To Mortality…And Beyond! (Ash Wednesday Sermon)

Just A Toy
This summer the fourth Toy Story movie is coming out. I’m sure it will be great, but the first movie will always be my favorite. Toy Story, the first full-length Pixar film, tells the story of a group of toys belonging to a little boy named Andy, and Andy doesn’t know that the toys are actually alive. The movie traces the adventure and challenges these living toys face as Andy’s family packs up and moves into a new house. One of the subplots of the film involves a new toy called Buzz Lightyear, which Andy receives on his birthday. Buzz Lightyear is the new “it” toy, a futuristic action figure, with lights and wings, sounds, bells, and whistles – so much more cool than the long, awkward, sown together Woody the Cowboy who had been Andy’s favorite toy all his life. The strange thing about Andy’s new toy is that Buzz doesn’t believe he is actually a toy. He believes he is actually a space ranger, landed on a strange planet, fighting the emperor Zerg, and that he actually can fly “to infinity…and beyond” as Buzz claims, though Woody ties to convince him otherwise. As the movie reaches its climax, Buzz comes across a Buzz Lightyear television commercial and finally realizes the truth about himself. He is in fact not a space ranger. He is a simple toy. After a spell of disillusionment and stupor, he comes to grips with it and surprisingly discovers life as a toy is actually so much better than life as a space ranger.
The Truth About Ourselves
The reason we have gathered here tonight on Ash Wednesday is something akin to Buzz Lightyear coming to recognize the truth about himself. This day we intentionally carve out time to recognize and remember the truth about ourselves. When we hear in a moment, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return”, we are reminded not that we are toys but that we are just human beings, creatures created by God out of dirt and mud. Our lives are like “grass” that “withers” (Isaiah 40:6,7). We aren’t made of plastic like Buzz, but our bodies  decay and can be broken. We are mortal. No matter what we accomplish in this life, no matter what our successes, no matter our fame, it will all one day come to a close and much of it will be forgotten. And as Woody tries to explain to Buzz when he pulls off an elaborate stunt thinking he is flying: we are all just really “falling with style”.
But we will also hear something else tonight: “Repent and believe the gospel”. These were the words of Jesus’ first sermon. “Repent” means to change our mind about the way we have been living our life. We are pressed with a need to change, because there is something within us that is not right. We are still prone to and guilty of choosing to live in selfish love for ourselves and not live in the love of God. In other words, we are sinners. On Ash Wednesday we recognize we aren’t the “space rangers” we sometimes get tricked into thinking we are. We are not the heroes, and rather we have been the villains, opposed to God’s good purposes in this world and in our own lives.
Over two millennia ago this was the truth about us still: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill,” the Lord cries through the prophet Joel to His people. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” God calls us to come to grips with the truth about ourselves. We are invited to somberly admit our slander of others even our brothers and sisters in Christ, the angry word to our spouse, our glorifying television, entertainment, or food above God, our adulterous fantasies, our name-calling, our prejudicial thoughts about people with a different skin color than our own, our broken promises, our many failures to love, or anything else that we truly want God to change. The ashes on the forehead will mark us as spiritually bankrupt and in need of complete God-change.
A year ago on Ash Wednesday, my kiddo did not want ashes put on his forehead, even from me. There was something that was too frightening to him about it, too much strange or unknown about it. It was outside of his comfort zone. But being marked as broken and sinful before a holy God should make us all uncomfortable shouldn’t it? And would that all of us have the same reverent caution tonight as we receive these ashes.
The Good News
Here’s the good news. Jesus came to save us from our sins. Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18). According to Colossians 1:14, it is in Jesus we find redemption and forgiveness for sin, offered to us as a gift at the cost of Jesus’ life not our own. Praise God for His mercy on us!
But it is only through these ashes that we find this gift. The turning point came for Buzz Lightyear when Woody looks him in the eye and says, “Look, over in that house is a kid who thinks you are the greatest, and it’s not because you’re a space ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy! You are his toy!” Everything changes for Buzz. Purpose and hope fill his spirit. Suddenly Buzz comes to realize what he was made for and more importantly who he was made for, but only when he learned the truth about himself.
Remarkably, the same is true for us. When we come to recognize the truth about ourselves symbolized in these ashes, we find the life-transforming love of God. We begin to truly discover Who we were made for and what we were made for as we experience the unconditional love of God, a God Who’s love for us has not changed in our brokenness and sin. Pastor and writer, Tim Keller, says, “To be fully loved but not fully known is superficial. To be fully known and not loved is our greatest fear. To be fully known and fully loved is a lot like the love of God.” Unless we come to God humbly and repentant we never get a chance to receive the fullness of God’s mercy and love. According to his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul struggles and strives and sacrifices everything to bring us this message: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God”. It’s only on our knees in the posture of humility and repentance that we can see the love of the cross in all its wonder through which God forgives us our sin and the empty tomb in all its glory through which God frees us from the power of sin. As Jesus says about his parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee: “the humble will be exalted.” The journey to Easter begins now, not in bright and cheery celebration (though that will come) but in the gray ash that speaks the truth about ourselves. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.