Returning to Dust: 7 Preaching Themes for Ash Wednesday

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Ash Wednesday

The beginning of Lent, for many congregations, begins with the imposition of ashes at an Ash Wednesday service. It is often a powerful moment when members of our congregations kneel to receive their ashes. However, the experience will be even more meaningful after a sermon, where the reason for receiving ashes is explained and highlighted.  Below are seven themes for you to ponder as you prepare your Ash Wednesday sermon.

1.  Ashes as a Symbol of Christ’s Redeeming Love

The first mention of ashes is found in the Bible immediately after God discovered the sin of Adam and Eve. God tells them that paradise has ended and now they, and all those who come after them, will suffer as a result of their sin. In Genesis 3:19 God says, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The promise of everlasting life, given to Adam and Eve, was gone. They and all of humanity would now return to the dust from which they were formed, but with Christ everlasting life has returned. We who follow him are promised everlasting life with him. The sin of Adam and Eve has been redeemed. The new Adam, by dying for us, opened a door to everlasting life.

2. Ashes as a Reminder of Our Place in Relationship With God

One of the greatest blocks to serving God and placing the needs of others before our own is that we humans tend to place ourselves as the center of the universe and forget that God is the true center and source of everything. This belief, that we are the center and in control, is further validated with commercials that remind us that we can and should have it all! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and “selfies” make us feel like we are the center of everything.

But the realty, of course, is that we are not first, best, or the center. We have been created by God, who truly is the center and core of everything. All that we have will fade except the loving presence of God.  Our sermons on Ash Wednesday can remind us that, while our life matters, God matters more. We are not the center of the universe. We came from dust, we will return to dust, but God and God’s love will endure and embrace us forever.

3. Ashes as a Reminder that It Is Never Too Late to Turn Around After Sin.

The story of Jonah being sent to the evil city Ninevah climaxes with the people acknowledging their sins, rubbing ashes on their bodies as a sign of their repentance and God’s forgiveness of them. Jonah is upset because, in his opinion, “they” did not deserve forgiveness. This story is a great reminder that we are all sinners. We have all fallen short and yet, God’s love is greater than our sins. If the evil people of Ninevah could be forgiven, so can we. There is no sin God will not forgive if we repent. Ah Wednesday invites us to kneel before God, admit our sins and receive forgiveness.

4. Ashes as a Reminder of the Equality of All People

No matter what role we play on earth, whether we are the wealthiest person or the poorest, the best known or someone who is barely known at all, there will come a day when we all return to what we truly are: ashes. Ash Wednesday can remind us that we are all equal in God’s kingdom. God made us all, loves us all and calls us all to give what we can in return. There is no inequality in the eyes of God. Paul, in Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

5. Ashes as a Reminder that We Have Nothing to Fear.

The fear of death is our greatest fear, and from this fear comes our need to hoard what we have rather than to share, and to worry more about our personal safety, health and well-being than that of our friends and neighbors. Ash Wednesday can remind us that we, who have been given the promise of life everlasting, have nothing to fear. Yes, we will return to ash someday but, in our returning,  we will receive an everlasting place in God’s kingdom. Those who follow Christ can obey his commands to love one another, our neighbors and even our enemies, because there is nothing to fear.

6. Ashes as a Symbol of the Need to Die to Self

It is not only our physical selves that will die, but for those who follow Jesus, we are called to die to self even while we are still living. Jesus said, in John12:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Ash Wednesday reminds us that following Christ means dying to self. In reality, this death is often more difficult because we must choose it. As we receive ashes we are reminded not only that our bodies will die someday, but that to truly follow Christ we must choose to die to self while we still live.

7. Ashes as a Reminder of the Resurrection

Ashes symbolize the end of everything. By the time a piece of wood, or a home, or a body becomes ash, there is nothing left of it. Ashes typically symbolize hopelessness, the end, and finality. But for Christians, who have been promised life eternal, ashes no longer represent the end, but the beginning of life eternal. Revelation 21:5 says, “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”

The service of Ash Wednesday is an important service, for it allows us to speak honestly and directly about the need for hope in the face of death, our sinful nature, our need to die to self and our need to place God at the center of our lives. May God bless you as you preach the good news in the midst of ashes.

Leanne Hadley is dedicated to helping the Church better the ministries we offer to children and families. More about Leanne’s ministry can be found on her website: leanne-hadley.com or on FB at: Leanne cares about kids.

Image attribution: Marc Salvatore / Thinkstock

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Leanne Hadley is an ordained elder in the UMC and has a DMin in the spirituality of children. She has dedicated her entire career to working with and studying the spiritual lives of children. Her work experience includes working as a chaplain, directing a migrant ministry summer program, Minister to Children and Families, and Founder of First Steps Spirituality Center. She is passionate about strengthening congregations by helping them understand the spiritual lives of children and deepen and expand the ministries they offer to children and families.

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