Beauty From Ashes

Prayer: O Jesus, full of pardoning grace, more full of grace than we of sin; yet once again we seek your face: open your arms and take us in; and freely our transgressions heal, and love the faithless sinner still. 1 May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing to you, O LORD, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.  

Meditation:  I wonder if there has ever been someone in your life who seemed to be so respected and admired that it was as if there was a bubble surrounding them; protecting them from anything negative; deflecting anything that might diminish their perfection in your eyes. “I wonder if they ever make mistakes. They probably have never done anything wrong. They have it all together”, we might say to ourselves. I wonder then if you have ever experienced the moment when that bubble pops. When it becomes clear that perception isn’t all that it is cut out to be. 

Nevertheless, others perception or the way others regard and understand us as individuals is something that we often strive to manage. Perhaps we want others to see us with our best foot forward and worry about what would happen if they don’t. “What if a guest(s) came over and saw my house wasn’t clean? What if I wore scrubs out in public? What if someone I know hears my child screaming at me on the bread aisle of Target? What if someone sees my spouse and me in a fight? What if I am a guy and I cried? What would others perception of me be?” And while there is nothing wrong with putting our best foot forward, are there times where we attempt to make something that is not the case appear true? In others words, are there times where we mask things with a pretense that all is well? 

In the life of the Church we can often create a perception of Bible characters as perfect individuals. King David is one of these people. Even if you haven’t been in church for very long, surely you have heard the story of David and Goliath and how David’s courage and faith in God brought down the giant. We tell of how he was a man, as the scriptures say, “after God’s own heart.” 2 David wrote many of the Psalms. He was the greatest king the people of Israel ever had. He was a humble king. And he was the kind of king and ruler, the Israelites thought the Messiah would be like. In fact, the Messiah was prophesied to come from David’s lineage. 3 No doubt, if we could look at his social media pages, all his pictures and posts would indicate his life was perfect. His home was likely exquisitely clean and charmingly decorated. If we could interact with him in person, he would have seemed to always be happy and full of joy.  David had it all together.

But he didn’t. Pop goes the bubble.

As it turns out, the king after God’s own heart committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba while her husband was away at war. To cover up this act, David strung a web of lies and deception, which led to him committing second-degree murder against Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, in an attempt to manage perception. 4 But eventually David, confronted by his friend, Nathan 5, who had great courage to stand up to David and call him to repentance and faithful service to God, dropped the pretense and threw himself into the arms of God’s mercy and grace.

Psalm 51, our Scripture reading for tonight, was the prayer that David prayed in confession to God. And as we can see, there is no pretense in his words at all. “According to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions; wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin; create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation. The sacrifice I give you isn’t some other object -­ the sacrifice I give you is what you want. It’s my heart, my broken, convicted, in-­need-­of-­healing heart.” David doesn’t try to cover anything up with God. He’s real and he’s honest.

He’s not asking God for a spiritual band-­aid, but for an entirely new heart; to be re-­created from the inside out, so he can live a new life for God.

This is who David is. He doesn’t have it all together. But what he has, who he is, he offers to God. And God uses him despite his brokenness. Over and over in Scripture these are the type of people who God uses to do God’s Kingdom work. Doesn’t this show the goodness and mercy of God, that God would use people whose lives have been metaphorically brought to ashes – brought down to nothing but dust?

If God is an artist, then dust is the medium that he loves to work with most. Just as God took dust in the beginning, breathed into it and created human life, even today God can breath new life into the dust of our lives. As Brian Erickson says, “our brokenness is no match for God’s grace. In fact, it seems that acknowledging our helplessness is the very path to God’s mercy.” 6 As the prophet Isaiah says, God gives beauty for ashes. 7

Perhaps all of us know the classic European tale of Cinderella. Her name can be broken down into cinder meaning ashes and ella (puella) – meaning little girl to literally mean little girl of the ashes. 8 We know that in the end of the story, Cinderella becomes a beautiful princess who marries prince charming. But, before she can become that princess, she must first go through the ashes. And in the story, there is a dramatic moment when the prince, who has been searching for the beautiful girl he danced with at the ball, discovers Cinderella, who is that girl, in the rags and ashes of her servitude to an evil stepfamily. But the prince is not deterred by her humble and lowly place. In fact, he is able to look through it to see the beautiful woman she is. He can see the beauty beyond the ashes.

On this Ash Wednesday and throughout the season of Lent, this is what we do. As the bride of Christ, we expose ourselves and come honestly before Christ our bridegroom who has searched us and knows us. And He, who is filled with abundant mercy and steadfast love, sees that we are covered in ashes of sin, brokenness and humility and yet, He says that we are beautiful. And Christ sees, and he shapes, and molds us into the beauty that comes from ashes.

On Ash Wednesday and in the season of Lent, we drop the pretense. We don’t try to manage any perceptions. We humbly and honestly dwell in the presence of the almighty God who says, “I Am who I Am” 9 and we say with simple sincerity “This is who I am. I long to be more like who you are.” This is what it means to confess.

Like David, we pray, “God instead of offering up a long list sacrifices that might look more like New Year’s resolutions, I give you my heart – my broken spirit and my contrite heart. God, you desire for us to come to a place where you can mold us, shape us, and recreate us for your glory. It is a place of dust. And so here we are, O Lord. Have us. And let us be amazed at what you can do with dust.” 

1:  Adapted from a prayer of Charles Wesley.

2: 1 Samuel 13:14

3: John 7:42

4: 2 Samuel 11

5: 2 Samuel 12

6: Bian Erickson, Feasting On The Word, Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

7: Isaiah 61:3

8: Ronald Rolheiser, God For Us: Rediscovering The Meaning of Lent and Easter, xiii.

9: Exodus 3:14