Ash Wednesday 2020

Our Lenten Midweek theme, Return From Exile, will have a series of images for us to consider each evening service. Each set of images will have an Old Testament image compared to a New Testament or eternal image. This series was written by one of my Old Testament teachers at the seminary, and he wrote it with the intention that this theme would help teach us to understand how these Old Testament images point us forward in some way to our Lord Jesus.

Tonight on Ash Wednesday we’re considering clothing: sackcloth and ashes, to robes of righteousness. 

It’s not often we talk about our faith through the topic of clothing, but truly, it’s a fantastic way to think through the whole story of sin and salvation for God’s people.

You know how it began. Adam and Eve didn’t need clothing in the beginning! God made them perfect. They had no sin to be ashamed of or to hide. They weren’t worried about what their bodies looked like.

What’s the first thing they realized after they fell into sin? They realized their nakedness. You can almost imagine them being self conscious about how they looked, perhaps vainly unsatisfied with how God made them, the same we today can spend far too much time in front of a mirror wishing we were different.

They tried to fashion fig leaves to cover themselves, it must have been a horrific feeling to not have any clothes. No doubt it would have been not just shameful, but would have left them feeling vulnerable.

God didn’t leave them in their nakedness or with their poor excuse for clothing. We’re told that he gave them animal skins to wear. That meant animals had to die and be skinned. It doesn’t say what sort of animal. As a kid, I always imagined it being a deer, and that they were dressed in buckskins like a frontier man.

But there are some better theories out there. If you have been to the Ark Encounter down in Kentucky, they depict this scene of God clothing Adam and Eve. They show a lamb, slain and skinned upon an altar. A lamb put to death to cover Adam and Eve’ sin. Does that sound familiar?

Regardless of what animal God clothed Adam and Eve with, ever since it has been necessary for us to clothe ourselves. We see it throughout the scriptures too. The imagery of Jacob clothing his favorite son Joseph with a beautiful robe, but his brothers jealousy taking it from him and beating him, stripping him naked. 

The same thing happened in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who found a man who had been beaten and stripped naked on the side of the road. The Good Samaritan took him in, fed him, and clothed him. Likewise, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, who lost all his wealth and returned home to his father in rags, and his father embraced him and ordered his servants to dress the son in the best robes.

God’s people in the Old Testament saw the connection between their clothing and their sin. When they were distraught or grieving, we often hear how they would rend, or rip their clothing. They recognized no amount of clothing could cover these sins that deeply hurt themselves or others.

Likewise, when they were especially ashamed or repentant, they would exchange their comfortable clothing for sackcloth and ashes. Not only was it crude and ugly, but it was highly uncomfortable, constantly itching and pricking their skin to remind them of their sinfulness. The ashes reminded them of what God told Adam and Eve, that dust we are and to dust we shall return.

We might also think of the Pharisees we heard of in our Gospel reading. They loved to use clothing to show others their righteousness. They would wear long, beautiful, flowing robes and pray in the street corners to show their piety. When they fasted, they would disfigure their faces to make sure everyone knew. No doubt they would make sure others saw them if and when they ever donned sack cloth. 

It was this false and self righteous piety that led God to speak through the Prophet Joel saying: “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.”

God does not wish us to have a false righteousness on the outside. Jesus condemned the pharisees for being like white washed tombs, pure and clean on the outside but full of death on the inside. Before we can rend our garments, we must first rend our hearts. Only then does fasting, giving something up for 40 days in Lent, or placing an ashen cross on our forehead mean anything.

But if we rend our hearts, if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

He does this through his son Jesus, who became a lamb innocently slaughtered, not to give us physical clothing like God did for Adam and Eve, but to cover us with his righteousness. Jesus takes our sinful sackcloth and ashes, and gives in exchange his pure whte robes.

We heard about that in our reading from Revelation 7, when in the vision God gave St. John a vision of a great multitude of people, all wearing white robes. St. John confessed “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

This is the journey we are taking through this life. We look forward to joining the multitude around our Lord, no longer trying to cover our sin and shame, but being forever covered by Jesus’ righteousness. 

We must endure the sackcloth and ashes of this life, but we do so knowing that our salvation has already been won for us in our Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.