Complementary Text: Psalm 51:1-3
Preaching Text: Matthew 18:1-9
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
There are few questions that are more “human” than the question asked by the disciples at the beginning of this evening’s reading. From the beginning, for both good reasons and bad ones, human society has been built in part on distinguishing between the strong and the weak, between the haves and the have-nots, between the leaders and the followers. The results, all too often, create more problems than they solve. Hatred and violence, war and conflict, oppression and abuse, most – if not all – of the besetting sins of humanity are caused by this universal tendency to divide and define people so that we can determine “who is the greatest”. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the disciples of Jesus find themselves dealing with that seemingly inescapable human problem. OK, Jesus, we get that this whole “kingdom of heaven” thing is different. But we’ve still got to know who’s greatest in that kingdom. Once you leave, who’s going to be calling the shots, here?
Not much has changed, right? Even in the church, we have this problem of looking around for people to emulate or follow. Who’s the most righteous Christian? Who’s the most inspired preacher? Who’s the one getting the most butts into their pews and bucks into their offering plates? Who’s got the newest program to guarantee health and wealth and favor for people who have enough faith (and enough cash)? It is human nature, both inside and outside the church, to be on the lookout for what’s next and who’s in charge.
We gather this evening for a service whose message flies in the face of that natural tendency and then makes its mark to stop that question – Who is the greatest? – in its tracks. Ash Wednesday, the first service of Lent, is in many ways the great equalizer. In a society obsessed with top-ten lists and awards and charts and graphs and numbers, all of which seek to size us up and put us in our place, the observance of Ash Wednesday is one of the most poignant reminders of the fundamental truth of human existence: in the end, we are dust and ashes. That’s not intended to be a depressing statement, but it is a brutally honest one. For all of our striving to make a name for ourselves, for all the blood, sweat, and tears that we pour into distinguishing ourselves from others, when it comes down to it, we are nothing but dust and ashes. There are two ways to approach that truth. One is to despair and question whether there’s any meaning to life at all. The other is to figure out what gives meaning to this life and strive for those things above all else. Ash Wednesday prepares us for the work of Lent, the work of searching our lives and seeking God’s face so that we can align ourselves and our purposes with God’s, the work of setting aside everything that draws us from God so that we can live more fully in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In a way, that work is parallel to what Jesus describes in response to the disciple’s question. Who is the greatest? This child right here. This child who enjoys no status or power or authority, who lives at the beck and call of parents and elders, who is entirely dependent on the generosity of others, and who most people agree would be better seen and not heard. In Jesus’ day, children were often regarded with scorn by the wider society until they got old enough to be useful to someone. This is the image of someone who is great? This is what the disciples should aspire to be? Yes, because only someone who recognizes that they have little (if anything) to contribute can be truly open to receiving the gifts of revelation and grace and renewal and new life that are offered through the gospel. By ourselves, we have nothing to offer but our selfishness, our stubbornness, our pride, our envy, our arrogance, things that turn our attention toward ourselves and away from God. But when we embrace the truth of Ash Wednesday – that we are but dust and ashes – and when we remember that the greatest in Heaven’s Reign are those who understand that everything they have is a gift from a gracious God, we can begin the process of unlearning what defines greatness by the world’s standards and learning anew what defines greatness in Heaven’s Reign: humility, wonder, openness to the Spirit’s movement in our lives, and regarding the needs of others as greater than our own.
That’s what this season is about – turning away from the priorities of this world and embracing the priorities of God’s righteous reign. As Lent continues, we will examine what that looks like in practice as we learn what Jesus teaches about forgiveness, about God’s generosity in giving, about openness to God’s invitation, about readiness to welcome Christ, and about the importance of serving Christ by serving others. But before we get there, we learn again the truth of this night – that on our own we are dust, but in Christ we are beloved children; that greatness in Heaven’s Reign lies in setting aside our need to be great in the eyes of others; that it is in humbling ourselves and giving up our own designs on power that God’s grace and power are poured out on us in Christ. Remember that you are dust… Thanks be to God. Amen.