Summary: ash wednesday sermon based on Psalm 90
Dear friends in Christ,
Ash Wednesday has its roots in the early Church’s careful efforts to receive those penitents who had lapsed from the faith and faithful living and had been excommunicated by the Church. The rite of worship that eventually developed for Ash Wednesday focused on contrition and faith, on absolution and renewal. The lessons, prayers, and psalms, enabled penitents to confess their sins and to receive the Savior’s absolution through the Church’s called ministers. A part of this worship involved the minister putting ash on the foreheads of the penitent - to remind them how fragile they were - that they would return to dust some day - just as Adam came from dust.
The Psalm that we are going to look at in consideration of this is Psalm 90. It was a prayer of Moses - the only Psalm written by him. Moses was someone who was very familiar with how fragile life could be. He had witnessed hundreds of Egyptians get swept away in the Red Sea. He’d seen a whole generation of Israelites die in the desert. His whole life had been one of transition - having to flee from Egypt, then coming back, and then going into the desert for 40 years. At the end of his journey, Moses himself would also face death before ever getting to enter the Promised Land. This Psalm addresses that very topic of how fragile life is, and what we can do about it.
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.
2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
If someone were to call you “ancient”, you probably wouldn’t regard that as a compliment. We don’t like being called “old”, because old in our eyes is associated with sickness, forgetfulness, and inability. Moses wasn’t afraid to call the Lord old - eternal even - because it was a positive thing to him. Why? Because the Lord was someone that he could always turn to as a “dwelling place.” That word for “dwelling” also means to pile things up at, or to go in a circle. The best I would compare it to would be a parents house for a teenager. Even though they are always on the run, they always have a place to go back to - to call home.
There’s something nice about that. The first time I returned to New London after my grandma died, it just didn’t seem the same. I had spent the first twenty years of my life going in and out of her house, but then when I drove by, I couldn’t go into the house. I couldn’t smell the goulash or play baseball on the side of the house. It was like one of my anchors had been pulled up and I was forced to drift off to sea.
On the contrary, the Lord will never leave. He is a dwelling place for all generations. He had been there for Adam and Eve. He had protected Noah through the flood, and kept Abraham and the Israelites alive through a famine. Noah knew that God would always be there. His door was always open. It gave him comfort. His doors are always open for you too.
3 You turn men back to dust, saying, "Return to dust, O sons of men." 4 For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. 5 You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning— 6 though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
7 We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. 9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. 10 The length of our days is seventy years— or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. 11 Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
Since God is eternal - immortal - all powerful - then God is not only responsible for life - but also for death. Just as His Word brought life into this world, so with His Word he says, “return to dust, O sons of men.” With one Word God is able to take a young boy or an old woman and turn them from being full of life to a breathless death. Moses compared it to being “swept away” - the same word used for the flood. Just as God swept away thousands to millions of people at the flood, God is still the one who sweeps away life today.