In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our lives are far more fragile than we know. Our marriages, our health, our country, and our church can be taken away and destroyed in a moment. The forces of nature and the forces of evil men, even the weaknesses of our own depravity, as well as the principalities of Hell, are a constant threat. We are sustained in this dying life by nothing less than the constant, intervening mercy of God.
Yes, O man, you are dust. Without God´s mercy you´d fall back to the earth. Yet His mercy provides you with many good things. He sustains you and this dustiness, this temporary life, has its moments. Compared to history, you are the most prosperous of people. You live in greater luxury than the kings of old. You enjoy freedom in this country and age like men have rarely known. You eat foods from all over the earth, enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables out of season, and douse it all with extravagant spices from afar. Your closets hold as much clothing as only royal courts once dreamed. But still, these things, good though they are, fail to satisfy. They are never perfect. And they are dangerous. For it is easiest, it seems, to notice the imperfections of your husband, the peeling paint in your living room, and the nicer cars in the parking lot, when you are prosperous. Lust breeds lust. Greed breeds greed. Just enough never satisfies. Just one more is never the victory or triumph it seemed it would be. Because the treasures of this earth cannot and do not satisfy. We are always hungry, thirsty, achy with our desires once again. Let these treasures then, whether in abundance or in scarcity, remind us always that we are dust, that we are sustained solely by God´s mercy.
And when our fragility is exposed, when we are afflicted by violence or treachery, the victims of cancer or slander or simply our own perversions, let us never suspect that God has withdrawn His mercy. Pain and suffering, loss and sorrow, hunger and thirst, also serve God´s mercy. Let all tragedies and conflicts, all hardships and trouble, all wants, needs, and desires, whether they be from ice storms and tsunamis, cancer and migraines, cheating spouses and lying co-workers, false preachers and barking dogs or just melting ice cream, let all of them serve this purpose: to remind us that we are dust, that this is not our home, nor our destiny. This is not the way that created the world. It is sad and broken, imperfect, and unsatisfying. It contains but occasional glimpses of the true good to come. The joy we sometimes now know, the blessed memories and friendships, the love of wife and children, the pleasures of food and wine and the marriage bed, even the Holy Gospel and the Sacraments, all good things pale in comparison to what God has planned and won for you in Christ Jesus.
You do not yet have your reward. This stuff, broken and sad, happy and nice, is at best only a foretaste, a sampling of the truly good things to come. The ashes are a reminder of the temporary nature of this dying life. Almost nothing lasts forever. But one thing does. And something better than ashes, more than merely a reminder is given to you this day: the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. That will not burn on the last day. You are given a promise, a communion with God, an indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins. You are given a Name, made into a people, bestowed with a Life. You are joined to the Godhead Himself through the risen and ascended Messiah who laid down His life for you and took it up again to open heaven.
For He joined Himself to your dustiness and was laid to rest. His soul left His Body on the cross after He had endured the tortures justice demanded on account of your sins. He died for those sins. And now there is nothing left to pay, nothing more for justice to demand, no one to accuse you. Mercy won the day. Jesus died and His Body was laid in the grave. But it was not corrupted. Though He had suffered from sin in this world prior to the cross, so that he aged in the normal ways of men, growing frailer and weaker over time, was subject to temptation from the devil and to abuse, even torture, from evil men, to sickness and to loss, though He had known both joy and sadness, laughter and tears, in this life, even the death and burial of loved one, when He died upon the cross He stopped death. He lived as one of us. He endured all that we endure and more. And then at last, the payment made in full, His soul was released to His Father. His lifeless Body was laid into the tomb. But it did not decay! It was not corrupted. It did not decay because death had done its worse already. He lived this dying life and allowed death to have its way with Him. Then it was done and there was no more. It could do no more. Death was dead, empty. It lost sting and victory.
Thus did He take up that dust out of the tomb again. His soul was reunited to the Body and raised again to Life. Dust of your dust, and ashes of your ashes, He lives perfect and whole, God and Man in one, that you would not taste death but live forever in His Father´s house. Your own dustiness, your mortality, was changed that day and a promise laid at your feet. You, too, will go the way that He has gone. Your dust will rise, perfected, and be reunited to your holy and clean soul. You will live.
Remember, O Man, that you are dust. Remember that Jesus is dust as well, and always will be. Dry bones can live again. Dust can reign in heaven. Your reward is yet to come.
In +Jesus´ Name. Amen.
Rev’d David H. Petersen
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana