort of good news at all! The inescapable context of Genesis chapter three, however, is that of God’s creation. He is the one who made the human race from dust. It is the hand of God which gives us life and meaning. He is the one who brings the dust to life, and to a life created in the image of God.
What else happens when we speak those words to the person in church? “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” As we say those words, we place the mark of the cross on the person’s forehead. Using ashes from palm branches, we put a label on the person.
Palm branches remind us of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, coming with the express intent of dying for your sins and mine. The fact that the leaves have been reduced to ash remind us of the death of Jesus. He, God the Son, who is the pre-existent, immortal God, through whom all things were created, by whom all things are sustained, took on flesh, just like ours, but without sin. He gave his flesh into death, a death like ours, but without the requirement that the soul who sins must die. He became sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God in Christ.
In the cross borne by the Christian, we see that we are truly dust, and to dust we shall return. But we also see in the sign the value that God in Christ has placed on us. God shows his love for his creation in that He takes on humanity, like our humanity. We may be dust, but we are re-created in the very image of God.
How are we going to stop the wanton destruction of human life? We will do it only as we find the intrinsic value of that life. You are not valuable because of your youth, your health, your intelligence, your good looks, or your usefulness to society. Yes, those are all good things, things to be greatly desired. But our dust is of value because God has valued it. Our life in this fallen world takes on a special dignity because God hates our death so much that he would endure that death on our behalf. And likewise, as death itself was conquered by Jesus in his death and resurrection, we can expect to rise again in the last day. Our mortality will take on immortality. The dust, even if it is swept away, does not truly pass away. Not at all. It is given value which is shown in the resurrection of Jesus.
How can our world see the value of our fellow human? Not through our own decision or our own goodness. Only through a recognition that in Christ every man, woman, and child, everywhere on the planet, the little, the big, the weak, the strong, the fool, and the genius, is someone God has considered worthy of his loving attention, his redemptive care, and his resurrection in the last day.
This Christian worldview was widely held, at least to some degree, throughout many generations of Western civilization. Granted, we have failed, and failed spectacularly. But the Bible describes a God who never has failed. As we learn to love and serve our neighbors as ourselves, as we learn to treat others as we would have them treat us, as we learn that we were created in the image of God and that every individual on this planet bears that same image, though it be warped and defaced, then we may regain the respect for others which we need. That’s what will teach us to preserve life. That’s what will teach us that our life is worth preserving. That’s what will teach us that the truth of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, that what we do for the least of these around us, we do for Him.
Why have we fled from the redemptive care of God? Why do we try everything in our power before we flee to God in Christ for the blessed hope that he gives? It’s high time for a change of mind and heart. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I mark you with the sign of the cross. You are dust which has been called precious in the sight of God. And so is your neighbor.