Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And so another Ash Wednesday is upon us, another Season of Lent begins, and another 40 days of fasting and penitential preparation for the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, to Calvary, to the cross.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Adam was taken from the dust, the clay, the dirt – molded and shaped by the very hand of God, given life by the very breath of God. But by his hand he reached and took forbidden fruit. And by his breath he laid blame on the woman God gave him. And in this sin, he who was taken from the ground found the ground itself cursed with thorns and thistles. He who was shaped from the clay had reshaped himself in a sad and perverse way. He who was dust and dirt was now soiled with sin and bound for the grave, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt.
And you, child of Adam, are no different. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam's children inherit and practice Adam's sin. Adam's children were all brought forth in his image, and they died. And they died. And you too, it seems, will die.
Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten call to repent. So repent! Be reconciled to God. Turn again, today, from sin and death. Turn again, to Christ, and live. For he is the second Adam. Not formed by dirt and spirit, but conceived by the Spirit and born of a virgin. A second Adam who defeated the tempting serpent. A second Adam who conquered by a tree. A second Adam, who laid in the grave like all of Adam's dust-bound brood – but this second Adam defeats the grave. In him, death has no final say – over him, or over you.
So keep the Lenten fast in a way that seems best to you. Don't practice your righteousness before man. But rend you hearts, and not your garments. For Jesus Christ has come to save even people of dust and ashes.
This Lent, we will be taking a look at some of the saints and believers who are commemorated by the church during March and April. Perhaps first a word about how we Lutherans understand the recognition of saints.
We confess with Holy Scripture, “There is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 2:5) And so we do not worship or pray to the saints, or any other created person or thing. We worship God alone. The saints in glory certainly pray for us, but we have no assurance they can hear us and no example in Scripture which directs us to call upon them.
Furthermore, we ascribe no righteousness of their own to these saints. Rather we confess they were all sinners like we are, born under the law, and in need of the same redemption in Christ we have received. Their lives of faith and love we credit to God, and we look to the saints then as examples of God working in and through their lives. Yes, we should emulate their good examples. But even more we ought to rejoice in what God has done through them, and continues to do for and through us today.
The saints we will be looking at this season come from quite a variety of times and places, walks of life and vocations. Perhaps you will relate more to some than others. Some are familiar, some are far more obscure. Some we know from Scripture, and some only from the history of the church. But the common thread through all of these is the faith they were given in Christ, and the fruits of that faith seen in their lives.
15 In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16 “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“‘Let another take his office.’
21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
For someone given such a high honor, to be numbered as one of the Apostles, we know very little of Matthias. And that in itself teaches us something.
He's no Peter – leader of the Apostolic band, with both bright shining moments of good confession and embarrassing breakdowns of denial and lack of faith.
He's no John – Gospel writer, Revelation-seer, son of thunder, witness to both cross and vacant tomb.
He's no Matthew – reformed tax collector
He's no Phillip – who was always bringing people to Jesus
No doubting (but also believing) Thomas. No Nathaniel, the true Israelite in whom there is no guile.
Or any of the other notable and memorable apostles with all their ups and downs, but whom we can at least relate to for some reason or another. Matthias is just... Matthias. The one they picked.
He's not even as interesting as the one they didn't pick, Joseph with the two aliases: Barsabbas and Justus. He's just Matthias.
One of the unknown disciples who was a witness along the way, who was now thrust into this important office of “apostle”.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. All your works and all your efforts and all your fame and fortune and possessions and achievements. All of it is bound for the dustbin. And in all likelihood, this world will forget you. They will say some nice things at your funeral, and then they will move on. And if you're lucky, like Matthias, someone might at least remember your name.
But you will not be forgotten by God. For Jesus Christ shed his blood for the likes of Matthias, and for you. Jesus was laid in the dust of death for you. His cold clay rested in the hewn stone tomb to sanctify your grave. But the Father didn't forget him either. He would not let his holy one see decay. Jesus was raised to life. Jesus can never die again. Jesus lives, and reigns for us. One day, when he returns in glory, the dead in Christ will rise and all his own will be translated to glorified bodies, full of life forevermore. The dust will be forgotten. Abundant life will remain. This entire fallen world will be a distant memory, if it's even remembered at all. But the word of Christ, the love of Christ, and the glory of Christ will remain forever.
Perhaps Matthias is a great place to start any discussion of the saints, for his relative anonymity shows us that none of these holy ones of God live to themselves or die to themselves. But like St. Paul, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. Matthias was just a man, a witness, filling an office established by Christ for the good of his kingdom and the proclamation of the Gospel.
So do we all, in our vocations, have a calling from Christ for his own good purposes. And it is a high calling, whatever it is, not because of the one who is called, but because of the one who calls. Therefore do what you are given to do, fulfill your vocation, for the sake of Christ. Seek not your own gain, for you are lowly dust without him. Seek instead his kingdom and righteousness. When you see success, give glory to God. When you fail, repent, confess, and believe.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But that's not the end of the story for those of us in Christ Jesus. Abide in him in this Lenten season and always. Amen.