Ash Wednesday: Remember Dust (Psalm 103:13-14)

Pastor Michael A. Miller

The Man from Heaven Remembers the Man of Dust

Psalm 103:13-14

13         As a father shows compassion to his children,

so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.

14         For He knows our frame;

He remembers that we are dust.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we heard earlier tonight.  But dust?  Any intelligent person knows that people are carbon-based lifeforms, comprised of complex amino acid chains, DNA, and that we are capable of tremendous intellectual power and creativity.  Dust seems far too insignificant a substance for such a noble creature as man.

But that goes to the question of origins.  Where does man come from? Where is He going, and what is significant about his existence?  “Then 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.” (Genesis 2:7) Our origin is from God.  Our existence is from God.  We are self-aware, moral, intelligent, and creative because God made us in His likeness.  All of human life exists and depends on God. 

God remembers that people are dust, but do people often remember that?  They go about their daily routines, make plans for what they’re going to do, undertake projects, worry about how other people think of them, plan and fret about the future.  Most of the time, they live without a need for God (a 2018 study found 36% of religious “nones” agreed that religion was irrelevant to their life[1]). But how quickly all that comes unraveled!

On August 17, 1999, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Izmit, Turkey, 100 kilometers east of Istanbul.  In 37 seconds, 17,000 people were killed and 500,000 were rendered homeless as 20,000 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged.

We forget how we are dust, but God has His way of reminding us.  Sometimes it’s evil that happens to us or our loved ones, other times a sudden illness, still other times a natural disaster like in Turkey.  The bottom drops out of our plans for the future and we’re left scrambling.  We’re found to have taken the whole thing for granted, and we wish we could go back and do it over.

The Lord, however, never forgot that we are dust, and in His fatherly compassion, He was moved to act.  His Son came down and entered our world through the womb of a young Virgin named Mary.  The Man of heaven became a Man of dust with us.  Jesus has compassion on us as He humbled Himself with us to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  He faced evil done to him as he fled into Egypt, as lies were told about him, as He was condemned on false charges.  He lost family and friends to death, and He wept over the curse we are under.  He bore anguish and pain in His own body as He was scourged, compelled here and there by soldiers, crucified, and the life ebbed out of Him.  He was made dust, and to the dust He returned, buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.

But unlike our dust, which stays in the ground, His Spirit returned to Him and He rose to be a living creature once more.  Like no other, He rose so that He might restore life to our dying and dead dust.  “The first Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45)  Jesus rose from the dust, never to die again, so that He could break the power of sin and death, and so raise up the sons of Adam, the man of dust, of you and me.  St. Paul continues: 48 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. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:48-49) 

It takes a reminder from God to remember that we are dust.  As painful as this discipline is, God is doing it for our eternal good, because if we forget that we are dust, the danger is that we will return to the dust, never to rise again (Psalm 140:10).   Unless we remember that we are dust, the Man from Heaven does us no good.

Yet, “The Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.”  He comes to you when you are bowed down, trembling as your frame of dust threatens to crumble.  The Man of Heaven comes again and breathes His life into your dust.  When you were baptized, in the water and the Word, God took your lifeless dust and made you into clay (Isaiah 64:8).  Day by day, even with dust upon our heads and under the shadow of death, He is shaping us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).  Every time you confess your sins and the Absolution is spoken, it says “He breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit; if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.’” (John 20:22-23)  The Absolution truly has the power to restore your life, even as you sit in dust and ashes.  If you live try to live apart from it or without it, how can your dust be revived?

He has still one more way that He remembers you in your dust.  Recall His Word through St. Paul: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”  The Son of God’s lifeless clay rose to new, eternal life, and that is what He gives you in His Supper.  Each time you receive His Body and Blood, united to Him with faith, He is strengthening you with the power of His resurrected flesh.  It’s the unfortunate state of the Church in our generation that we minimize the Supper’s importance and think we can make it by without this.  Someone has told you (and now it’s become entrenched as tradition) that Communion only needs to be offered every other Lord’s Day. 

But this teaching does not come from your Lord who says, “Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me”[2] and who says in John 6: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)  It is only hubris that says we can have life apart from our incarnate, crucified, and risen Savior—His Body and His Blood and His Holy Spirit breathed on us in the Absolution.

See all the ways that the Lord shows compassion to you, O man of dust!  As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. 14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”  And on the Last Day, He will raise you from the ash heap to be with Him forever.  Persevere in this hope, beloved.  Amen.


[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/08/why-americas-nones-dont-identify-with-a-religion (accessed 2/25/19)

[2] Some argue that “often” does not necessarily mean weekly, but if we stay in the way of the Law and look only to satisfy the minimum requirement, we can also go without having midweek Lenten services because the Old Covenant only required corporate worship once per week.  Christians are privileged to receive it “as often” as we gather.

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