Our Scripture text this evening is not your typical Ash Wednesday text. We normally hear the words from Genesis Chapter 3 when, after Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and God told them the consequences of their and all of humanity’s sin, God concluded by saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Or we read from Ecclesiastes, where the author reminds us of that same truth: “All are from dust, and all turn to dust again” (Ecclesiastes 3:20).
But there is a third time in Scripture when we hear these words, and that’s in our text tonight.
To set the stage for our reading, three men have come to visit Abraham and Sarah to tell them the great future and heritage God has planned for them as a family. Before they left, God decided to speak again through the men and to share with Abraham God’s plan to destroy Abraham’s neighboring communities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sinful ways. Listen for God’s Word. Read Genesis 18:22-33. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What strikes me about this text and the reason I chose it for our service tonight is that so often on Ash Wednesday, when we talk about our dustiness, we hear the words said in the second person. But we don’t hear them said in the first person. On Ash Wednesday, whether through God’s poet in Ecclesiastes or God’s own voice in Genesis, we hear God say, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But we never have to say the words ourselves – about ourselves – “I am dust” – which begs the question:
God knows we are dust. Do we?
The only time these words appear in Scripture in the first person is in Genesis Chapter 18.
It’s a fascinating scene. Theologians who like to talk about God’s providence or that favorite topic among Presbyterians, predestination, will often cite this text, asking: Can God change God’s mind? Or can humans change God’s mind?
What’s more striking to me in this text is not God’s mind, but God’s heart – and Abraham’s heart.
Abraham lived in close proximity to Sodom and Gomorrah. He’d likely heard about their questionable behavior. (“Did you hear what those people down the street are doing?”) He may have even witnessed their questionable behavior. So when God told him God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham might have been tempted to point a finger and say to them, “Yep, you are dust and ashes, and you deserve judgment.”
God knows we are dust. Those living in close proximity to us know we are dust. As Jesus says, we’re a lot quicker to notice our neighbor’s dustiness than our own (Matthew 7:3-5). There’s always a great reluctance to say, “I am dust.” There’s always a greater temptation to say, “You are dust.”
But that’s not what Abraham said. Instead of condemning his neighbors, Abraham chose to intercede for them. Instead of judgment, Abraham begged God to show compassion.
It’s often been asked if it’s ok to question God, even to hold God accountable to God’s promises. This text tells us yes– when done with the right heart.
This story is a wonderful exchange of hearts. Out of God’s love and trust in Abraham, God shared what was on his heart with Abraham by disclosing God’s plan. Out of Abraham’s love and trust in God, Abraham shared what was on his heart with God, even going so far as to question God’s plan and to remind God of his character: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from you to do such a thing! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:24-25)
Then Abraham asked God, not once, but six times to have mercy and change course. And each time God agreed.
Because Abraham asked with the right heart.
We see Abraham’s heart throughout the conversation, but especially in v. 27: “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”
In response to his neighbors’ sin, Abraham could have looked at his neighbors and said, “You are but dust and ashes,” and asked God for judgment. Instead, he said, “I am but dust and ashes,” and asked God for compassion.
Likewise, in response to Abraham’s request, God could have said, “You’re right – you are but dust and ashes,” and, with the zap of a lightning bolt, returned Abraham again to dust and ashes. Instead, God showed compassion – both to Abraham and to however many righteous people there were in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Of course, if we continue reading, we know how the story ended. There weren’t 50 righteous people. Or 45. Or 40. Or 30. Or 20. Or even 10. In the end, the number didn’t matter.
But there was one number that did matter.
That number was one.
One person who was willing to stand in the gap, no matter the outcome, no matter the cost.
Because in the end what mattered most to Abraham wasn’t being successful; it was being faithful.
No matter what the outcome was, whether he was successful in saving the people of Sodom and Gomorrah or not, whether or not he was successful, Abraham was faithful. He faithfully stood in the gap, boldly crying out to God on behalf of his neighbor.
What gave him the courage to do that? He remembered he was dust.
Not many of us like to remember that we are dust. Maybe that’s why it’s much easier to hear the words, “You are dust,” than it is to say the words, “I am dust.” Let me encourage us to do both tonight. When you come forward to receive the mark of the ashes and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust,” as the Spirit leads, let me encourage us to respond, whether out loud or silently, “I am dust” – for that is a first step in transformation.
And then let me encourage us to quickly add, “Thanks be to God” – for that is also a first step in transformation.
To admit we are dust, while it may not feel good at first, it can bring the biggest sigh of relief and the loudest cry of joy there ever was – because only in humility and vulnerability can transformation occur.
When Abraham admitted he was but dust and ashes, he discovered a deeper intimacy with God. He discovered a greater compassion for his neighbor.
God promises the same can be true for us.
When we like Abraham have a right understanding of who we are in relation to God and who we are in relation to our neighbor, the result can only be transformation – transformation in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
God does God’s greatest work through humility and vulnerability. If you want proof, look at the cross.
Scripture tells us, “You are dust.” Scripture also tells us, while we were yet dust, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
So as we come forward in penance, let us also come forward in hope, eager to submit to the amazing work God wants to do in and through us this Lent – if only we will remember, “I am dust. Thanks be to God.”