This is the first Ash Wednesday sermon I ever preached. May God bless you as you contemplate your mortality and cling to the hope we have by trusting in Christ.
In our world, we prefer to deny death. Death is simply not something we like to talk about. We even disguise the word. We say things like, she “passed away,” he’s “no longer with us,” or they “didn’t make it.” With modern medical breakthroughs and modern science, life spans have increased by 60% since the 1900s. Our culture has even retreated into a battle against aging – there are creams to smooth out the wrinkles that come as we age and if that doesn’t work, then by all means, botox is a viable option! Yet no matter how we may disguise aging and no matter how many decades we add onto our lifespan through healthy eating, exercise, or visits to the doctor, it remains that each and every one of us will die. On one hand it is not unreasonable or even unchristian that we spend so much time in our battle against death. After all, Paul himself refers to death as the final enemy in 1 Corinthians (15:26). Yet on the other hand, there are many ways in which our culture’s choice to deny the inevitability of death impedes our lives. Denying death leads to a loss of life.
A basic Christian spiritual exercise is to acknowledge death. Ash Wednesday is a time where our worship reminds us of this truth. As I put the ashes on your head or hand here in a few moments, I will say to each of you, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This isn’t to be morbid or gruesome. It is simply to acknowledge the reality that each one of us will die. Yet, our awareness of death should remind us to really live.
Sometimes we can remember particular times in our life because of the music that stands out in our minds. The summer I worked as a chaplain at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington, KY, there was a song that stood out. Each day, I was confronted with death. Death of the worst kind – family shootings – death from abuse – cancer – heart attacks – accidents – death, both unexpected and drawn out. There are songs which we’d never sing in Church that describe things we deeply stand for and believe in. One day on my way into the hospital, Tim McGraw’s song, “Live Like You Were Dying” came on the radio. The first verse was eerily familiar with the experience and response of the patients I saw nearly every day:
“He said I was in my early forties
With a lot of life before me
When a moment came that stopped me on a dime
And I spent most of the next days
Looking at the x-rays
Talking ‘bout the options
And talking ‘bout sweet time
I asked him when it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How’s it hit you when you get that kinda news?
A man is diagnosed with a terminal illness – a man is faced with the news that is ultimately true of all of us. Even though our “real end” might not be as soon as this man, it is nonetheless equally true. When we live in denial that we will all die, we deny the call each one of us has to truly live. McGraw’s song goes on as the man describes what he did in face of the tragic news. As Christians, we are likely not called to, “go sky diving, Rocky Mountain climbing, or to ride bulls for 2.7 seconds!” However, there are many significant lessons we can learn as the song continues:
I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, I gave forgiveness I’d been denying…I was finally the husband that most the time I wasn’t, and I became the friend a friend would like to have. I finally read the good book, and I took a good hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again…
The dying man then makes the most important point of the song, “Someday, I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”
Ash Wednesday serves as the reminder that we should live like we are dying because in fact, we are all dying. Today is the first day of Lent and begins the time of repentance in preparation for Easter. Many Christians give up something during Lent, perhaps a favorite food or drink or maybe even television. But more and more people are choosing to add something to their lives instead of giving something up. That’s my challenge to you – live like you are dying – love deeper – speak sweeter – give the forgiveness you’ve been denying – become the wife or husband, or father or mother you haven’t been – become the friend a friend would like to have – spend time each day reading God’s word and praying.
Do these things because the Gospel promises that existence doesn’t end with death – it ends with life. Living like you are dying brings new life – because we live in response to God’s Spirit and the power that raised Jesus at Easter. Easter, which lies at the end of Lent, is God’s answer to death – God raised Jesus Christ from the dead as the answer that death is not the end for Christians. By the power of Christ, we’re enabled to take good hard looks at our lives. Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us that God allows u-turns. We can turn from our destructive ways through the power of Christ and live our lives fully in view of the life giving resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “Live like you are dying” and you will live a life worth living.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.