February 21, 2016
A few years ago I made friends with a young man who attended this church for a while. We shared our love for motorcycles and he helped me on some building projects.
One day I received a call from him and he informed me that his father had died in California. He asked me if I would consider flying out there and saying a few words in a brief ceremony.
I gathered as much information as I could, caught a flight to California, drove through the night to the beachside community and slept till morning in the rental car. At daybreak I watched the sun come up as the small oceanside community woke up. I ate some breakfast at a sidewalk café as I read about the community in a local paper.
I found a downtown public restroom where I washed my face and changed clothes. Looking a little more presentable, I arrived at the home of my friend’s father. His home revealed the life of a man who lived mostly in solitude.
Apparently, the man found his solace at the ocean and if he had a church, it was there among the wind and the waves, the sand and the rocks.
Soon his family and a few friends and I were walking on the beach, listening to the waves break rhythmically against the shoreline, the way they do over 4,000 times a day. On this day, the waves had a special job. They were to receive and carry the ashes of a 67-year-old man out to sea and mix them with the foamy surf and the sea life.
The salty sea mixed with a few salty tears of those who managed to find them and the wind carried the man’s ashes across the sky and spread them over the water. It was then that reality set in that this is the way life ends.
Whether we are reduced to ashes through cremation or we allow nature to do this job for us over centuries, sooner or later the earth claims us and the words of Genesis ring true, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from the earth we came and to earth we shall return.”
A week ago from this past Wednesday, we observed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and in a ceremony in our church an ashy cross was placed on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality.
But is it really necessary to be reminded of our mortality? Aren’t there plenty of reminders every day all around us that we are not going to live forever? When we are under 40 we think we are immortal but slowly we begin to realize that’s not so. If we pay attention, there isn’t a day that goes by that the news doesn’t contain some reminder of death and the older we get the more indicators our body gives us that it’s wearing out.
Intellectually, we all know and understand that we will die one day, but most of us have adopted the stance of not thinking about such a morbid subject when it’s not necessary. What’s the point? It’s like wasting good food. Why spoil the present with depressing thoughts that you can’t do anything about?
It is true that some of us still suffer from one of the negative influences of our Puritan ancestors. The Puritans were English Protestants of the late 16th and 17th centuries who opposed many of the customs of the Church of England. They had strict rules and believed that pleasure was wrong. This led one person to describe Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/34745-puritanism-the-haunting-fear-that-someone-somewhere-may-be-happy
Consequently, some Christians just forget that having fun and experiencing pleasure in life is something God blesses as long as it is not sinful. Christians, of all people, should be defined by our joy.
I have a print in my home of a laughing Jesus as a reminder that Jesus was a joyful person who experienced
great happiness. Jesus sets us on a path that is filled with joy and happiness. It is lasting and has roots that transcend moments of pleasure. The joy we have in Jesus even transcends circumstances. It transcends pain, grief, and disappointment.
Jesus taught us how to be happy in His greatest sermon. For Jesus, happiness begins in an odd place, by coming to an understanding that we are spiritually bankrupt. What does that mean?
It means acknowledging that without God present in our lives we are lost. We need GPS – God’s Positioning System. We are not in command of our destiny, our future, or even this day. Only when we come to a point of understanding that we need God can we find a path lasting joy.
We come to church for this reason, with our hands open, with our hearts set toward God, acknowledging that we have a spiritual deficiency, which only God can fill.
And while the church isn’t the only place where we find the Spirit of God, it is the place where we find other people coming and saying, “I am poor in Spirit.” Together we find a community and we seek God.
Doesn’t that sound odd to you? How can you be happy and mourn at the same time?
Remember, Jesus is teaching us about spiritual matters. He is teaching about a life of discipleship. He is teaching us something about our attitude, about our state of mind, how we should understand ourselves and how we should see ourselves in relation to Him. When our relationship with God is right, the result is happiness.
Well, that sounds nice, but sometimes circumstances seem to take all of our happiness away and God does not seem to be anywhere near us. What should we do then?
Here is what one man did. His name was Job.
The Bible describes Job as a man who was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” Now that doesn’t mean he was perfect. However, he is described as “the greatest man among all the people of the East.”
Job was blessed. He loved life and he enjoyed life.
Now in the story of Job, God and Satan have a conversation. Satan says to God, “You know, Job has good reason to be happy. You have built a hedge around him. He’s happy because nothing bad ever happens to him. That’s the only reason he worships you, but if you remove all his blessings, he will curse you.”
So a cosmic challenge is made around Job’s life and Satan is given room to bring tragedy and sorrow in Job’s life, but he’s not allowed to kill Job. Job loses his family, his home, his possessions, and his health. That sounds like a recipe for anyone to lose their joy.
In the book of Job it says that “Job sat on the ash-heap to show his sorrow. And while he was scraping his sores with a broken piece of pottery, his wife asked, ‘Why do you still trust God? Why don’t you curse him and die?‘ Job replied, ‘Don’t talk like a fool! If we accept blessings from God, we must accept trouble as well.’ In all that happened, Job never once said anything against God” Job 2:8-10.
We find “ash-heap sitting” to be really strange behavior but perhaps I can give you a modern-day equivalent.
Recently, a man in the Atlanta area lost his wife and two young daughters in a house fire. He put his daughters down in their beds for the night and he heard a popping sound downstairs. When he went downstairs he discovered the house was engulfed in flames. He was unable to find his wife and then unable to rescue his children.
Days after the tragedy, the man could still be found sitting in a chair wrapped in a blanket sitting in front of his burned home. He just sat there, staring at the burned-down house, reflecting on his loss, grieving for his family.
Job’s friends came by to try to get Job to repent, telling him all these bad things that had happened to him took place because of some sin in his life.
The reader of Job knows this is not true. We have already been told in the story what kind of person Job was, so we know he was right when he claimed that he’d done nothing to deserve all that had happened.
Later he began to present his case to God. As he did, his heart grew cold and callused toward God as his voice took on a lecturing tone.
God gave him plenty of space to spout off and release his anger and
“Then out of the storm
the Lord said to Job:
7 Face me and answer
the questions I ask!
8 Are you trying to prove
that you are innocent
by accusing me of injustice?
9 Do you have a powerful arm
and a thundering voice
that compare with mine?
10 If so, then surround yourself
with glory and majesty.
11 Show your furious anger!
Throw down and crush
12 all who are proud and evil.
13 Wrap them in grave clothes
and bury them together
in the dusty soil.
14 Do this, and I will agree
that you have won
this argument. (Chapter 40:6-14)
What could Job say to this?
Job had learned a great and important lesson: Life is not fair. He also learned that God is not a God who makes everything fair based on our goodness. God is not a God who promises that justice will be metered out in this world.
It is a myth that if we follow Jesus our paths will be smooth, that we will not get cancer, that our children will not have problems, that we will not have any enemies, that we will not lose a job, that we will not have relationship issues, that tragedy will not strike our homes. These are myths. This is the reason why we need ashes.
Jesus said, ““We will be happy if we mourn, for those that mourn will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
Ashes represent grief. As long as we live in this world we are going to experience loss. As long as we experience loss, we are going to struggle to make sense of it.
Sometimes I can explain loss in ways that makes sense to me, but there are times that loss makes no sense.
What I do know is that sometimes the cliches that are offered as answers just anger me: “God must have needed another little angel in heaven; You know God will not put more on you than you can handle; This was obviously God’s will.”
There are often times when things happen that I cannot explain it and even if I had an answer, the answer would not relieve the suffering at hand.
It appears that Job’s losses came because of some cosmic challenge between God and Satan, but that’s only because we have the advantage of the backstory. But just because we have the backstory that only causes me to want to side with Job as he vents his complaints to God. But Job says just enough to God that God weighs in and reminds Job that he is not God. This is the part of the lesson for us as well.
While we don’t understand all there is to know about God, we should understand enough to know that we do not occupy God’s place, which is really what Job was trying to do. He was to trying to tell God how to run His world.
Will anyone here confess to trying to tell God how to do that? Does anyone here have a list you’d like to present to God right now?
When God finished with his lecture to Job an interesting thing happened. Job didn’t get off his ash heap. (You have to be careful how you say that.) He continued to sit in dust and ashes, but now he sat there for a different reason.
In the beginning, he sat there to show people that he was in mourning for his family, his possessions, and his health. Job was protesting that he had been wrongly and harshly targeted, as he had done nothing sinful to bring the calamity on his family and life. And we know he had not.
However, after his encounter with God, his dust and ashes represented something different.
Job had to admit that God was in control and he wasn’t. Job had to confess that he was attempting to occupy a place that was reserved only for God. He realized that he was arrogant. So he humbled himself and asked God for forgiveness and he promised to remember his place before God in the future.
It took 42 chapters for Job to get to this point, to acknowledge that he didn’t have the answers, that God had them and that it was his job to listen to God, not tell God what to do. His ashes became a public symbol that he was repenting of his attitude toward God, that he’d been trying to dictate to God how his life should be going.
Perhaps you are like Job in this regard. If things have not been going your way and you have been dictating to God what He should be doing in your life, perhaps it’s time to sit on the ash heap for a different reason. Perhaps it is time to confess to God that He is sovereign, that He is the one in control, not you.
Acknowledge anew that you trust Him. Acknowledge anew that you believe he will take care of you. Confess that while you do not understand what is happening, you will continue to follow Him and trust Him.
God wants us to be happy. He tells us that happiness comes when we cry out to God and have deep sorrow for living a life of arrogance. Happiness comes when we confess our bent not to consult God nor make decisions using God’s word.
When we cast this attitude to the wind like ashes and let the waves wash them into the ocean of God’s love and forgiveness what we find is that this kind of mourning produces comfort. We place ourselves in a position for God to empower us.
God’s comfort is a wonderful thing. It good for the soul. When others are telling us that we ought to curse God and die because of what has happened to us, instead we find God is still present, even in the ashes. Our message to the world is that our joy transcends our circumstances because that too is the power and the miracle of the Spirit of God.