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Remember Dust

Mar 06, 2019

Passage: Psalm 103:13-14

Preacher: Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa

Category: Wednesday, Lent


The Text: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”

In the Name of Jesus. Amen. Lent is a beautiful season in the Church Year which prepares us for the triumphant magnitude of Easter, but Lent is also a season that occasions confusion on the part of people who aren’t quite sure what to do with it. Our sinful nature tempts us to treat it as a season of penance in which we merit God’s love and mercy by moping around as if to imply that enough sorrow for sin, and enough sacrifice of this or that (be it food or whatever) will earn us points with God. Lent is none of these things, and it is certainly not a time of sadness.

Nor is Lent -- which means “spring” as in new life -- a time for a Christian to give up his or her joy. Even in the face of what constantly threatens us, namely sin, the world, and the devil, we are always joyful Christians, and we are always praising God even – and some might argue – especially during Lent.

So, with this said, why the subdued nature of Lent? Why the dark color? Why the hymns that help us confess our sin? Why do we refrain from “Alleluia” and singing, “Glory to God in the highest,” and why do we begin this season by emphasizing that we are dust…aren’t these themes of sadness? No, but they are themes that lead us to the Savior and to be led to Him, is not to live as one downcast, but to live as one who has remembered the faith, and to remember the faith is to be filled with God’s presence and power and joy in Christ.

But first, we must remember. We need a swift kick as it were. A holy pinch; a sanctified shake; and some ashes on our forehead (or our hand, or both) to remind us, because as sinners we have a nasty habit of forgetting. Yes, our sin is fundamentally expressed in forgetting. We forget about our great need for God, we forget about how frail we are, and worst of all, we forget about God Himself. How can this happen? How can we forget the One who has created us, given us life, saved our lives from sin and death, and offers new life…how could we possibly forget Him and our great need for Him? And yet this is what our sin leads us to do: it causes you and me to forget. How pathetic and how terrible.

This is why, dear Christians, the LORD has given to us His Holy Church and its holy ministry to give you the Word of our Death-Conquering Savior Jesus Christ, and through Christ’s Church, Christ’s Word comes to you in preaching [and teaching], in holy baptism, holy absolution, holy communion, and the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. All of these to cause us to wake up and to remember, to wipe away the fog of forgetfulness and to remember by the power of the Holy Spirit just how much we need God, but this is not a sad knowledge, it is a holy knowledge that leads to a joyful result: we are led back to Christ! This is what Lent is for, so that we meet Easter not in unbelief, but in faith prepared to rejoice that Christ has conquered our death!

But first we must remember. Psalm 103:13-14: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”

Ash Wednesday and Lent are for remembering. We are not here to take confidence in ourselves. We are not here to trust in any imagined strength within ourselves. We are not here to go along with the pretend imagination that we live forever on our own. No, we are here to remember that precisely because we are dust – and yet made and saved by Jesus – that the LORD, our Heavenly Father is constantly having compassion on us and shows His compassion on us as we trust in Him. He is filled with loving mercy, loving pity, the will to lovingly help us and meet our great need, most certainly because by God’s very nature He is merciful, but also because He knows our frame and He remembers – never forgetting – that we are dust.

God remembers and on account of His mercy, He acts to save us. And this is the reason it is good for us to remember that by His mercy, we should seek to be saved. St. Ambrose prayed to God, “Therefore do not forget one who is weak. Remember, Lord, that you have made me weak. Remember that ‘you have fashioned me as dust.’ How will I be able to stand, unless you direct your care always so as to strengthen this clay, so that my strength may proceed from your countenance?’” (Wesselschmidt, Quentin F., ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VIII, Psalms 51-150, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007. 224)

The original language at Psalm 113 where it states in our English, “…so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him,” stresses the fact that the LORD has always pitied those who fear Him [who revere Him and therefore put their hope and faith in Him]. God is moved by the faith that He grants us. When we trust Him and seek Him – as when we gather here tonight – and call on His Name through Jesus Christ, God is moved in love and mercy. He chooses to remember as verse 14 teaches: “For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.”

And to be dust is to epitomize weakness. What can dust do to save itself? What can dust do at all?

And yet dear Christians, we are not just any dust, but God’s. Genesis 2:7 details the crowning of God’s creation: “the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” And remember Christians, that at the end of all God’s creation, He proclaimed all of it “very good.” That is, back up and consider the wonder of God’s creation. He made you from dust! Psalm 139:14 urges us to praise God because we are still “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Think of the great artistic works even people make from stone, from ice, and yes, from dust and from sand. Some great art works are made directly from sand. Some pieces of sand art take over two years to make and faces and designs almost look as clear as a photograph. (Concordia Pulpit, Volume 29, Part 2, pg 56).

I had a dear parishioner back in Texas who owned a handyman service, and on a few occasions he came over to help us out when something broke down.  He was a radiant Christian, full of joy.  And then the day came when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  When I went to visit him in the hospital we had a long conversation that led to his burning question, “Pastor, what’s going to happen to me when I die?”  Of course he knew what God’s Word said, but he needed his pastor to say it out loud and to apply it to him.  Our proclamation is not only that we go to heaven when we die, but also that our dust shall be raised.  Yes, we who are so weak will be made strong on the last day.

We are frail, and yet look at what God has done with our frail dust. In this light, the dust is not so much for us to mourn over as it is to see the Creator who fashioned it and to praise Him! And yet, we must also remember, that as His dust we rebelled – and we still do – and in sin the LORD spoke the ruining of His masterpiece dust, Genesis 3:19: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But even in this death of ours God remembers that people are dust so that He shows compassion!

Our sin condemned us, but it did nothing to hinder or cancel the mercy of God. In fact, now more than ever, His compassion shines forth, because He is still for us even after God’s dust masterpiece was ruined. God in compassion chose to conduct a new creation to make the dust good again. Christ remade the masterpiece of living ones from dust when He took our dust upon Himself.

In Christ, faith enters the dust. We now pray like Abraham with new life: “I have undertaken to speak to the LORD, I who am but dust and ashes.” (Gen 18:27). In view of our sin, yes, our hearts should be like Job’s who put dust on his head (Job 2:12), but as we confess our dust in sin, God answers with Christ. He remembers that we are only dust, and His compassion restores us that we may say with the Psalmist: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” (113:7)

In Christ, we are no longer only dust. We’ve received God’s compassion so that we may be joyful this Lent, but joyful not to forget about God, but eager to confess our sin, and then to hold to Jesus. “In one way, we are still dust creatures like Adam, but in another way, we are heavenly creatures like Jesus. St. Paul makes this connection in 1 Cor 15:47-48: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.’ God remembers that we are dust, but God sees us through Jesus, and that makes us very special dust…heavenly dust. Not on our own, but in Christ, we are a new creation. God compassionately and gently arranges us so that we ‘are of heaven’ even while we are here on earth.’” (Concordia Pulpit, p 57).

God has remembered that we are dust. By grace, now you remember, and in joy you also remember that He has had and continues to have compassion on you. Let us keep remembering Christians as we abide in Christ, that we who are dust, are also born-again by water and the Spirit. Let us therefore go forth this Lent remembering—in joy—to serve the Living God!