This past Wednesday, First Presbyterian Church had a quiet, meditative Ash Wednesday service. Here is the sermon from that service. The text was Ezekiel 36:25-27.
The Big Lie
If you watch any television, or read any magazines or listen to the radio, then you’re familiar with the Big Lie. Pretty much every ad is selling some form of this lie, whether it’s for beer or burritos or investment planning. The narrative runs something like this: if you buy our product, you will be somebody like the people in our ad. If you buy this makeup, you’ll be somebody who turns heads wherever you go. If you buy this beer, you’ll be somebody who has more fun than everyone else. If you buy these sunglasses, you’ll be somebody who is cool and unique. If you buy this, you will be somebody.
This lie can be broken down into two parts. The first part is that in our current state, we are nobody. The second part is that if we do it just right (like buying the right brand of slacks), we can make ourselves into somebody. The first part is true. It’s the second part that is the big lie. Now we all know this is a lie, and the advertisers know that we know that it’s a lie. Pretty much everyone knows at least in their head that having more things won’t make you more happy.
But advertisers aren’t counting on us to believe the lie. What advertisers are counting on is the true part. They show us these imaginary people with their imaginary lives playing beach volleyball, or driving off road into the mountains, or washing their hair like it’s a spiritual experience. And we imagine that somewhere there are real people who live those lives and have transcendent relationships with their shampoo bottles and we feel like we are nobody and they are somebody and we need to do something about it.
But we are all equally nobody. We are all made from the exact same material, and that is flesh and bones and breath. And our flesh and bones and breath are all equally fragile and last for a short time on this earth. This is true whether or not we’re wearing the right jeans or eating the right kind of yogurt. What they are selling is an illusion, but its an illusion we really want to believe.
Which is why we come together on Ash Wednesday. To remind ourselves of what is real. We are mortal. We are made of the earth and we will return to the earth. And we do this because reminding ourselves of our own mortality helps us to see what is really true. Calvin said that only when we confront our own weakness can we see God’s greatness. This is what we do on Ash Wednesday and in the season of Lent. We stop trying to pretend that we are somebody, and we confront our own weaknesses and failures.
Because in recognizing our own darkness we understand the magnitude of God’s love, that God who is perfect would love such imperfect creations. When we can confront our own mortality and weakness we find the heart of many of the most beautiful moments of our faith. It’s sitting on your back porch and watching the stars come out and being overwhelmed with the majesty of God’s work. It’s coming to church during Advent and lighting candles to remind ourselves that even in the darkest of nights, God’s light shines through. It’s kneeling in a hospital waiting room and saying, “Lord, this is out of my control, but I know that your will for me is good, and I trust you, even though I’m scared.”
Because it’s in these moments that we can see beyond our sin-clouded vision to the Big Truth. The Big Truth is that we don’t have to be afraid that we are nobody to the world. Because our value does not come from the world, neither what it offers us nor what we have to offer it. This is what we are given in Baptism. A sign and seal of God’s love for us, that comes even though we do not deserve it. In Baptism we are washed clean of our sinfulness and clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Not because we have earned it or bought it or built it, but because it is his gift to us.
This is what we remind ourselves of on Ash Wednesday, this truth that is so often hard to find. To the world we are nothing but specks of dust. But to God, we are the world.