February 26, 2020

Psalm 51:1-17

The theme song for my senior prom was “Dust in the Wind” by the band, Kansas. It was a hit song that year, nearing the top of the pop charts. But it always struck me as an odd choice for a high school prom theme with its haunting melody and melancholy lyrics. I was a strange message for young people as they just getting started in life: 

“I close my eyes only for a moment, and the moment’s gone.

All my dreams pass before my eyes a curiosity.

Dust in the wind. All they are is dust in the wind.”

Though it may be an odd choice for a high school prom, Dust in the Wind resonates on Ash Wednesday as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” As we begin Lent, with ashes on our foreheads, these words convey humbling truth that we’d prefer not to acknowledge, “All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see.”

The song writer, Kerry Livgren, wrote these lyrics at a time when he was reflecting on the success of his band, Kansas. He realized, that in the bigger picture, “nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.”

One day no one would remember the songs that were getting such acclaim. Even at the height of success, there was a nagging awareness that, “It slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy.”

Nothing is permanent. It will all turn to dust and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Or is there?

It is true, we are made of dust and to dust we will return. You just need to stand by the graveside of a loved one to have this “truth” made painfully clear. But it is not true that all we are is dust in the wind.”

Life was breathed into that dust by God’s own Spirit. God, the great potter, shaped us from the earth and formed us in his own image. God gave us life. God gave us free will. God gave us eternal souls. In the waters of baptism God named us and claimed us and declared us his beloved children, forever. We are so important to God that God sent his son Jesus, to save us and redeem us from this life of sin and death. We are the recipients of God’s mercy, love, and grace.

So, if the message of Lent isn’t that we are dust in the wind, why go through all this? Why put these ashes on our foreheads? Why remind us of that we came from dust and to one day we will return to dust?

There is nothing like a reminder of our mortality to motivate us to get our priorities in order. I have been with many people who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses. The nearly universal response is taking stock of one’s life, thinking about what is most important, and attending to those things that matter most.

In our culture we don’t like to think about death and dying, especially not our own. But there are blessings that come with facing our mortality. Lent gives us the incentive to take that time for self-reflection, and re-ordering our lives, without having to experience the full weight of a terminal illness.

We begin this season of Lent each year on Ash Wednesday with Psalm 51. It is a psalm that is written as David is taking stock of his life and realizing how badly he messed up. This psalm conveys the deep remorse David feels when he realizes that he has sinned not only against Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah, but also against God. David was overwhelmed with guilt and shame. He felt dirty and stained with sin. He was embarrassed. He knew that sin was unacceptable to the Holy God. And worst of all, because of this sin he felt separated from God’s love. So, he prayed the prayer we have come to know as Psalm 51.

Out of David’s great sin comes the greatest prayer of repentance ever written. In it, he acknowledges what he has done and begs for God’s mercy. He asks God to cleanse him from his sin – washing him on the outside, and asking God to purge him with hyssop, to clean him from the inside out. He begs God to teach him wisdom and let him find joy once again.

The heart of that prayer has been put to music, helping us all to remember it in our hearts and in our souls. “Create in me a clean heart O God,” which we will be singing in just a few minutes. When you or I or any of God’s people sin, we can turn to David’s words to help us confess our sin and ask God for forgiveness.

So today, as we enter this season of Lent, as we wear ashes on our foreheads, and as we hear these words “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return” let us not be discouraged by them, as if we are only dust in the wind. Rather let us use this as an opportunity to come take stock of our lives. Where we need cleansing and forgiveness, let us sing David’s prayer as our own.

Let us join in singing Create In Me, ELW hymn #186