Last night, we celebrated Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent that covers the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
Here’s what I said.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. (Colossians 2:13a :: 2:9-15 NIV)
Tonight we gather to receive a mark. It is a mark made with ashes on one’s forehead, or if you prefer, on the backside of your hand.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “marked man.” If I had to place a bet, I would bet it comes from the book of Genesis. Cain killed his brother Abel. God’s punishment for this was to make Cain no longer a farmer with land of his own, routines, and crops to feed himself and his family. Instead, we are told, he would be a “restless wanderer.”
That’s a good illustration of sin’s consequences isn’t it? When we sin, the result is disorder in our lives–in our minds, in our hearts. When we stray from God’s path for us, we become not daring adventurers, as we might suppose, but wanderers with a restlessness in our souls.
Cain said to God, “I can’t take this! If I’m nothing but a restless wanderer, I’ll being living away from your presence. The world isn’t safe for that. My life will be in danger.”
God said, “I’m not taking away the consequence. But, I will add a mark. A mark of protection.”
We don’t know what the mark was, only that Cain became a “marked man.” That usually refers to someone who is in danger of harm from another person. And that would apply to Cain. But notice that the mark itself is an act of grace.
The people of God have always been a “marked” people. God’s covenant with Abraham involved circumcision of all Jewish males. It was a physical mark to represent a spiritual reality, their relationship with God. As we heard in the letter to the Colossians, Paul sees a link between circumcision and baptism for that reason. The water is a sort of physical marking that represents a spiritual reality–the saving grace of God claiming us as belonging to him.
Jesus was a marked man too. His mark did not indicate grace, but condemnation. He was marked by the kiss of a friend, Judas, one of the 12 disciples. Unlike Cain’s mark saving him from others, Jesus’ mark delivered him into the hands of people who wanted to kill him. But he saw it coming and did not run from his mark. Instead, he accepted it. He accepted it all the way to the cross on which he died, so that you and I could receive not a mark of condemnation or death, but a mark of saving grace.
On Ash Wednesday, we begin a journey to Easter called the Season of Lent. We emphasize the sacrifice of Jesus and the call to follow him in self-giving for others, in the service of God.
And we make visible a mark of life with ashes, a symbol of death. We remember that we are a marked people. We are marked as belonging to God. We are marked with ashes; he was marked with a kiss. He received death; we receive life. But with this mark, we remember that we are marked as belonging to the God who gives himself for the life of the world.