“I am God’s beloved child—forever,” yet “I am dust”
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a whole new season in our church life. I am sure that if I were to spring a pop quiz today, most of you would know that Lent has begun. After all, the signs of Lent are all around us: the absence of flowers on the altar, using the Great Litany and the penitential order to begin our service, the purple color of Lent everywhere, the silence during the procession. And on this quiz, if I were to ask you what Lent is, I suspect that most people here would know that Lent is a 40-day time in which we are to reflect on our lives to prepare for Easter, a time to take stock of our lives and take courage to change what can-and-should be changed.
I won’t give you a quiz, but I will give you an “A” for knowing this answer. Lent is, indeed, a 40-day time in which we are to examine our lives and make adjustments, where needed, in preparation for celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. What I want to suggest to you today is that Lent can also be an opportunity for us to confront this paradox: “I am God’s beloved child—forever,” yet “I am dust.”
Chances are that the “I am dust” aspect of life is not one that is very appealing to you. Our minds just cannot handle the thought of death, so we rarely “go there” in our thoughts unless we are forced to. I learned in seminary, for example, that if we should happen to dream about our own death, we always wake up before envisioning “the end.” Our brains just can’t accept the reality of our finitude, of our non-existence.
Yet what is life, if not a journey to death? Just over a week ago the actor William Shatner declared that “Death is the final frontier.” If you grew up, as I did, watching the original Star Trek television shows from your crib, you will know that spacewas supposed to have been the final frontier, one that took great courage “to boldly go where no man has ever gone before.” That Shatner has discovered death is the real final frontier tells us he is trying to make sense of his life—a Lenten task if I’ve ever heard one.
By design, Lent forces us to recognize and confront our own mortality. Lent began on Ash Wednesday this past week. There the blinders we wear about our death were ripped off with these shocking words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I would prefer to not think about being dust. But on Ash Wednesday we remembered that we are made of dust and then we thanked God for the gift of everlasting life. All of today’s scripture lessons equip us for confronting our status as “dust” by telling us the story of our salvation, that we are God’s beloved child—forever.
Today’s Old Testament lesson establishes the duration of our relationship with God. This lesson rests on the very familiar story of Noah and the great flood that God sent to cover the earth. During this flood, every single living thing on the earth died, except for a boatload of dusty animals of every kind. Our lesson shares the end of this story, where God established an everlasting covenant with us, one that guarantees us life forever. God said, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” In the thought-world of the Old Testament the waters represented the forces of chaos in our world—the forces of evil—and by this covenant God tells us that the forces of chaos shall not prevail within God’s creation. Our Old Testament lesson tells us that we are in covenant with our creator, that we are each God’s beloved child—forever.
Our Psalm today rejoices in the covenant that God made with us. For our part, we are trusting in God’s promise, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you…” “all the day long,” as we learn to trust that God will be our salvation.
Our epistle lesson tells us that God sent Christ Jesus, who suffered for our sins to accomplish our salvation. What this passage tells us is that between his death and resurrection Jesus visited the place where the souls of all the disobedient who had lived had gone when they had died. While he was there Jesus “made a proclamation” to the spirits who were there. In biblical terms “making a proclamation” is sharing the Good News of God’s salvation. In biblical terms the Good News of God’s salvation is Jesus Christ himself, dead and raised from the dead to provide a way for us to have eternal life. This lesson connects Christ’s actions to the covenant that God made with Noah, telling us that baptism is how we share in Christ’s salvation. We are each God’s beloved child—forever, as Christ turns our dust into eternal hope.
Today’s gospel lesson tells of God assuring Jesus at his baptism of his status as beloved child. The very next thing that happened, though, was that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not tell us HOW Jesus was tested. I believe that Jesus was tested in the same ways that we are—tempted to become caught up in the thralls of this life and in our own importance, to abdicate the purpose of our existence, and to deny the reality of our mortality. I believe that in the wilderness Jesus accepted that he was God’s beloved child, confronted and accepted his mission in life, and overcame his very human fear of being dust.
This is the very work that each of us has to do in the wilderness, during Lent, to recognize and accept that “I am God’s beloved child—forever,” yet “I am dust.” We need both of these concepts. “I am dust” reminds us that we are not the center of the universe; we are not in control and we are not always right. “I am God’s beloved child—forever” reminds us that we are not consigned to the dustbin; that we are neither abandoned nor alone, and ultimately our hope is in God.
I wish you a very holy Lent. You are each God’s beloved child—forever, even though you are but dust.